Pros: WRX-like turbo thrust, firm steering, surefooted handling, light and airy interior, rich materials.
Cons: Feels less insulated and substantial than some rivals, needs optional short-throw shifter.
I recently attended a ride-and-drive event hosted by Road & Track magazine. At the event, I got to drive three sport-luxury sedans on autocross-style tracks--three cone courses laid out at Alameda Point naval station. The vehicles at the event were the BMW 325i, Volvo S60 2.5T, and this--the new Subaru Legacy 2.5 GT. It was a great opportunity to compare vehicles in the same segment in demanding, at-the-limit situations. And, naturally, I had a blast squealing tires all afternoon--events like these are a car geek's dream. Unfortunately, though, all the Legacies at the track event were automatics. I didn't feel like I would have fully evaluated a new sports sedan without sampling its manual transmission, so later that week I headed over to the local Subaru dealership. There, I drove another Legacy 2.5 GT with the five-speed manual. That test drive lasted about half an hour and involved less tire-squealing, but a lot more real-world driving.
Is it just me, or is Subaru becoming the company of affordable fast cars? Every year since the introduction of the WRX, Subaru has brought more and more performance to its lineup, and the 2005 Legacy is the latest addition. The GT version I drove is equipped with a turbocharged 2.5-liter flat-four putting out 250 horsepower--85 more than you could get in the previous-generation Legacy. That power increase alone is enough to elevate the Legacy from a family car to something more desirable. According to Car and Driver, the new Legacy GT will do 0-60 in 5.7 seconds--genuine sports-sedan stuff, in other words.
Plus, unlike some sports sedans, the Legacy feels as fast as that figure suggests. Once the engine is spinning over 2500rpm, serious thrust is just a toe-twitch away. From 3000rpm all the way to the redline, acceleration is eager, consistent, and very strong--this car pulls hard. The BMW and Volvo at the event were quick cars in their own right, but the Legacy was clearly the fastest. And since the Legacy has all-wheel-drive, wheelspin was never an issue. It's easy to just "point and shoot" in this car, which made powering out of slow hairpins a lot of fun.
One point that's worth mentioning, though, is that the engine's character differs significantly depending on your choice of transmission. The variable here is turbo lag--with the automatic, you'll feel a lot more of it. The Legacy that I drove on the track was an automatic, and it definitely felt less energetic at low revs. Turbo lag was noticeable up until 2500rpms or so, making throttle tip-in a bit sluggish, and its response never felt as linear as that of the naturally-aspirated BMW. By contrast, the manual-transmission Legacy I drove at the dealership was virtually lag-free. As long as I kept it over 1500rpm--which makes up most daily driving anyway--throttle response was smooth and linear, making the power surge at 3000rpm that much more enjoyable.
The only other shortcoming in this department is a minor lack of refinement under the hood. Driven back-to-back against the BMW and Volvo, the Subaru's engine felt just a bit coarse. It was noticeably louder, and its sound had a harsher edge when pressed--as if it was working harder. The Legacy also transmitted more tingly engine vibrations to its cabin than the European cars did. But to be fair, this was only an issue in direct comparison to more-expensive rivals. When I drove the Legacy in isolation at the dealership, it felt plenty refined. It's certainly as smooth and quiet as most family sedans, and about on par with the Infiniti G35 and Nissan Maxima. In any case, I've never experienced this level of refinement from a Subaru engine before, let alone a turbocharged one--buyers trading up from the current Legacy should be thrilled.
Since the new Legacy is being marketed as a sports sedan, its manual transmission is far more relevant to propspective buyers than it was in previous Legacies. My advice to those enthusiast buyers? Shell out the $339 for the short-throw shifter. The standard unit has slightly long throws, and a light, rubbery, notchy feel that's quite similar to that of a BMW 3-Series. Normally, such a convincing BMW impersonation would be a great thing. But since BMW's shifters are no longer the best out there, it's really not much of a compliment. On the plus side, the Legacy's short, accurate clutch is in no need of such enhancements.
I haven't driven a Legacy with the short-throw shifter, but there was one parked on the showroom floor of the dealership I visited. All I could do was stir the lever with the car turned off, but that's all it took to reveal its superiority to the standard unit. Throws were surprisingly short and quick, with a tight, mechanically-connected feel. For enthusiasts who care about things like shifter feel, it's a bargain--kinda like swapping in the transmission of a Lancer Evolution, but minus the pesky multi-thousand dollar drivetrain work.
If you decide to go with the automatic transmission, you'll find that it's better than most. I wished that a manually-shifted Legacy had been on hand for the driving event, but was surprised to find that the automatic didn't really get in the way of fast driving on the track. It shifted quickly and smoothly, and always seemed to be in the right gear--even in tight, demanding sections of the course. I've been underwhelmed by most so-called "intelligent adaptive" automatics, but this one lived up to the promise, holding on to low gears when it was driven aggressively. The manumatic feature works well too. But since the automatic dulls throttle response and causes a marked increase in turbo lag, this car is really a lot more fun with the full-fledged manual.
