Pros: Refinement, power, short-throw shifter, high-speed handling, chassis stability
Cons: Rear seat room, engine could be thrustier/smoother below 3000 RPM, steering could be quicker
A few months ago when I reviewed an Outback wagon with the non-turbo four and an automatic transmission I was impressed with the cars refinement and interior quality, but disappointed by the its performance and rear seat. Ultimately I gave the car a three-star rating, but suggested that I might give the turbo an extra star or two, depending on how much more enjoyable it was to drive.
Well, Ive now managed to take an extended test drive in a Legacy GT Limited sedan with the 250-horsepower turbo four coupled to a five-speed manual. (In Subaru parlance Limited means leather, sunroof, power passengers seat, and automatic climate controlnot bad for the extra $2.500.) And you have my rating of this combination: five stars. The bottom line: this is among the most impressive cars Ive tested. If I were spending roughly $30,000 on a new car today, Id still consider the Acura TL and Infiniti G35, but would likely end up with this Subaru. Its that good. Whats more, its available as a more practical wagonsomething that appeals to this father of three.
Now for the details.
Update: I have now also driven the Outback XT with automatic transmission and the L.L. Bean Outback, which is powered by a six-cylinder, non-turbocharged engine. The turbo four does not work nearly as well with the automatic. Details below and in my Outback review. With an automatic transmission, the six (not available in the Legacy) is a better choice.
The first Legacy was a quirky-looking machine, as were most Subarus back in the early 1990s. But the first redesign eliminated the quirky bits, and subsequent redesigns have only further refined the same basic, quite conventional theme. The fourth-generation 2005 Outback looks much like every Outback since 1995, just a bit sleeker and subtly more upscale. Its attractive, but quietly so. Those into the nuances of automotive design will appreciate the changes, but most people wont notice.
The Legacy looks much like the Outback, just riding a bit lower to the ground. In turbo form the cars are especially similar, as the Outbacks cladding is then body color rather than gray.
One nit with the light blue metallic sedan I drove this time around: the clear lens silvery tail lamps just arent working well with this color. This car would look better with traditional red lamps.
The interior has changed much more. Compared to last years car it has been thoroughly upgraded. Like that of the exterior, the styling of the interior is attractive in a strictly conventional way. No funky control schemes or instrument graphics. Just attractive forms and nicely executed details. The latest Acura interiors look very similar, with pieces of trimfaux metal with gray interiors and faux wood with tan interiorssweeping down the sides of the center stack and then smoothly curving to continue along the sides of the center console. That said, the materials are of higher quality in the Subaru. Nearly every piece of trim is of the soft-touch variety. The grab handles on the doors, made of a soft-finished hard plastic, feel especially nice.
Especially with the perforated leather found in the turbo models, this is one sharp-looking interior. The faux wood is much nicer than most. Like BMW with the 7-Series, Subaru opted for a matte finish that recalls fine Scandinavian furniture. Though the teak isnt real, it looks real. Interesting that a matte finish can make faux wood seem more real while a glossy finish often makes the real stuff look fake Usually I dont care for faux wood, but it looks good here. If you want to avoid it anyway, then get the gray interior. The six-cylinder Outbacks feature real wood on the upper part of the steering wheel rim. I always hate thisleather feels and functions much better when youre really driving a car. Thankfully the turbo four models have an all-leather rim.
When I drove a Legacy a couple of years ago I found the interior hardly an roomier than that in the Forester. Perhaps the next one would be roomier? Well, no. The new car is fractionally larger on the outside, with an inch more length, width, and height, but the interior dimensions have remained largely the same.
The front seat is roomy enough, even if shoulder room is a little tighter than in a midsize car. The drivers seat itself is fairly comfortable. Much like that in the typical Japanese midsize car it could be a little larger and more supportive for my taste. In other words, more like a Volvo seat. The seats in the turbo four models are more heavily bolstered, and this did help keep me in place in turns. As in most Japanese cars, the driving position is moderately high for a car, affording a good view over the hood. If you want to sit well over the hood, though, youll want the Forester.
To make room for a pair of cupholders the center armrest is positioned too far rearward to be of much use. It's also too low.
Now for the weakest aspect of the car: the rear seat remains marginal for adults in both room and comfort. Knee room is limited, and the cushion is too low to provide much thigh support. The rear seat in any Japanese midsize sedan is much better. One good aspect: rear passengers receive a center armrest, and it is larger and more useful than the one up front.
The GT Limited sedan I drove came standard with a conventional sunroof. One more reason to get the wagon instead: a huge two-panel sunroof is standard in all leather-trimmed wagons. Very nice. It automatically opens and closes in three stages, so theres no need to keep a finger continuously on the ceiling-mounted switch. A VW-style rotary control would be nicer still, though. A retractable sunshade is included for those days when the sun is uncomfortably bright.
