Subaru R1 FWD i-CVT Review
Pint-Sized Coup

Justin Lee
27 Oct 2006

The Subaru R1 is much more than a 2-door R2, it is really a bona-fide coup in miniature

Subaru has always done things differently, and this is obvious with its tiny R1 hatchback. Firstly, it is not a 2-door version of the R2, but a genuine coupe variant – it rides on a shorter wheelbase, has a lower profile, and all the body panels after the A-pillars are unique. Which other car company, except one that is totally dedicated to its craft, will go to this effort of creating two such different cars in the same 660cc segment? This same company builds a complete range of ‘boxer’ horizontally-opposed engines, and offers all-wheel drive on every single model of its line-up, from the tiniest 660cc micro-car, to its largest 6-cylinder 7-seater MPV.

Subaru must be the most engineer-driven company in the world, but it is good to see that it seems to have a fun and lighter side as well, and this is where the R1 comes in. Styling-wise, it is probably the best-looking model in the Subaru line-up. It has an egg-like, mono-form shape that commands attention out of proportion to its diminutive dimensions. There is a flair and style in the R1’s sweeping yet compact lines that make it more than just an economical small car, but instead a striking and attractive coupé that oozes charm and personality.

It is no surprise that the man who styled the car, Andreas Zapatinas, Subaru’s head of design, used to work for Alfa Romeo and BMW. The R1’s styling, from the upswept beltline, to the integration of the side indicator and door handle into the rubbing strip, and the pinched form of the rear tail lamps, has all the elements of a pint-sized Italian car, notably something with an Alfa Romeo badge on its bonnet or boot lid. Its no wonder the car has won the coveted G-mark design award in Japan.

On the inside as well, the R1’s red-and-black cabin is dramatic and stylish, certainly not something one would expect from a small Japanese car. Switch on the ignition, and the instrument panel starts it impression of a Lexus dashboard – at first it is totally black, then the red needles glow, the warning lights come on, and then the numbers appear. There is a cheeky Subaru twist to this light show however – as the needles start their reddish glow, they swing to maximum, as if in anticipation of a rev-happy drive ahead.

Further evidence of this indulgence in style and classy detailing is the fully-integrated CD and hi-fi, and the subdued orange lighting of all the tray surfaces - here again, these are qualities that one finds in a considerably larger and more expensive car, not a tiny little one.

And although the R1 is a more a 2+2 than a full 4-seater, it has a cleverly convenient cabin. From the driver’s seat, one can fold down the back seat, and collapse or slide the front passenger seat into a worktop surface, all in a matter of seconds. Incredibly, there is no need for the driver to leave his seat to convert this 2+2 into a mono-posto single-seater. Thoughtful shaping of the front passenger seat also gives the driver a non-slip, recessed tray area for placing a laptop or other paraphernalia.

How does this dashing little coupé drive? Well considering it has a tiny 54bhp 658cc engine under its bonnet, quite well actually.  Unlike the Mitsubishi i, the R1 and R2’s closest rival, the Subaru does without a turbocharger, but instead has DOHC and variable valve timing for all its 16 valves. Also, the fact that the engine has 4-cylinders (yes, that’s roughly 165cc per cylinder), it is inherently smoother and quieter than any 3- or 2-cylinder engine.

Another tool to maximize the engine’s output is the Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT). Subaru was an early adaptor of this belt-driven transmission, and it has used CVT since the 1.0-litre Justy in the late 80s. Getting the most out of this transmission takes a little getting used to, but once one does know how, the R1 can be surprisingly quick. The trick is to let the transmission do all the work – all the driver needs to do is the floor the throttle! The revs will shoot up to between 3000 and 4000rpm, and one waits for the needle to make its way up along the speedometer. Before you know it, you’re the first car off the line, and you’re shooting past everyone else. The beauty of CVT is that it maintains an engine’s rpm at a fairly constant level, which makes it much more fuel efficient than a conventional gearbox.
At highway speeds, the R1 does an impressive job of maintaining revs at just 2500rpm. With the combination of a small, efficient engine and CVT, the R1 should return outstanding fuel consumption.

Making the R1 an attractive coupé actually helps to gloss over certain less positive aspects of the car. As a coupé, one can forgive the fact that the R1’s rear seats are tiny, and more suitable for kids than adults. That said, this 1.77m road tester was able to fit behind the driver of similar height. The car is also a bit noisy, not doubt because the engine and transmission work quite hard, and are placed close to the passenger compartment. On the other hand, this racket could be interpreted as making the car sound more sporty. The other minor grouse is that the electric powered steering is a trifle over-assisted, but this certainly makes it easy to handle around town.

So if you thought coupé by definition means a long, low and sleek car, think again. Subaru challenges this claim with the R1 that has all the dashing looks and suave, attention-grabbing ability as a traditional coupé, but in a totally different package. Like any coupé, the R1 doesn’t make sense - but neither does falling in love, but life would mean so much less if we didn’t.   

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Engine Capacity 658cc
Engine Type Inline 4
Compression Ratio 10.5:1
Bore x Stroke (56 x 66.8)mm
Power 54bhp @ 6400rpm
Torque 63Nm @ 4400rpm
Power to Weight 66.7 bhp per ton


Acceleration 13.9s (0-100 km/h)
Fuel Consumption (combined) 21.7 km/L

Misc Technical Data

Transmission 5 -speed CVT
Drive Type FF


Body Type 3 Door Hatch
(L x W x H)
(3285 x 1475 x 1510) mm
Wheelbase 2195 mm
Turning Circle 4.5 metres
Kerb Weight 810 kg
Fuel Tank Capacity 30 L


Brakes (Front) Ventilated Discs
Brakes (Rear) Drums