First things first: If you're wondering whether the new Legacy can keep up with a BMW 3-Series on a handling course, the answer is yes. It negotiated corners at least as quickly--sometimes faster--and it clawed the pavement with similar tenacity. Now, the second question. Does the Legacy have the handling composure of the BMW, that magic chassis tuning that lets you nail apexes with no apparent effort? Well... sometimes, but usually not. The Legacy's standard all-wheel-drive actually makes it more cooperative than the Bimmer on slippery surfaces, but the rest of the time, it feels like an ordinary chassis that's learned to to extraordinary things.
The steering, in particular, is distinctly more Japanese than European in feel. That's not necessarily a cut--it feels more honest and direct in its communication of the road surface. But with those traits comes a lack of insulation from the road, and a less-luxurious feel than shoppers in this price class might prefer. For example, when I was hustling the Legacy on broken pavement, there was some clunking and kickback through the wheel that I didn't feel in the others. This made the Legacy feel more easily flustered than the BMW--the 325i's steering gave me all the information I needed, but felt much more refined in the process.
In all other regards, however, the new Legacy's steering is top-notch. It's firmly-weighted, with hefty effort at the rim, and the grippy three-spoke wheel feels great. Turn-in is quick and immediate, and the Legacy's steering ratio seemed faster than that of the BMW or Volvo. It didn't have the luxurious feel or near-intuitive precision of the BMW's steering, but in all other respects, it's just as good. Also worth noting is the Legacy's much-improved brake feel. Although it didn't stop as short as the BMW, its pedal had a reassuring firmness that I've never experienced in a Subaru before.
The Legacy's chassis is a similar story--equal to the BMW in capability, but not in composure. In fact, it was often the Legacy that allowed me to reach higher cornering speeds, but the BMW made me feel like a better driver--pressed beyond its limits, the Subaru was quicker to wag its tail or plow its front tires. It also reacted more to mid-corner bumps and changes in road texture. Where the BMW shrugged off surface imperfections (and the Volvo simply numbed them out), I often felt kickback chattering through the Legacy's wheel.
But from another point of view, this made the Legacy the most involving car of the three. I felt like I was driving this car more than the other two, getting more detailed feedback about what was going on at the contact patches. The Legacy felt active and alive in hard cornering, with little feints at understeer and oversteer despite the excellent overall balance. There was more body roll than in the BMW, and the Legacy doesn't have the same viscous-liquid suspension control. But that didn't stop it from being quick, grippy, and a hoot to drive fast. Compared to just about anything else in the 30K sports-sedan class, the Legacy is very capable indeed.
The Subaru's ride is similarly Japanese in feel, as opposed to European. That means it doesn't strike quite as delicate a balance between compliance and control as the BMW does. The Legacy--at least in 2.5 GT form--is suspended rather firmly, and it feels that way in the cabin. Road surfaces are communicated clearly, albeit comfortably, so you always feel in touch with the state of the pavement. Personally, I don't see this as a negative. It's the same kind of ride character that endears me to Hondas, Mazdas, and other Subarus. But it makes the Legacy feel less hefty and substantial than the BMW and Volvo, despite the equally-stiff body structure. It just feels like there's less metal between you and the outside.
In terms of noise, the Subaru is also a little less-luxurious than its European rivals--you'll either find it "more honest" or just plain louder, depending on your tastes. I've already mentioned the more-pronounced engine note, and its tendency to get slightly coarse at high revs. There's also slightly more road noise--again, giving the car a leaner, more-mechanical feel--and a hint of wind rush at high speeds. The frameless windows probably contribute to the latter. In any case, the Subaru rides well enough for the class, and only really suffers in comparison to the European brands. Drive it against an Acura TSX or Lexus IS300, and you'll likely find nothing to complain about.
The new Legacy's interior more than held its own against the BMW's and Volvo's--it was actually my favorite of the three. Much of this has to do with the driving position and visibility. Where the European cars had a high beltline that could feel confining to some drivers, the Legacy feels as open and airy as you'd expect of a Japanese family car. It has a low cowl, big windows, and thin pillars, all of which affords excellent visibility. These qualities also mean that the Legacy's cabin doesn't have the substantial, tank-like ambiance of the BMW and Volvo--but despite the perceived lack of substance, the Subaru's driving position was the most natural-feeling of the three, and made me feel the most "at home."
Materials quality was also right up there with the more-established brands. A recent Car and Driver comparison test criticized the Legacy for having "lots of obvious plastic around the interior," but I couldn't disagree more. Next to the BMW and Volvo, the Legacy's interior felt surprisingly rich and tightly-constructed. The dashboard, grab handles, and console are rubberized to feel thick and grippy, and the silver-plastic trim is satiny to the touch. All the knobs and switches operate with a buttery smoothness, too--a quality that was frankly lacking in the BMW. Maybe C&D's criticism had more to do with the fact that their Legacy's interior didn't have the warm, leather-'n-wood ambiance of most luxury cars. But you can order it in that color scheme if you wish--I personally find the black-and-silver look much sportier, and far less pretentious.
