Legacy wagons are at the top of our list of vehicles for drivers who want the all-weather capability and safety of Subaru's excellent all-wheel-drive system in a practical, well-engineered package. Beginning with the 2005 models, the Legacy features a rigid new chassis, better weight distribution and a wider track.
Legacy wagons are eminently practical and two-thirds of all Legacy buyers choose them. However, a Legacy sedan is available for drivers who want Subaru confidence and safety in a four-door model.
Across the line-up, all Legacy models offer an excellent balance between ride comfort and handling response. Around town and on the highway the Legacy offers a nice, smooth ride and handles bumpy sections particularly well, and on wet or slippery roads, all-wheel drive, standard on every Subaru, increases driving confidence.
Subaru has long been a cult favorite among drivers who face inclement conditions or want to get off the paved roads for sports activities and want a tough, reliable vehicle that gets decent fuel economy. The Legacy is a superb vehicle for snow, gravel roads and dirt roads.
Subaru now wants to be viewed as a premium brand, not a luxury brand like Lexus or Mercedes, but premium in the level of technology it offers. Subaru certainly lives up to that. Its all-wheel-drive systems are among the best in the world, honed through its success in the World Rally Championship, and Subaru designs its awd systems specifically for each model and driveline offered, ensuring optimum performance. Subaru's premium technology goes well beyond all-wheel drive, however. The engines and suspensions are highly engineered, resulting in a car that offers excellent handling on paved and unpaved roads along with a smooth, comfortable, though not cushy, ride quality.
All Legacy models come with a full array of safety features, including dual-stage frontal airbags, front seat-mounted side-impact airbags, and full-coverage side curtain airbags. The front seats have active head restraints. Antilock brakes (ABS) with electronic brake-force distribution (EBD) are standard across the line. And all-wheel drive is certainly a safety feature. All this stuff is standard. Many other vehicles with lower base prices, sell these features as extra-cost options.
Subaru Legacy 2.5i sedan ($21,695), wagon ($23,695); 2.5i Special Edition Sedan ($21,995), 2.5i Special Edition Wagon ($23,195) 2.5i Limited sedan ($25,295), wagon ($26,495); 2.5 GT Limited sedan ($28,795), wagon ($31,195); 2.5 GT Limited Sedan with navigation and automatic ($31,995)
The Legacy's wheelbase and overall length, increased by two inches for 2005, allow more of a wedge shape, led by a lower, more sloping hood. The horizontally opposed, or boxer, engine is mounted low, allowing for a low hood and low center of gravity. Body-colored door handles hinge upward and are tightly styled into the door panels.
The hood scoop on Legacy GT models is understated, but obviously functional, feeding air to the turbocharger. Chrome dual exhaust tips on the GT models poke out beneath arched cutouts at each corner, emphasizing the Legacy's sporty aspirations.
The seats in the 2.5i models are designed to be comfortable on commutes and long-distance drives. The seats in the GT Limited models offer bigger bolsters on the sides and seat bottoms to better hold the driver in hard cornering. Head and hip room is ample. Adjusting the front seats for six-foot drivers restricts rear legroom, however.
The rear seats are adequate. It's a low seating position without a lot of leg room and the seat bottoms are relatively flat. The center head restraint on the rear seat is fixed in the sedan and adjustable in the wagon.
Controls are ergonomically located and generally easy to operate. The stereo controls are properly positioned above the climate controls. Our only complaint is with the stereo's tuning function: Instead of a tuning knob, it's a rocker switch located below the volume knob that requires scrolling through frequencies to locate a station. Where the tuning knob would normally be is a round, PDA-type rocker button dedicated to selecting the sound source.
Pedals are well-placed, if not especially conducive to heel-and-toe downshifts. (If you don't know what that means, then you'll find the pedals to be just fine.) The steering wheel rim is thick and contoured for comfortable and confident grip at the recommended 9-and-3 positions. The shift lever is conveniently placed, and shifting can be accomplished without reaching.
