Small Soldier - 1993 Subaru Vivio Sedan 4WD Super KK
In the immediate aftermath of the horrors of World War II, Japan had been left a broken, penniless and utterly devastated nation. Soon however, the country started the long and painful process of rebuilding entire cities and modernizing its industry and infrastructure.
An essential element in this plan was mobility. The people of Japan needed to be able to get around with relative ease and speed, as it would shorten travel and delivery times and thereby increase productivity.
Additionally it would help re-establish the national auto industry, and give the surrounding manufacturing sector a massive boost This in turn would help establish a new economy and drive the still fairly archaic nation into the modern age. Unfortunately the war effort had strained the supply of essential building materials like iron and aluminium, which forced the Japanese government to think in much smaller terms.
This desire for cheap, simple and small large-scale mobility took shape with the introduction of the Kei Jidosha (Light Automobile) regulations of 1949. The new category placed restrictions on outside dimensions, and limited engine capacity to a meager 100cc for two-stroke engines and 150cc for four-stroke models.
This incredibly strict engine formula proved to be unattractive for most manufacturers however, so the maximum allowable displacement gradually rose to 360cc in 1955. By 1958, Kei-cars truly took off with the entry of Fuji Heavy Industries in the segment.
Their automotive division Subaru launched the 360 model that year, which became the first mass-produced Kei-machine. Soon enough, Suzuki, Honda, Daihatsu and Mazda all joined the fray, and business was booming.
Through the decades the Kei-category kept developing and diversifying, which along with a further two increases in displacement to 550 cc (1976) and 660 cc (1990) resulted in a truly mesmerizing array of offerings. Almost anything could be had, including but not limited to sports cars, garbage trucks, minivans, convertibles, pickup trucks, station wagons, offroaders, police cars and fire engines.
By the early 1990’s, the Kei-car had just as much sense and sophistication as its larger counterparts, sometimes even more. A shining example of this was found with the trendsetters themselves: Subaru. Ever since the comically simple rear-engined, air-cooled, two-stroke, two cylinder 360 hit the streets, Subaru had been hard at work improving the concept.
This saw them switch to four-stroke, water-cooled engines, front wheel drive, turbocharging and even the first four wheel drive Kei-car with 1981’s second generation Rex. Finally, four cylinder engines arrived in 1989 with the third generation Rex.
For 1992, the hard edges of the Rex were traded for a highly fashionable curvy and rounded bodystyle. The new car took its name from its displacement in Roman numerals (660cc), which spelled out VI VI O. With the Vivio Subaru hoped to expand its Kei-car program even further. This expansion led to the creation of a slightly mad top of the line sports version of Subaru’s new challenger.
Featuring permanent four wheel drive and a Rootes-supercharged , double overhead cam 16-valve EN07Zfour cylinder engine limited to the mandatory 64 horsepower, the RX-R perfectly represented the technological arms race being fought in the lowest ranks of the automotive world. Being Subaru’s technological showcase on the Kei-car market, the RX-R would have to do everything in its power to increase publicity for the brand and boost sales.
Inspired by Subaru’s long rally history, the RX-R was quickly followed by the more hardcore RX-RA. This ultimate version had been stripped out, given tougher suspension and a close-ratio gearbox to make it the perfect base for a small-capacity Group A rally car.
In motorsport-crazy Japan, the RX-RA was an instant success. For amateur rallyists, there was simply no cheaper way of enjoying some frantic sideways forest rally fun. As a result the RX-R and RX-RA became regular appearances at national rally events in the Asia-Pacific region. Outside its home turf however, the car was a complete unknown.
The Vivio’s first brush with international fame was at the 1992 Paris-Beijing Marathon, a rally raid covering an incredibly vast distance. A swashbuckling privateer decided to enter a naturally aspirated version of the minuscule machine, and he was promptly laughed off by the factory teams of Citroën and Mitsubishi.
Naturally the tiny racer had only ever been used in short stage rallies, so the professionals figured it would break down within a few minutes. Their laughter was stifled when the Vivio was able to match Mitsubishi’s stage times in the prologue, before indeed dropping out with suspension failure a few more stages down the road.
After seeing the impressive performance of the privately entered car, former Subaru factory driver and Subaru Tecnica International founder Noriyuki Koseki realized the marketing potential of the company’s midget car competing successfully in a major international event.
If the Vivio could do good on the World Rally stage, it would without a doubt provided limitless promotion for the model and the brand. With this in mind, he set about prepping the car for a full Group A homologation.