Comfort was similarly difficult to fault. The Legacy's front seats were excellent, with firm support and grippy leather upholstery--not slick, as in the Volvo. I didn't find myself sliding around much in turns, whereas the Volvo had me bracing myself against the door panels. There's also impressive space up front--lots of legroom, plenty of headroom, and just enough tightness around the sides to feel sporty. The back seat was surprisingly accommodating, too--the best of the three cars at the event. The Legacy was the only car to provide more-than-adequate space for my legs and feet, and its rear cushion was easily the most comfortable of the three.
Last of all, I was impressed by how expensive the Legacy's cabin felt. Although you get the distinct impression that there's less metal around you than in the European cars, the Subaru's cabin had the freshest, most distinctive styling of the three cars on hand. The electroluminescent gauges were far more legible than those in the European cars, and the center-stack controls looked like something off an expensive home-stereo system. The large glass area and low cowl makes the Legacy's cabin feel lean and spare, but that doesn't stop it from being impressively upscale.
The new Legacy also scores better on this point than many 30K sports sedans. I've already mentioned the relatively roomy rear seat, and the Legacy sedan offers better trunk space than many rivals. It's trunk isn't all that massive--at 11.4 cubic feet, it's much smaller than that of a Camry--but it's more usable than that of the BMW or Volvo. Its trunk area is flatter, with fewer drivetrain intrusions, and its lower liftover should make for easy loading. The rear seat doesn't fold down, which is an unfortunate oversight, but there is a pass-through for long items.
The Legacy's real advantage in this area is the availability of a wagon. Few rivals in this class offer a wagon body style, and those that do--like the BMW 325i--are often surprisingly short on utility. The Legacy wagon is far more useful, with a long, wide cargo bay behind the rear seats. Those rear seats are foldable in the wagon version, too. The only competitor that matches the Legacy's appetite for cargo is the Volvo V70, and it's significantly more expensive and less athletic. If you want sport with your utility, the Legacy wagon is really the only game in town at this price.
As with any all-new model, the 2005 Legacy's reliability hasn't been confirmed by Consumer Reports, so I can't give you any hard evidence. But the outgoing model had racked up an Average rating, so I'd guess the new one will fare similarly or better. I add the "or better" because my family's personal experience with Subarus has been overwhelmingly positive. My parents bought an Impreza wagon new in 2000, and it's required nothing but routine maintenance in their five years of ownership. It's also tough as nails, in terms of durability--I've taken it up to Tahoe several times on ski trips, and it's been unfazed by frequent below-freezing starts (not to mention juvenile antics in iced-over parking lots).
After the driving was over, the tires cooled, and the smell of brake pads had faded in the air, I learned that this driving event wasn't as unbiased as it had first appeared. I had suspected this from the beginning, since most people wouldn't think to put a Subaru in the ring with a pair of established European brands. And sure enough, as we walked away from the cars, we were herded toward a tent full of Subaru vehicles. Pamphlets, brochures, and questionnaires were all ready and waiting--not to mention lots of friendly Subaru representatives. The funny part was that Subaru didn't really need the veneer of journalistic objectivity to get my vote. Even suspecting that the event had been manufacturer-sponsored, the Legacy had struck me as the most entertaining and appealing car of the bunch. So next time, Subaru, don't feel like you need to hide behind a magazine's perceived credibility--you've already got a winner here!
As for the car itself, the new Legacy impressed me as a serious competitor in the 30K sports-sedan class. It has sports-car grunt, fine handling, a high-quality interior, and--perhaps most importantly--an unpretentious, giant-killer personality that's unique in this segment. If I were to buy a car in this class for myself, this would be the one--a wagon, please, with the short-shift kit.
If you're looking for a sport-luxury sedan with the emphasis on sport, you'll probably be equally impressed. The Legacy is faster and more involving than the Acura TSX or Lexus IS300, more stylish than the Infiniti G35, and not as big and soft as the Nissan Maxima or Volvo S60. The BMW 325i is a more sophisticated handler, but it lacks the excitement and interior finesse of the turbo Legacy. And since it's a Subaru, the Legacy is likely to be cheaper to maintain and insure than the European brands. The only reasons I can imagine someone for disliking the Legacy are its firm ride, its perceived lack of heft, and its fuel mileage--EPA estimates for the turbo are a mediocre 19 city, 25 highway.
My only other reservation about the new Legacy is the quality of dealer service. The car itself a legitimate sports-sedan contender, no doubt--the product isn't the issue. But can Subaru dealers offer the same level of customer service that you'll get at, say, a Lexus or Infiniti dealership? This is the same problem faced by cars like the Nissan Maxima--it's an upscale vehicle being sold by run-of-the-mill dealers. But as long as the dealer service keeps pace with the marketing pitch and the car itself, Subaru should have a runaway success story on its hands. If you're in the market for a sport-luxury sedan, or a loaded family car that's not another Camry XLE, I'd strongly suggest giving the new Legacy a look.
Feel free to check out my reviews on some of the Legacy 2.5GT's competitors:
Nissan Maxima SE
Volvo S60 2.5T