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Subaru's signature 'boxer' engine triggers 690,000-car recall

Porsche-like cylinders have won many ardent fans

The BRZ sports car is among the models affected by the recall announced by Subaru on Thursday.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Subaru is recalling about 690,000 vehicles featuring its signature engine, potentially further tarnishing a brand already battered by a series of scandals.

The move affects six models, including the Impreza compact, the BRZ sports car and the similar 86, which Subaru builds for Toyota Motor.

The problem stems from a faulty part in its horizontally-opposed engines, also called "boxer" engines, which align cylinders on either side of a single crankshaft in a flat way. The automaker first used the engine in the Subaru 1000 in 1966, and now uses it in every model.

This technology is part of the Japanese automaker's unusual focus on driving feel, which has won it many ardent fans but may now end up exacting a heavy cost. 

The boxer engine features less vibration and a lower center of gravity than other engine designs, though it is also more complex and harder to fix. While other automakers such as Citroen once used boxer engines in sports cars, they are now employed by only Subaru and Porsche.

"If we don't have our own distinct character, there's no reason for us to exist," a Subaru executive said.

This recall is just the latest of Subaru's troubles. The automaker acknowledged in October 2017 that it had let unqualified workers inspect assembled cars. It had about 390,000 vehicles recalled that November, including Toyota 86s, and another 27,000 the following February. Further scandals emerged involving doctored fuel-economy data and brake testing, and 6,100 more cars were recalled in October.

These scandals are weighing on earnings. Subaru revised down its earnings forecast for the six months through September last week, now projecting a 42% drop in group net profit to 49 billion yen ($435 million). It may also downgrade its full-year forecast when it releases first-half earnings Nov. 5.

The automaker's September report on the inspection scandal cited the "closed nature" of the departments responsible for the work, which discouraged outside intervention and tried to resolve problems purely internally. An inward-focused mindset will make it harder for Subaru to adapt to sea changes afoot in the industry, including the shift to electrics and the rise of car-sharing.

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