Subaru vehicles have been sold in Malaysia as far back as the 1970s when Continental Motors (a small dealer which also handled the BMW brand at that time) imported them. The models were the Leone series, some with 4WD which was unusual in a passenger car at that time, as was front-wheel drive. Only small numbers were sold in those years, probably bought by people who were intrigued by the Boxer engine.
After Continental Motors gave up the Subaru franchise, Wearne Brothers acquired it for a few years and even assembled a model. After Wearnes ended its automotive business in Malaysia (though it returned via Swedish Marque in the late 1990s), the Subaru franchise was taken up by Federal Auto Holdings Berhad (FAHB).
FAHB, looking to diversify its range which consisted of only big Volvos, introduced the small Justy model, a little hatchback which had a 1.2-litre 3-cylinder engine and might well have been the first car with a CVT (continuously-variable transmission) to be sold in Malaysia. Asking the same people who were used to selling Swedish Volvos for years to sell the cheaper, smaller Subaru cars from Japan was a challenge and in many cases, they tried to sell the cars to their Volvo customers as ‘second cars’ for the children.
FAHB realised it was not a good idea to hang on to the Subaru franchise and it was taken over by Auto Dunia, a new company established in 1985 by the Tan Chong family which was well known for their Datsun/Nissan business. The company was a private venture then and besides Subaru, it also took on the Audi franchise which had earlier been held by the Inchcape Group (via Champion Motors).
The Auto Dunia team had a number of people with much experience in the car business and with proper marketing strategies, sales of Subaru vehicles grew quickly. From selling very small numbers in earlier years, sales rose to around 450 units in 1985 and kept rising. It helped that two sedan models were also assembled locally with prices from RM22,000 to RM26,000. However, the arrival of the National Car affected sales of all makes for many years.
Auto Dunia put in a lot of effort to develop the Subaru brand and in the 1990s, they introduced the locally-assembled 1-litre E10 minivan. Though it was a basic window van, the company’s advertising agency came up with some very clever ideas to catch the public’s attention. In one advertisement, they cheekily associated the van, which had its engine at the back, with Porsches and Ferraris!
It was a common sight on roads as TNB and Telekom Malaysia bought many units for their fleets which ran for many years as they were pretty tough and reliable.
An updated variant called the Domingo Funmobile E with 4WD and a 1.2-litre engine was introduced in 1996.
The other model which sold relatively well was the Stationwagon, also assembled locally. Besides the Boxer engine, it also had a 4WD system though this was not for road use. It didn’t have a differential to compensate for variations in rotating speed between the front and rear wheels so the rear wheels were dragged when the car was turning a corner. The system was meant for off-road use when conditions were very slippery and was not a performance AWD system like the one in the WRX. Lotus Malaysia’s Oh Kah Beng drove the car in a local rally and the 4WD system proved to be very useful – he even helped pull out cars stuck in mud!
Other models which were assembled at the Tan Chong plant in Segambut, Kuala Lumpur, were the J10 and a pick-up known as the ‘BRAT’ (pictured above). Auto Dunia tried to offer the BRAT as a recreational vehicle but at that time, JPJ regulations did not permit pick-ups to be registered for private use. So the model could only be sold as a commercial vehicle. Later on, the regulations changed to allow private registration of pick-ups but only for double cabs (strangely, the Proton Arena, a single-cab 2-seater pick-up, could be registered for private use). As the BRAT was a single cab, it could not be registered for private use either.
The last model introduced during the Auto Dunia years was the Impreza Sports Wagon but by then, the Forester had come out so it got a lukewarm reception.
At the end of the 1990s, Auto Dunia wound down its business and the Subaru franchise was taken over by Motor Image in 2000, also related to the Tan Chong Group through Tan Chong International Limited.
Related story: Roll-out of locally-assembled Subaru XV
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