Subaru’s reputation for quirky cars has taken a hit lately as the company develops a series of mainstream vehicles bereft of the strangeness that defined it for so long.
While it still uses horizontally-opposed engines and full-time all-wheel-drive systems in its vehicles, they are all mainstream conveyances; no more Brat trucklets or SVX sports-like cars. The only remaining evidence that Subaru thinks outside the box are those bizarre ads featuring sumo wrestlers!
One of the smaller car companies in the business, Subaru is a division of the giant Fuji Heavy Industries conglomerate which is also involved in the aerospace, industrial and eco-technology fields. Subaru has been building cars for the USA and Canada in a plant in Indiana since 1989. That facility currently produces the Legay, Outback and Tribeca models.
Subaru has a business relationship with Toyota that has seen Camrys roll out of the same plant since 2007. That pairing will produce a two-door sports car in 2012, based on Subaru mechanicals, with unique styling for each of the two companies, probably from the Indiana plant.
In the meantime, we sample a Legacy sedan built in that Indiana plant. First unveiled as a 2010 model the most recent Legacy was a concerted attempt to play in the same game as Camry, Accord, Sonata et al. Bigger inside and out, the new Legacy is now a mainstream vehicle. Unfortunately, like those competitors, it's now only available as a sedan, the popular Legacy wagon having been dropped.
Subaru buyers are among the most loyal and likely to buy another of the same brand in the industry. Those who trade an older Legacy for one of the new ones will see a tremendous difference, while those who enter a Subaru store after owning or trying a competitive product will not see much difference from their present ride, and that is the whole idea.
Let’s start with the two areas where the Legacy stands apart from the pack – the engine and all-wheel-drive system.
The aluminum four-cylinder engine has two banks of two cylinders each, 180-degrees apart – a unique layout today, but familiar to those who remember the original Volkswagen Beetle. Other than that, it has all the normal trimmings like a pair of overhead camshafts for each bank of cylinders and variable valve timing. And, unlike the VW, it's liquid cooled.
In normally-aspirated form the flat four produces 170 hp and 170 lb-ft of torque. A turbocharged version puts out 265 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque. A horizontally-opposed six-cylinder (like a Porsche!) is also available, rated at 256 hp and 247 lb-ft of torque.
The Legacy is available with a six-speed manual or Continuously Variable automatic transmission (CVT). There are are two different all-wheel-drive systems. The one paired with the automatic transmission has a multi-plate clutch, controlled electronically while the manual transmission is mated to one with a viscous-coupling limited-slip differential.
Our test vehicle had the base engine and CVT. The engineers did a wonderful job of isolating the sound and vibration characteristics of this engine. From the driver’s seat there is little evidence this is anything other than a conventional, roomy, mid-size passenger car until you ask for lots of power.
There is ample power for most situations and when pressed the CVT, like most of its ilk, causes the engine to race to its peak power-producing revs and stay there until throttle pressure is reduced. Otherwise this is a drivetrain well-suited to its intended purpose.
The AWD system is perfectly invisible. At no time are you aware of which wheels are powering the vehicle. This delightfully-effective system has been perfected over the years and provides a feeling of security that hundreds of thousands of Subaru owners not only experience, but seek when trade-in time arrives.
While Subarus are known for their all-weather grip, reliability and longevity, the feature I like the most is the long-travel suspension system. Subarus have a wonderful ability to soak up huge road blemishes and whoop-de-doos with aplomb.
You see railway tracks or a big dip or rise in the road and prepare for that moment when the suspension reaches the end of its travel with a bang – but instead it simply absorbs the shock. While it is easy to make a soft suspension that can do that, the trick is ensuring the vehicle can handle, that it does not lean in the turns like a ship in rough seas. Subaru has aced this test.
Now on to the features that most consumers shopping in this class consider more important than the engine, transmission and suspension – what’s amenities it has and what is it like to drive.
Even the base model of the Legacy comes well equipped with keyless entry, steering-wheel-mounted audio controls, power windows, mirrors and locks. Our 2.5i base model had a "convenience package and a $26,395 price tag. It had air conditioning, cruise control, tilt and telescope steering wheel, 10-way adjustable driver’s seat, heated front seats and 16-inch alloy wheels.
The Legacy is commodious for five with lots of head-room fore and aft. There is even ample legroom in the rear for full-sized adults. Three abreast would be a squeeze but two will have lots of elbow room. Entry and exit are good through all four doors and visibility very good thanks to a low belt line and plenty of glass. The trunk is similarly spacious. It has a wide opening and can be augmented by folding one or both sides of the rear seat backs down.
The instrument panel is legible day and night and both major and minor controls easy to read and reach.
If you are in the market for a mid-size family car do yourself a favour and include the Legacy in your comparison shopping. It may surprise you.