Subaru have always done things differently, and whilst their cars have not always had universal appeal, they have built up a strong and loyal following among their owners, who have appreciated everything from the unmistakable sound of the flat four engines, the excellent handling and roadholding achieved from that low mounted engine, the standard four wheel drive, and even the characteristic frameless windows. Styling of some of their models over the years has not always been a strong point, as evidenced by the constant facelifts to the second generation Impreza following lots of criticism of the bug eye-d look. With the fourth generation Legacy, launched in 2004, they absolutely hit the bull’s eye. Here was a car which looked good, had much improved interior quality and was excellent to drive. I sampled both the 4 and 6 cylinder models in saloon, estate and Outback format and rated them all very highly. I was not alone in my enthusiasm, as a couple of TheMotor forummers owned the Spec B models and also expressed the highest levels of delight with their cars. Accordingly, I was somewhat dismayed when I first saw the fifth generation Legacy, which premiered at the 2009 New York Auto Show. No matter what the car drove like, it was clear that yet again, Subaru had ignored any conventional views on aesthetic beauty and had produced a car which at best looked bland and at worst (in Outback form) was downright ugly from some angles. With the frameless windows also consigned to history, the only hope was that as the mechanicals were largely unchanged, it might still be good to drive. Probably dismayed in private, but unable to admit it in public, Subaru UK decided to eschew the saloon altogether and concentrate on the Estate and Outback models, and to shift their focus from the enjoyable 3.0 litre flat 6 to the more fiscally attractive (and well regarded) diesel. As with the Impreza, sales in the UK have tanked to negligible. Indeed, with the sole exception of Switzerland, for long Subaru’s most important European market, sales have reduced to the point that it is not hard to see the marque withdrawing from the market. In the US, though, things are different. Sales of this generation Legacy have shown a significant increase every year. In the first 8 months of 2012, with a market up 15%, Subaru posted an impressive 23% rise in sales, so clearly all is not as bad as I feared. After an absence of a couple of years from the rental fleets, I noticed that a small number of Legacy, Forester and Outback have appeared at Hertz, so I grabbed the keys to a Ruby Red model to see whether Europe is missing out on something worthy and to find out why ever more Americans are buying the car.
Entry level engine in US spec Legacy, as fitted to my test car, is a 2.5 litre flat four developing 170bhp. Although the characteristic sound of this type of engine has been somewhat muted, it is still there and is somewhat evident when accelerating hard or when gathering momentum from a modest speed, such as accelerating up a freeway ramp (sorry, motorway sliproad, but then when in America, speak American!!). Once you stop accelerating, it is quite a quiet unit. It is not overly potent for a car of this size and weight so the Legacy does not feel that rapid, and for anything other than modest increases in speed you are going to have to work it quite hard. The test car proudly declared that it is a Partial Zero Emission Vehicle, which is something I first came across when I tested the previous version of the Legacy a couple of years ago. This is a clever system which improves the emissions performance of the car with no performance penalty by a combination of a finer mesh filter in the catalytic converter to convert and neutralise gases there, an advance on the ignition timing when the car is started from cold which heats the catalyst more quickly so it works almost immediately and a charcoal filter in line with the air filter to prevent fuel and oil vapours from escaping via that route when the engine is turned off. I drove the Legacy almost exactly 300 miles and the end of the test, before refuelling, the fuel gauge was showing just half a tank had been consumed. Stabbing at the calculator, I worked out that I had achieved 30.01mpg US, which equates to 35.8 mpg Imperial, not a bad result for a car of this size, though to be fair it had been driven perhaps more gently (but a lot of stop/start for photos) than some test cars. Manual gearboxes are standard on 2.5i models, but the test car, as with all US rental machines, had the optional automatic. This is a CVT system, but with a manual over-ride, so if you pull the lever sidewards towards you, you can then use the steering wheel paddles to change up and down using some pre-defined ratios. The CVT aspect worked pretty well, proving that these systems are now largely delivering on the promise of always being in the right gear ratio at the right time, as there was none of the jerkiness that you used to find. One of the strongest features of the last model Legacy was its handling, and although it would take a refresher to remind me just how good it was, I am pretty sure that this is an area where the latest model is inferior to its predecessor. There’s nothing wrong with the current model, but it was not as much fun to take on a twisty road as that one was. At least the steering is well judged, with appropriate weighting and feel to it and there is a nice leather wrapped wheel to hold. The ride quality is good, indeed this is probably one area where the Legacy is among class best, certainly on the 16″ alloys of the test car. I had no issues with the brakes, which did their job, and were predictable in the amount of pressure needed on the pedal to make the Subaru stop. The electronic parking brake features in the Legacy now, with a button mounted on the dash to the left of the steering wheel, You push it to set, and then need to put your fingers around the bottom edge and pull slightly to release. There is a large and unsightly sticker alongside it to explain how it works. Nice to know that something that the manufacturers who inflict these wretched devices on us claiming that they are “better” do realise that they are so unintuitive that we need guidance on how to use them. Thankfully as the test car was an automatic, I only felt the need to use it when parking on a steep slope. All round visibility was generally good, and even though the rear window is very steeply raked indeed, because the tail beyond it is so stubby, judging the back of the car was not difficult. The door mirrors offered a good field of vision.
