It's good news that Subaru and Japanese electronics giant Panasonic are finally moving forward on their long-awaited lithium-ion battery partnership. Plenty of Subaru loyalists who were drawn to the brand's earthy image, but disappointed in its lack of modern EV offerings, will likely be thrilled to hear that it's doing more than "nothing" to prepare for an electrified future. But Subaru's problem is that many of those same loyalists are itching for the day when reservations open up for the Rivian R3 and R3X

That may sound preposterous on its face. After all, Subaru is a well-established, much-loved brand with a lineup that's affordable, capable and in many cases, quite fun. It sold 632,086 cars in America alone in 2023—up 13.6% from the previous year—and globally, there's no reason to believe it won't report handsome profits when its fiscal year ends this month. 

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Japan's automakers enter "crisis mode" in EV race

Though an early pioneer with cars like the Nissan Leaf, Japan has resisted plug-in cars to focus more on hybrids and hydrogen power. But with China's EV industry rising in the world, it's now scrambling to catch up. Arguably, the ones most behind are smaller players like Subaru and Mazda.

Everything Subaru is doing is fine, for now. It has the new Crosstrek Wilderness coming to the New York Auto Show next week, and that should sell just fine, along with the rest of the lineup that includes no hybrids or EVs that weren't made by Toyota. The little national park stage will be back at the auto show, full of cars powered by Boxer four-cylinder engines. 

It's all fine. For now. 

Beyond "for now" is where things feel tricky for Subaru. It's a latecomer to the electric world, like the rest of Japan's auto industry, spooked by the concept of plug-in cars thanks to natural resource scarcity and a fairly recent nuclear energy disaster. But lately, Japan seems even more spooked by its declining presence in China—where Subaru is barely a player anyway—or the fact that cars from China's BYD are snapping up awards like the Japan EV of the Year

As of a few weeks ago, Subaru has another problem: the fact that American EV startup Rivian is generating considerable hype (and, in the case of the R2 SUV, reservation dollars) running an electric version of the Subaru playbook. Take a look at the R3, for example. It's a boxy, compact hatchback with SUV-like ride height and available all-wheel-drive from a dual-motor setup.

It looks every bit as capable and outdoor-friendly as any Subaru, ready for adventures on the pavement or off. With prices expected to start around $37,000 before any tax incentives, the R3 seems poised to hit the affordable, mass-volume arena Subaru has long played in.

Gallery: Rivian R3X

And that's before we even get to the R3X, which Rivian calls "a performance variant of R3 offering even more dynamic abilities both on and off-road," with a design inspired by the Lancia Delta Integrale and Audi Quattro coupe.

If you don't think that sounds like an electric Subaru WRX or WRX STI, the kind Subaru itself hasn't bothered to make, get your hearing checked. 

I'm not the first person to draw the comparisons between Rivian and Subaru. Writing for climate-focused publication Heatmap News recently, writer Andrew Moseman did the same, along with the general disappointment around Subaru's nearly nonexistent electrified game:

Even as its cars became more generic and ordinary in the 21st century, Subie kept its marketing efforts aimed at the outdoorsy, dog-loving folks who had become loyal to the brand. However, while its fans are the kind of people with a clear, vested interest in addressing climate change, the world’s “we love the parks” car company has dragged its toes on joining the electric vehicle revolution that hopes to slash the car industry’s carbon emissions. Subaru’s electric aversion left a giant hole in the market for an adventure EV, one that Rivian seeks to fill.

The same reactions took place on social media too around the time of the Rivian debut event a few weeks ago. After all, the R2, R3 and R3X offer more than we've really ever heard on the electric front from Subaru. All of them look production-ready, even if the R2 isn't even due out until the first half of 2026 (barring any delays, which often happen in the EV world.) We've even seen video of an R3 prototype zooming around California after the event.

All of this is to say: Subaru, where are you on anything electrified? 

So far, what we have are vague plans, rumors and announcements. Those include, reportedly, leaning on Toyota yet again for an upcoming three-row electric crossover built in the United States, more hybrids, and ultimately, four all-electric crossovers by the end of 2026. Which is a year and a half away. And all Subaru had to show for itself at the "don't count us out yet" Japan Mobility Show last year was a low-slung sports coupe concept and a flying car

Subaru is out there trying to recreate the SVX, and Rivian has already shown us exactly how it aims to take down the Outback and Crosstrek in the next few years. 

Subaru Sports Mobility Coupe Concept

Granted, the company has alluded to its future plans in financial documents, especially out of Japan. "Previously, the 2030 target was for [hybrid electric vehicles] and BEVs to account for at least 40% of our total global sales," officials said last August. "We have now raised the target [for] 50% of Subaru's total global sales to be BEVs, which will be achieved by selling 600,000 BEVs out of our total global sales of 1.2 million-plus Subaru vehicles." They added, "On the U.S. side, we plan to start U.S. production of BEVs as well as next-generation HEV models using Toyota Hybrid System (THS) technology." But we haven't seen anything concrete from Subaru yet beyond announcements, while Rivian is taking pains to show us exactly what it wants to do.

None of this is meant to erase Rivian's own challenges. As our own Kevin Williams reported recently, it remains in the "Valley of Death" startup mode until it can ramp up these more mass-volume models. It doesn't even sell cars outside of the United States and Canada, it just hit pause on a new factory in Georgia, it's had to do layoffs to keep costs down, and it will likely rely on the expensive R1S and R1T to stay afloat for years—two vehicles it reportedly loses five figures on each one it sells. And if we're comparing Rivian to Subaru, the latter still sold 13 times as many cars in the U.S. last year alone than the former. 

But we've seen what happens when legacy automakers underestimate startups before. The model for disruption exists and it's playing out every day. As Rivian rolls out Tesla Supercharger integration, Subaru offers electrified nothing except for a car another company makes. Given global trends that include pure internal combustion peaking around 2017 and massive investments into battery plants and charging, Subaru has to put up or shut up sooner rather than later. And no, I don't mean flying cars, either. 

At this point, Rivian feels like a company that's getting ready for the future. Subaru has some work to do to show its many fans across the world that its future doesn't mean becoming an in-house forklift manufacturer for Toyota. 

Contact the author: patrick.george@insideevs.com

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