We are in 1994. A discreet manufacturer in Japan is trying to find a place in the world market. Subaru, which specializes in all-wheel drive and straight engine, sells cars primarily in the United States and its country of origin.
It was at this time that the manufacturer decided to enter the world rally championship with the Impreza. Subaru is almost unknown in France. The brand has not yet won the noble titles in rallies, and only a few hundred sedans are sold annually. But the importer has an idea to celebrate the spirits.
Minibus in the land of Kei cars
The miracle solution to talk about the Subaru brand in France is in Japan. There is a category of cars unknown in Europe, kei-cars. In order to benefit from a certain number of tax breaks, these cars must meet very specific specifications.
Thus, kei cars must be no more than 3.40 m long, 1.48 m wide and two meters high. Hence the mini-city car category. But in Japan, Subaru has been selling the kei-car, a minivan that can carry six people, for several generations!
Called Sambar in Japan, this mini MPV is called E12 in some Asian markets, Sumo in UK, Columbus in Sweden or Libero in Germany, Austria or Switzerland. Subaru actually offers a version with a more powerful engine than the original 0.6 liter for export.
The sole block retained for France will be a transverse three-cylinder in-line 1189cc with 54bhp. It is enough to send the animal to a maximum speed of 128 km/h. Subaru promises that the car is all-wheel drive, which can be activated via a small button on the dashboard.
It looks like nothing else
But the most surprising thing is the appearance of the car. Tall, very narrow, with a divisive design to say the least, the small Japanese people carrier is unlike anything else.
The driver will sit on the front wheels, inheriting an intolerable driving position. The engine is lowered in front of the rear bumper, on the console. *
Subaru can boast of offering the smallest minivan on the market, as well as the smallest car with all-wheel drive. So armed and with high clearance, this chip can really go on an adventure.
Well thought out cabin
All the interest of this car is appreciated inside. Six seats arranged in three rows are not its only originality. Passengers have a huge two-part opening panoramic roof, well ahead of fashion.
But by opting for the ‘rotating seats’ option, you can turn your Subaru into a real living room on wheels. Japanese engineers have developed a half-moon folding system to save space, and the central seat can be turned into a table.
You need to find a name
Convinced that this car can lift the brand out of anonymity in France, the importer will have the idea to give it an appropriate name. None of the names the car carries abroad really speak to the French.
What could be better than asking for the opinions of future customers? The Subaru France team will have the idea of directly involving the public in choosing the name of this creature. Then a competition is organized with Télé 7 jours magazine. The idea is simple, readers can send their suggestions, which can be chosen by the brand.
Vanilla, van and family
Many offers are coming to Subaru France’s desk.
But choosing a name is not so simple. “We had a lot of great suggestions from readers,” recalls a Subaru France employee, “but unfortunately many names were already registered, which automatically eliminates them.”
Finally, the Subaru minivan will bear the name Vanille, an abbreviation of the words Van and Famille. But the most difficult thing is to sell it.
Despite this marketing operation and advertising campaign, Vanilla will not find its audience. In the press, it is criticized for its modest mechanics, high center of gravity, handling, riding position or strong sensitivity to crosswinds.
The original 155/13 tires have been replaced with 175/13, improving handling, but it’s too late. One of the fears of buyers is the location of the engine, which is very exposed in the event of a rear-end collision.
The 78’s dealer, a seasoned engineer, would find a solution by designing a rear bullbar without changing the Vanille’s fate. At F88,500, Subaru is shooting itself in the foot by pitting the Vanilli against the compact Renault 19.
Those who like small 4X4s can buy a Fiat Panda 4X4 or a Lada Niva for F25,000 less. Despite the introduction of limited editions of “Vanille-Strawberry” and “Vanille-Mint”, Subaru must soon come to terms with the fact that Vanille cannot be sold.
The number of sales in France is estimated to be less than 200 copies.