With the wagon, cargo fares better than rear seat passengers. With the rear seat up 32 cubic feet are available; this increases to 62 with the seat folded. (Unlike last year the headrests do not have to be removed before folding the seat.) Cargo volume figures are a bit slippery, since there are multiple valid ways to calculate them. Those for the Outback are similar to those in most similarly-sized wagons (Mazda6, Passat). Interior storage compartments are on the small side, though.
The cargo situation is not so good with the sedan. The trunk is about average in size for a large compact, but the rear seat does not fold down. Only a pass-through is available.
On the Road
Curb weights appear to have gone down a bit compared to last year, but at 3,365 pounds the Legacy GT Limited remains heavy for a compact. No doubt the standard all-wheel-drive is responsible for a couple hundred of these pounds. Too much mass for the non-turbo 168-horsepower four to be any more than adequate. The 250-horsepower turbo four, on the other hand, moves the car very well.
With any turbo there is the issue of boost lag, and Ive read some reviews that complain about said lag in this car. I didnt mind it much. Below 3,000 RPM the engine produces little thrust and , as with the 2.4-liter Chrysler turbo, I felt minor surging and lagging with a moderate to heavy throttle foot. This fault is minormost people wont even notice it. Also, its easily fixedjust downshift to get the engine over 3,000 RPM. Do so, and youll find buckets of thrust with zero or nearly zero lag. Maybe this is more difficult to manage with the automatic? Perhaps, but the manual-shift feature of the automatic should help.
Aside from the minor stumbling just described, the turbo four is extremely refined for such an engine. It sounds and feels much more upscale than the turbo fives used in many Volvos. At idle its nearly silent, and even at full throttle never sounds coarse.
Update: With an automatic transmission the turbo four is not nearly as successful. It feels weak at lower RPM--joff the line especially--and the automatic's gearing makes the powerband less accessible. You'll want to use the manumatic function of the transmission a lot, as otherwise the transmission keeps engine revs low. Beyond this issue, with the automatic transmission the uneven flow of power below 3000 RPM is much more evident. Driveability in normal traffic suffers greatly. Upshot: with the automatic the turbo rates between three and four stars.
A commenter raised an additional possibility: that the base engine might be more enjoyable with a manual. I've driven this engine with a manual in other Subarus, and performance though still not much above adequate was much better than with the automatic. I might even prefer the non-turbo manual to the turbo automatic. I estimate a four-star rating for this powertrain.
One of the reasons I suspected the new Legacy/Outback might let me down is the manual transmissions shift quality. My impressions of Subarus manuals have been mixed in the past, with the turbo Forester plagued by long throws and very high clutch effort.
So you can imagine my pleasure when I found one of the best shifters Ive ever sampled in the new Legacy. Throws of the optional short-throw shifter (about $300) are extremely short, among the shortest in any car Ive driven, and while shift feel is a bit notchy and effort not finger-light this is how I personally like it. A very accurate, satisfying shifter to operate. I highly recommend this option, which is available for all manual-transmission Legacies and Outbacks. The clutch travel is short and clutch effort is moderatecertainly acceptable.
Fuel economy could be ugly. In the 168-horse non-turbo Outback I drove a few months ago the trip computer reported an average of 14.7 MPG, but I did not reset it prior to my fairly casual ten-mile test drive and do not know how aggressively others drove the car during its previous 30 miles. This time I forgot to even check the thing. I spoke with the salesperson, and she said shes been getting 19 around town and 24 on the highway in a Legacy GT with automatic transmission. So if you restrain your left foot decent mileage might be achievable.
The Legacy rides lower than the Outback and is fitted with stickier tires. Not surprisingly, it corners more flatly and sticks to the road better. Steering effort remains higher than todays norm, but I found this less an issue with more thrust to help move the car about the road.
That said, the car still responds to steering inputs less quickly than Id like. A quicker turn-in, and perhaps a faster ratio as well, would be very welcome, especially at lower speeds. On the other hand, steering accuracy is excellent, and steering feel is good if not great. Maybe I should just accept that this is, after all, much more a grand touring sedan/wagon than an all-out sports sedan/wagon. It is at least nicely tighter around the elbows than even the Mazda6, much less the Altima.
Nah, I dont think I will yield on this issue. I'd like more of a "point and squirt" feel with the Legacy's compact packaging. Subarugive the car quicker responses.
The manual transmission GT comes with a viscous center differential all-wheel-drive system that normally splits torque 50/50 between the axles. Id rather they shunted a bit more to the rear axlethe higher-tech electronic system that comes with the GT automatic splits torque 45/55--but this is better than the front-biased systems found in many front-drive-based all-wheel-drive vehicles.
Bottom line with the all-wheel-drive: floor the throttle in turns and the car just bites and goes. Dont try this in a front-drive Acura TL or rear-drive Infiniti G35youll just invite the intervention of the traction control and in the TL will find a ton of torque steer to boot. In the Subaru its possible to induce a touch of oversteer with a heavy throttle in turns, but just a touch and its very easily controllable. Normally the chassis is inclined towards moderate understeernot sporting but certainly safe. Perhaps theyre trying to be safe, and perhaps the nose-heavy weight distribution prevents a more neutral handling balance. The upshot: the front tires slide wide well before the rears work up much of a sweat.
