With just 951 cars sold, Subaru’s sales in the UK fell by 68% year-on-year in 2020, a performance its country boss described as ‘ridiculous’ and ’embarrassing’. The brand did just below 3,000 units in 2019. Putting his hands up, Subaru UK managing director John Hurtig said to Autocar: “2020 was a horrible year. What can you say? It’s just an embarrassing number. There’s no more context, to be honest.”

Last year was a bad one for many car companies, no thanks to Covid-19, which is not getting the memo to slow down in 2021. But Subaru’s sales performance was the hardest hit of any, according to the report. In August 2020, the brand’s 69 UK dealers registered just 34 cars between them.

The drop from a cliff is mainly because of few reasons, and one of is pre-registering in 2019. Pre-regs, which is commonly done by car brands in Malaysia as well, can be useful to boost up the current calendar year’s numbers and make you look good, but those cars will eventually have to be sold off, and at a discount too. This hurts next year’s numbers and margins.

“As a brand, we had a very high registration number in December 2019. In fact, it was actually the best month Subaru UK has had ever. So we went into 2020 with a big backlog,” Hurtig admitted, explaining that the big pre-reg drive was to avoid being handed hefty fleet-average emissions fines when the EU’s new CO2-cutting regulations came into force in January 2020.

Another big factor is Covid-related, and it’s why Subaru UK suffered more than most in a year of lockdowns. “Our target audience is, to be honest, older people, and those are the [biggest] risk group [for the disease]. So they have been very concerned about getting out there and doing business; that has been the feedback we get from customers. This might be one of the reasons it’s hit us more,” Hurtig said.

Subaru, which is run in the UK and Europe by British independent importer International Motors, is looking to rebound from the “disaster” and is committed to the business. An overhaul is needed, and it starts with the dealer network.

“There’s a need to rebuild the dealer network from the roots. We’ve changed a lot of things within Subaru UK. We also need to change the structure of our dealer network entirely. There’s a lot of things we lacked in the past – from both sides of the business. I’m not just blaming the dealers; 50% [of the blame] goes back to us as an organisation as well,” said Hurtig, who moved from Subaru’s Nordic market to become UK boss last summer.

“We need the right dealers. It comes back to that. We can have the best marketing and brand awareness, but if the dealers aren’t on the same page, it’s useless. So this has to be developed hand-in-hand,” he added.

Perhaps Subaru’s reputation as a rallying brand, which persists to this day, is not in sync with what the brand is today, an SUV brand. The Impreza WRX STi was discontinued in the UK in 2018 and the just-revealed next-gen BRZ is not an option for Europe. Marketing and branding could be a challenge.

“Subaru UK has made a lot of mistakes in the past, to build Subaru’s brand to be something it isn’t any more. [The Impreza] was a performance car, a rally car. It was a good era in UK. But it’s history; it’s a long time ago now. It has nothing really to do with the Subaru brand as it is today,” Hurtig told the UK mag.

Sounds like a wake-up call, and the reboot has started. “We’ve changed the management, we’ve changed the team, we’ve changed a lot of things during the second half of 2020. That’s why we’re now starting the recovery scheme,” Hurtig said, adding that online ordering is now available. An updated XV, facelifted Forester and the new sixth-gen Outback off-road wagon will be reaching UK this year.

“2020 was a disaster for us. But from our perspective, there’s a good way forward and a good future for us, which we are very much committed to,” the brand’s UK chief concluded.

Over here in Malaysia, Subaru’s presence in urban areas seems to be relatively strong, with the XV and Forester as its core SUV products. What’s your impression of the AWD-specialist brand and its current crop of cars? Let’s erase that mental image of a blue Impreza with yellow livery and gold rims kicking up rally stage dust, ok?