By Derek Sanders
When most people think of Subaru, they think of the reliable, fire-spitting, insanely quick Impreza WRX STi rally car, or the reliable, rugged, dependable Outback station wagon. But one of the most excellent vehicles ever to wear a Subaru badge is the mighty-mite BRAT pickup truck.
The BRAT was launched in the late ’70s as Subaru’s way to get around the “chicken tax” in the U.S. The chicken tax is a 25 percent import tariff on all pickup trucks not produced in the U.S. Subaru got around this tax by calling the BRAT a “passenger vehicle.” Their method for making this distinction is what makes the BRAT so interesting. To make the BRAT a car, Subaru bolted a set of rear-facing jump seats in the bed. That’s it. Yes, it is exactly as unsafe as it sounds.
At this point you may be wondering why I keep capitalizing “BRAT” rather than just calling it a Brat. There are a few reasons for that. The most official reason is that it is an acronym that means Bi-Drive Recreational All-Terrain Transporter, but another reason is that a “brat” is usually defined as an ill-mannered or misbehaved child, and the BRAT is actually quite well-behaved. Or rather it was when it was new.
In 1986, we were in the height of Reaganomics, and rather fittingly, former President Ronald Reagan actually owned a 1978 BRAT that he used to drive around on his ranch. In 1986, the BRAT I test drove was built, and it was probably a very good and reliable little car-truck for most of its life. Its current owner though is in the process of turning it into the ultimate hooning machine.
For starters, this BRAT is no longer Bi-Drive; the owner removed the drive axles in the front and left the transfer case in permanent four-wheel-drive high, so now it’s rear-wheel drive. He’s also fitted a bigger carburetor to feed the mighty 1.8-L Subaru flat-four with more delicious liquid dinosaurs. When the BRAT was new, it made about 74 horsepower. That may not sound like a lot; that’s because it’s not. Yes, the BRAT is very light, but it’s still painfully slow. The top speed is about 90-95 mph. I didn’t have an area to confirm that figure, but the owner told me he’s verified that it will still manage that.
This BRAT also has a custom header setup, which gives it the classic Subaru “boxer rumble.” It also has no muffler, and the exhaust exits to the side under the door and is incredibly loud, but it also shoots flames. This means the side of the vehicle can be quite hot when you get it out, which is unfortunate because after driving around Reno’s streets for a bit you will absolutely want to get out of the BRAT. That’s not because it’s bad to drive — it’s not, and we’ll get to that later; it’s because the ride quality is absolutely appalling. Although some may believe this is due to poor BRAT suspension, it isn’t that at all. In fact it was one of the most comfortable vehicles Subaru made at the time. This one is bone-shatteringly bad because it simply doesn’t have suspension at all. Well, it has a bit in the front, as this BRAT does sit on the stock front suspension, but the springs have been cut down to lower the ride height and make the exterior look more aggressive. However, when it comes to the back, it’s not really possible to easily lower a BRAT’s rear suspension, so the owner basically removed it altogether. Yes, the only thing absorbing the shocks from the road are the tires, and they really struggle with it.
But as I said earlier, it’s not all bad to drive. The terrible suspension has one, and only one, upside. This BRAT has surprisingly good handling. The stiffness of the rear end means it’s less willing to understeer through a turn and is less prone to a ship-like body roll. The steering response is decent because it’s not power-assisted, but it’s also incredibly prone to vibrations at high speed because it’s nearly 30 years old. The BRAT also really liked to wander around at highway speeds; the owner told me that was because it had snow tires on the rear end.
On the inside, this BRAT still has the stock ’80s steering wheel with only two spokes and an extremely thin rim, which was acceptable in 1986 because it perfectly fit the thin, coked-out fingers of Americans at that time. The seats are very comfortable because they’re out of the owner’s father’s late ’90s Subaru Legacy wagon. The seats very much help with saving your spine from the damage caused by the lack of suspension.
The BRAT only came with a four-speed manual transmission, as most trucks at the time did, and like most trucks, the BRAT’s clutch doesn’t engage until you almost have your foot completely off the pedal. This is quite annoying in stop-and-go traffic, but you would get used to it over time. The brakes need to be pumped quite a bit before they’ll actually decide to stop you; once they’re up to temperature though, they work quite well. The throttle is very responsive because it’s mechanical, and it reflects the overall playful demeanor of the BRAT.
All of this brings me to the real point of the BRAT. It’s one of the best cars from the ’80s that no one ever cares about. It shares its position in the automotive hierarchy with things like the Volvo 240, Merkur XR4Ti and Toyota Celica. It’s an excellent idea, and at the time it got far better fuel economy than any other mini-truck on sale. It was reasonably priced, quite practical and it had a certain charisma that almost nothing else could copy. Not even Subaru managed to capture the BRAT magic when they introduced the mostly unloved Outback-based Baja in 2003.
Subaru BRAT: absolutely excellent, but forgotten anyway.
Any feedback is greatly appreciated. If anyone has a car they’d like me to review, let me know.
Derek Sanders can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at @TheSagebrush.