The 660cc supercharged four cylinder was released from its government-imposed shackles, and now fired a sprightly 85 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 124 nm (91 lb ft) at 3200 rpm at all four wheels through a five-speed manual transmission.
Despite essential strengthening measures and the obligatory rollcage, the new 4WD Super KK weighed just 700 kg (1,543 lbs), making for respectable performance in spite of the pedestrian power output. For an extra touch of rallying heritage, the miniature monster was given the same wheels used by Peugeot for the street legal version of the legendary 205 T16 Group B special.
When all was said and done, Noriyuki Koseki was left with a terrifically capable racer in the smallest package since the original Mini Cooper. But now he was faced with a rather difficult question: where on earth would he try to race it?
The 1993 World Rally Championship calendar presented a wide variety of options. The thirteen events took place all over the world and on a couple of very different surfaces.
Should he try to test the car in the unpredictable conditions of Monte Carlo? The heat and sand of Australia? The slippery mud of Wales? The scary-fast sweeping tarmac of Corsica? The snowbanks of Sweden, the harsh gravel of Greece or the terrifying high yumps of Finland? Nope, none of that nonsense. Instead, Koseki settled on entering a three-car team for the most grueling rally of all, the Trustbank Safari Rally in Kenya.
As it took drivers over exceptionally rough roads in ever-changing weather conditions and sweltering heat, the Safari Rally had become infamous among WRC-regulars. In essence the event was a mini-Dakar. With double the distance of a standard event and bush roads full of sharp rocks through uncharted territory, it had gained a reputation as a real car-breaker.
Perhaps the biggest testament of the grueling nature of the rally was the fact the biggest and baddest monsters of Group B had been unable to win there. During the Group B era, the crown went to much slower, but simpler and sturdier designs, with the Datsun Violet (1979, 1980, 1981, 1982), Opel Ascona 400 (1983) and Toyota Celica Twin Cam Turbo (1984, 1985, 1986) taking top honors.
In an effort to cover all the bases, Noriyuki Koseki hired a suitably diverse team of drivers. National pride was covered by Ishida Masashi while granting local hero Patrick Nijru a drive ensured Kenyan support, and a young Scottish fellow named Colin McRae provided a fresh face, blistering speed and an exciting driving style.
McRae had only recently been promoted to Subaru’s factory effort, where he normally drove the much larger Legacy sedan. Obviously, the Vivio was a very different kettle of fish altogether. Further support for the program came from Francisco Villasenor, who campaigned a privately prepared Vivio.
The rally started out well for all four Kei-competitors. Through sheer consistency and conservation of momentum, Colin McRae even managed to shock the established order with a blisteringly fast time in the opening stages of the event. Controversially, he reportedly topped the charts on one of the first runs.
Sadly Colin’s luck ran out soon enough, as his Vivio encountered an all-too familiar problem. Just like the 1992 Paris-Beijing Marathon entry, McRae’s car had suffered a monumental front suspension failure after hitting a large bump at high speed. The failure eventually turned out to be fatal, and the spectacular Scotsman was forced to retire.
Teammate Ishida Masashi managed to stay out of suspension-related trouble, but his car succumbed to a blown head gasket not much later. With two of the three works cars out, Patrick Nijru was burdened with the task to defend Subaru’s honor. Francisco Villasenor had meanwhile failed to make an impression, becoming an also-ran.
Nijru’s knowledge of the intricate Kenyan terrain paid dividends in accomplishing this. Not only did he bring the spunky smurf home in one piece, he managed to finish just outside the top 10 overall. By grabbing 12th place, the Kenyan had salvaged a small portion of Noriyuki Koseki’s planned publicity stunt.
Villasenor also reached the finish, but his result wasn’t really worth mentioning. As the both the results and the amount of publicity had been disappointing, Koseki quietly brought the Vivio Super KK program to a close after just one rally.
The Subaru Vivio Sedan 4WD Super KK was the logical conclusion of the relentlessly advancing Japanese Kei-car market. Born out of sheer post-war necessity, these diminutive vehicles rapidly evolved into pure technological powerhouse rivaling anything from higher segments.
The sheer variety and innovative concepts contained in extremely small packages was bound to burst out onto the international scene with a bang sooner or later. With the Vivio Sedan 4WD Super KK, STI’s Noriyuki Koseki tried to showcase the engineering prowess invested in Japan’s weird midget cars to the rest of the world.
Although he failed to reach his goal in period, the audacity and adventurous spirit of his pet project has made a permanent mark as one of rallying most special moments.