The sloping hood makes for good forward visibility. Good-sized rear quarter windows minimize blind spots from the C-pillars. Thin sails leave room for an expansive backlight (rear windshield) that fills the rearview mirror.
The bottom portions of the door panels hold fixed map pockets rather than the expanding pockets coming into vogue. Front and rear seats get two cup holders. Nets for magazines are attached to the front seatbacks. The center console isn't commodious, but it has an auxiliary power outlet for cell phones, leaving the lighter outlet in the base of the C-stack available for other accessories, such as a radar detector.
The sedan's trunk is fully finished, with its gooseneck hinges enclosed to prevent inadvertently smashed groceries.
The station wagon cargo area offers two covered storage bins.
Handling is significantly improved over pre-2005 Legacy models. Weight was reduced 200 pounds, mostly at the front and rear, through extensive use of aluminum in the hood, and high strength, hydroformed steel in the bumper beams and suspension components. Less weight is better and concentrating the weight at the center is better yet. Dropping the more compact engine about an inch in the chassis and redesigning the rear suspension lowered the center of gravity. All of this, together with the wider track, make for an agile, lively car on a winding road.
The 2.5i models benefit from an eight-horse increase in power for 2006. This makes them quicker than before. The manual transmission makes the best use of the engine's 175 horsepower. It's not the most precise gearbox in this class, and downshifting with confidence takes some practice. The GT Limited gets a four-speed automatic with a semi-manual feature called Sportshift. The Sportshift gate is toward the driver; push the shifter forward for upshifts, pull back for downshifts.
With 250 horsepower, the GT Limited models are fun to accelerate out of corners. Turbo lag is minimal, and once it spools up, the engine develops strong torque as it climbs rapidly and smoothly to redline, taking the car to an indicated 140 mph. Driving one on a mountain road brought out the rally driver in us, with the smooth cornering and low-end torque challenging us to accelerate hard out of the corners and on to the straightaways, then brake hard before the turn-in point as we set up for the next apex. The five-speed manual has been reinforced to handle the extra horsepower. The five-speed automatic comes with Sportshift.
The suspension soaks up road bumps and joints, though the 17-inch wheels produce some resonance (vibration). Washboard pavement in corners unsettles the car enough to notice, but not enough to cause any anxiety. The Legacy is stable at interstate speeds, though we noticed it was susceptible to cross winds and turbulence generated by 18-wheelers.
Brakes in the various models are up to their powerplants' potential and easy to modulate, with the GT Limited benefiting from its high-performance components. Winding down a mountain road in Southern California, we found the brakes, suspension and engine in the GT wagon easy to coordinate, allowing for smooth driving that didn't upset our passengers.
Little wind noise intrudes at highway speeds, except for a bit from the roof rack crossbars and from around the seal around the moonroof when the undershade is retracted.
The all-wheel-drive system in the Legacy models differs in technical details by drivetrain. All of these systems give the Legacy a sure-footed feel and greatly improve grip and handling stability in slippery conditions.
The manual transmission employs a viscous coupling to split the power between the front and rear tires. If the tires at one end begin to slip, the system sends more power to the other end. That split is 50/50 in optimal conditions, but power transfer can reach 100 percent to either end under extreme conditions.
The four-speed automatic is matched with an electronically managed, continuously variable transfer clutch that distributes the power where it's best used, but no more than 50/50.
The five-speed automatic is paired with the most technologically advanced of Subaru's all wheel-drive systems called Variable Torque Distribution or VTD. An electronically controlled, continuously variable hydraulic transfer clutch manages the power distribution through a planetary center differential. Under normal conditions, the VTD splits the power 45/55 front/rear to give the GT more of a rear wheel-drive feel, but adjustments, to a maximum of 50/50, are made as road conditions
The 2006 Subaru Legacy is refined, polished, powerful, agile. With the added dose of horsepower on the standard engine, and the additional boost on the turbocharged version, it's fun to drive, with a smooth, pleasant ride. It's equipped with state-of-the art active and passive safety features and boasts better-than-respectable fuel economy.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard is based in Northern California.