But this is not to discredit the overall experience of driving the car. On sweeping curves--the faster the better--it handles very well and inspires confidence. (For low-speed turns see my comments above.) Frankly, the major issue with the cars handling might be that its so powerful and sticks so well that its very hard to find a road where you can safely explore its potential. This car gains speed scary fast when the revs are up and the pedal is down.
Before leaving the handling department, a note on the sticky rubber. As far as I can tell, the entire Legacy/Outback line is fitted with the same model tire, the Bridgestone Potenza RE92. But they aren't really the same tire, so I'm not sure why they all share a model name. Those on the base Outback have an H rating, and are just so-so rubber. Those on the Outback XT (turbo) are actually RE-92A's, and have a V rating. I'm not sure what the A is about--"all season?" Hmmm, are the much more aggressive, much lower profile Z-rated RE92s on the car I drove not all-season? I'll have to look into it. Probably. Maybe the A is for "all-terrain?"
What I'm getting to with all this, actually, is tread life. Every tire has a little number on it to represent treadwear. While it's not very reliable to compare this tire across brands, as testing methods vary, supposedly it's a pretty good indicator within a brand. And the three tires above have ratings of 360, 260, and 160, respectively. What this suggests is that the Legacy GT should burn through its rubber much rapidly than either Outback.
Moving on, ride quality is better in the Legacy than in the Outback. Even with the sport tuning the suspension irons out the small stuff very well. Large bumps and potholes can upset the composure of the chassis, but the lower-riding Legacy eliminates the pitching I witnessed in the Outback. Noise levels are moderate, as they are in most midsize Japanese cars these days. The structure feels stiff and worthy of a premium price.
Subaru Legacy Price Comparisons and Pricing
For quick, up-to-date pricing, and especially user-specified price comparisons, check out the website I created: www.truedelta.com. Why yet another vehicle pricing website? Well, I personally lacked the patience to keep using the others. They were too slow and required too much effort, especially when trying to compare prices. So I taught myself some programming and created a site where there is no need to dig through option packages, prerequisites, and the like one by one -- the TrueDelta algorithm figures these out for you in one swift pass.
The dealer where I drove the car also sells Volvos. I told the salesperson Id expect them to now have more trouble selling the Swedish brand. She said shed already sold one Legacy GT to someone who came in to check out the 300-horsepower Volvo S60 R. I dont doubt it. Aside from the Volvos superior front seats, the Subaru is a better car in just about every way. And it costs about $10,000 less.
I would still prefer an Audi S4 to the Legacy, but it costs about $20,000 more. If you cant spare that kind of cash, and want a fast, fun-to-drive all-wheel-drive sedan or wagon, this is it.
Compared to other cars in its price range, the Subaru acquits itself well. The Dodge MagnumChrysler 300 is much larger and brawnier, and not nearly as well finished inside. It's a much different kind of car--so a case could be made for either, depending on personal preferences. The Acura TL is more of a head turner--at least it continues to turn my head every time I see one--and handles a bit sportier, and contains a wonderful V6. But it's also $4,000 more money, and could really use power to the rear wheels. The Infiniti G35 has power to the rear wheels, with a six-speed can be fun to drive, and actually provides significantly more rear legroom than the Acura and Subaru, but lacks the refinement and interior quality of the other Japanese cars. I continue to have a soft spot in my heart for it, but it's easily the least well-rounded in the bunch, and it also costs a little more than the Legacy.
Ultimately the new Legacy easily holds it own in this illustrious bunch, despite being down a couple cylinders and coming up a bit short in the rear seat. Id like a slightly sportier feel, but this would no doubt come at the expense of the Legacys commendable refinement, comfort, and all-around composure. And if you want a wagon the choice becomes even easier. If I was dropping thirty large on a car, it would likely be this one.
A Note on Subaru Legacy Reliability
I cannot practically cover reliability within the context of this review. However, many people are interested in such information, so I've started collecting my own data. Results, once they are available, will be posted to my site, www.truedelta.com, with updates every three months.
Unlike other sources, TrueDelta will clearly identify what difference it will make if you buy a Legacy rather than another vehicle by providing "times in the shop" and "days in the shop" stats (among others). You will be able to specify the number of years, annual miles, and types of repairs to include in Subaru Legacy reliability comparisons.
Before I can report results, I need data on all cars--not just the Legacy--from people like you. To encourage participation, those who help provide the data will receive free access to the site's reliability information. Non-participants will have to pay an access fee.
For the details, and to sign up, visit www.truedelta.com.
A link to this website and alphabetized links to my other vehicle reviews can be found on my profile page.
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Some of my reviews of related vehicles:
Acura TL review
Acura TSX review
Audi S4 review
Dodge Magnum review
Mazda Mazda6 review
Nissan Altima review
Subaru Legacy review (2003)
Subaru Outback review
VW Passat review
Volvo S60 R review