Subaru interiors were traditionally not their strong point, but the last generation Legacy was the one that corrected that, and all subsequent models from Impreza to Tribeca have been much more class competitive in this regard. However, standards move on, and I am not convinced by that in this generation Legacy. They have certainly tried, using an inlay of brushed aluminium around the centre of the dash, centre console and door casings, which is something that Audi do so well, but here it just looks cheap and tawdry. There is a very stylised gear selector as well which is somewhat at odds with the very conventional rest of the interior. At least they avoid the button fest that Ford inflict on the Focus. The dials are all presented under a single cowl, with a large speedo and rev counter flanked on the one side by the fuel gauge and the other side by a fuel efficiency gauge. I struggled to see the value of this, as there was no scale, just a graduated set of markings from – to + and the needle swung wildly from one extreme to the other as the gradient of the road changed even a few degrees. At least the other dials are easy to read. The centre of the dash has a large flat surface and then almost under the base of the windscreen is a thin line of digital displays for outside temperature, range til empty and the digital clock. They are not that easy to read at a glance. In the centre of the dash there is a relatively simple AM/FM and CD audio unit and below this are the rather fiddly to use switches and controls for the climate control. There are repeaters for some of the audio unit functions on the steering wheel boss. Switches for the heated seats are in the centre console behind the gearlever and in front of the cup holders. Everything else is controlled by the column stalks. Everything feels pleasant enough in operation, but the overall effect is still not one of particular quality, with the dash itself comprising quite a hard plastic moulding.
I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of space in the back of this Subaru. Even with the passenger seat set well back, there is plenty of legroom, and headroom is not in short supply either. A third passenger would fit quite easily across the width of the car, and although there is a four wheel drive system there is no significant intrusion from a transmission tunnel to rob them of leg room. The boot is less generous. It is bigger than you might fear from the very small overhang at the back of the car, but the boot lid itself is not that large, so getting bulky items in might be a challenge. Assuming it is not, the boot does reach quite a long way back to the seat backrests. These can be folded down, simply dropping onto the seat cushion, to gain extra length should that be required. You could squeeze quite a few odds and ends under the main boot floor, as there is plenty of space around the spare wheel. Inside the cabin all the door bins have a moulding at their front which would allow them to accommodate a large bottle, there is a reasonable sized glovebox, a small lidded cubby between the audio unit and climate controls and a deeper unlidded one at the base of the dash, as well as space under the central armrest. Rear passengers get map pockets in the back of the front seats and the door bins.
There is no badging on the Legacy to indicate which version of the car you have got, and there are engine and trim options available. In addition to the 2.5i engine which constitutes most of the sales there is a far more potent 2.5 turbo engine offered in the GT (though this has been deleted for the 2013 model year cars) and there is also the option of the 3.6 litre H6 motor. Basic cars have no trim designation. Next up the range is the version with which I was supplied, the Premium. This comes with alloy wheels instead of the wheel covers of the entry car, a leather wrapped steering wheel with audio controls, a power adjustable driver’s seat and a USB port for the audio unit. Next up is the Limited, and this adds 17″ alloys, leather seats, seat heaters (though these were on my test car), a Harman-Kardon sound system with satellite radio, heated door mirrors and dual zone climate control. The 2.5 GT Limited brings with it the turbo engine, and also adds a sun roof, and fog lights, as well as 18″ wheels. The 3.6R model range simply substitutes the 2.5 turbo engine for the H6 larger unit, with Premium and Limited models kitted out to the same specification as the 2.5i cars. On the road price for my test car was $22,595. The PZEV feature adds $300 to the cost of cars without it.
Having spent a couple of days and 300 miles with the Legacy, I concluded it is a pleasant enough car, but apart from that distinctive engine note, it has lost most of the other Subaru characteristics that were so defining. Maybe that is why US sales have risen, as consumers in that market simply do not want anything that is radically different. Equally, I have to conclude that Subaru UK were probably right not to bother with the Legacy saloon for the UK market, as I can see that it would neither appeal to many of the premium badge buyers and equally be shunned by those who want a non-premium value for money vehicle. If you see one at the rental car company, though, it could be worth a try. One warning: Hertz classify it as a small SUV, thanks to the four wheel drive system, so if you book that class of car, expecting something more spacious like a Forester, or a Rogue or a RAV4, I think you would have every right to feel cheated. It really ought to be in the same class as the Altima, the Fusion and the Camry, and against those cars it is a worthy and still slightly quirky alternative.