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Junkyard Gem: 1987 Subaru GL 4WD Turbo Liftback Coupe


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Subaru sold the versatile Leone in the United States starting with the 1972 1400, with sales continuing until the final 1994 Loyale left its showroom. Over the decades, Leones were available as sedans, wagons, hatchbacks, pickups and coupes, with front-wheel-drive, four-wheel-drive and all-wheel-drive. We just saw a used-up 1989 Leone sedan with naturally-aspirated engine and front-wheel-drive in this series, and now we're going to take a look at its much sportier sibling from the same era, found in a Denver-area car graveyard.

Until the Loyale showed up as a 1990 model, Subaru called all North American Leone models (except for the BRAT pickup) just "the Subaru" and used trim-level designations as de facto model names. The GL ranked above the DL and the base models for 1987, with the GL-10 as an extra-nice version of the GL. The word TURBO carried magical power during the 1980s, so the TURBO badging on this car is exuberant.

The TURBO bragging continues under the hood, with the word cast into the compressed-air plumbing.

This 1.8-liter boxer-four engine was rated at 115 horsepower and 134 pound-feet. The same engine went into the futuristic XT Turbo and rally-styled RX for 1987, but the GL Coupe was a couple of hundred pounds lighter than both of those cars and so today's Junkyard Gem was almost certainly the quickest new Subaru model available in the United States that year (for 1988, a 145-horse six-cylinder engine became available in the XT).

It has the base five-speed manual transmission, which is proper, but what's that other lever for?

While every new Subaru sold in the United States starting with the 1996 model year came with all-wheel-drive (as we now understand the term) as standard equipment, Subaru only began installing AWD drivetrains (that can be driven on dry pavement without damaging anything other than fuel economy) in US-market models in 1987. Before then, four-wheel-drive Subarus really were four-wheel-drive, and they required the driver to switch to front-wheel-drive for operation on dry pavement. Many of those cars also had a low gear range you could select for (somewhat) serious off-road use, and that feature carried over into the early "full-time 4WD" Subarus. Note the differential-lock switch; Toyotas with the All-Trac AWD system had similar switches during the late 1980s.

Because the automotive world of the 1980s hadn't settled fully on AWD/FWD terminology as we now understand it, Subaru fudged by using a character that could be read as a 4 or an A in their badging. This made sense, because American Subaru shoppers could get the old-style four-wheel-drive system on Loyales until 1994.

So, what we've got here is a sporty coupe (technically a liftback but nothing like the homely Subaru econo-hatchbacks of the same era, which were holdovers from the previous Leone generation) with all-wheel-drive, manual transmission and the manufacturer's hottest engine available in their US-market cars that year. In Subaru-crazed Colorado, you'd think that some Subie enthusiast would pay whatever it took to own such a rare machine.

Sadly, such was not the case. This car spent week after week on Facebook Marketplace with a steadily dropping price that eventually got down to $200. I worked hard to try to convince one of the local 24 Hours of Lemons teams to buy it, cage it and race it, but every Subaru racer in these parts already has nine dozen project cars. Finally, El Pulpo got it for peanuts.

Yes, it's too rusty to be an easy restoration, but it deserved a better fate than this.

At the end, it never quite reached 150,000 miles.

This car's original MSRP was $14,512, which comes to about $39,894 in 2023 dollars. There wasn't much direct-comparison competition for this car at the time; all Quattro-equipped 1987 Audis and Syncro-equipped 1987 VWs available here had at least four doors (the Coupe Quattro didn't get here until 1990), the Toyota Celica All-Trac Turbo didn't show up until the 1988 model year, nobody in their right mind would have considered the Ford Tempo/Mercury Topaz AWD two-doors to be at all sporty… and so on.

As had been the case for many years, US-market Subaru advertising for 1987 emphasized the wagons.

Even the wretched Justy gets more airtime than the 3-door liftback in 1987's TV commercials.

For proper roaring engines and rally madness in Subaru advertising of the middle 1980s, you need to go to Japan.

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