Subaru is on a roll right now. No, not in the UK. Most definitely not in the UK if you look at their sales figures. The last month’s data that I have to hand shows that in February 2018, admittedly a low point because of the wait for the new plates in March, they sold just 62 cars. And ignoring Switzerland, the position across the rest of Europe is not much different. But it is in America. In March 2018, the company sold 58,097 vehicles, making them the 8th best-selling brand in a vast market. Annual sales have been increasing steadily in America every year, and now top out at over 700,000. With the exception of the car being tested here, which is not offered in the UK, the models are the same in both geos, with the usual differences in available engines and specs, so why is the marque so well-received in one market and finding it so hard on the other side of the Atlantic? Owner satisfaction has always been high, with those who have bought the brand liking the distinctive Subaru way of doing things, which has always strayed from convention in a number of regards. But the sales decline in Europe and increase in the US largely comes about from a fundamental change in policy, returning the marque more to its roots, of providing solid everyday transport with a difference, as opposed to one that leveraged the image built up from high performance models like the Impreza Turbo and the glory days of winning the World Rally Championship with the late Colin McRae, Richard Burns and other stars proving the age-old adage of “win on Sunday and sell on Monday”. Although you can still buy a car badged WRX, these days without the Impreza prefix, few people do, and the range comprises a series of practical saloons, estates, hatches and crossovers, all with standard four-wheel drive. The model names are familiar: Impreza, XV Crosstrek, Legacy, Outback and Forester and each has seen a refresh every few years. The latest Impreza and XV models have just been released in the UK, and a new Forester was being presented at the New York Auto Show at the exact time that I was driving this test car, leaving the Legacy and Outback as the oldest products in the range, though there was a refresh for the 2018 model year.
Both date back to 2014 when they were presented at the Chicago Auto Show, going on sale later in the year as a 2015 model. A Concept model had been displayed at a number of Auto Shows the previous year, to mark the 25th anniversary of the nameplate but the production cars looked quite different, much more closely related to the models they replaced. This time, there was no Legacy Estate, or Wagon in US speak, though the reality is that the Outback is essentially just that, with a raised ride height and a few other additions to increase its ability to cope with rough and off-road conditions, and to rival the likes of the Audi AllRoad models. Whilst it is available in the UK, you don’t see them very often. The decision was taken not bring the latest Legacy saloon in at all. That was based on very low sales relative to the Estate version of the previous car, as the market shifts away from the traditional saloon especially in cars of this size and price. Although this has happened to an extent in the US, the full-sized saloon car sector is still massive, dominated by Toyota’s Camry, Honda’s Accord and the Nissan Altima, with another half dozen competitors also notching up big sales every month. The Legacy can’t match that, and indeed of all the models that Subaru sells in the US, this is the one that finds fewest buyers, with around 3900 new examples being registered in March 2018, compared to nearly 17,000 of the Outback. With tough competition in its class, Subaru updated the Legacy for 2018 with minor styling updates to the front and rear ends, retuned suspension to make the car better to drive and interior upgrades including the latest technology in an updated infotainment system.
For the last few years, Subaru models have been a rare sighting in the Hertz fleet, as the relative lack of reviews of their models on this site evidences. I managed to get behind the wheel of an Outback and the now superceded XV Crosstrek model on my trip in September 2017, but in December, did not see a sample example on site. This time, I did spot a new Impreza early in the trip, but it was in neither the returns area nor parked up ready for rental and it sat where it was for at least a couple of days. A day later I spied a blue Legacy in the returns area, but did not see it again, right until the end of the trip. When I went to collect the last of a series of cars, on a Saturday morning, the Hertz LAX facility was well-stocked. I had chosen a Chevy Tahoe from the cars lined up in the Presidents’ Circle area, as the only car that I had not driven, and was about to take it away when I spotted that in the line of an array of other full-sized cars was a blue Legacy – very likely the same one that l had spotted earlier in the trip. As it would likely be much easier to source a Tahoe on another occasion, I decided to move over to the Subaru instead. It turned out to be one of the 2018 model year cars, first registered in January, but with nearly 12.000 miles already accumulated. Having driven most of the Legacy’s US market rivals, I was curious to see how this car would compare, and also to see how much Subaru-ness was left, something that I thought had been diminished in the last Legacy I had driven back in 2012.
The raw ingredients for something a little different are still there. Symmetrical all-wheel drive is standard in the Legacy, and the firm persists with horizontally-opposed engines, meaning that the under bonnet view is quite different from most other cars and also because the lower centre of gravity should endow it with better handling and road-holding. The test car had the 2.5 litre 4 cylinder engine, which was carried forward from its predecessor, with a small power uplift, so it now puts out 175 bhp. It is connected to a CVT Lineartronic gearbox. The distinctive sound of a Subaru is less evident when you start it up and at low speeds, but rev the engine harder, and you will definitely hear it. And you will be revving the engine hard, as the only way to get decent performance out of the car is to work it quite hard. Whilst this will avoid you been embarrassed out on the road, endowing the Legacy with sufficient acceleration for most situations, it does mean that the car gets quite noisy. Although some of the Legacy’s rivals have around the same output, they do not need to be worked so hard, and are quieter as well. Although there is a CVT gearbox fitted, there are paddles on the column as well, which allow you to change into a set of pre-defined “gears” yourself if you want. Left to is own devices, the CVT was one of the better ones of its type, but I could not help but wonder if it was the reason why you had to be quite so forceful with the accelerator pedal. That said, once you get to a cruising speed, the gearing is such that the engine was spinning at just 2000 rpm at 75 mph, and at this point, the Legacy was quiet and smooth. The characteristic frameless windows were foresaken a generation back, and as well as the engine note largely disappearing into the background, there was little wind noise and intrusion from the combination of road and tyres was also well suppressed. I did one very long journey in the Legacy, mostly at a steady freeway cruise speed, which probably helped with the fuel economy. 553 miles required a total of 17.75 gallons over the course of a couple of days. which computes to 31.1 mpg US or 37.22 mpg Imperial, a good result, and slightly than I achieved with the last generation car.
Despite the potential offered by the all-wheel drive, the Legacy felt pretty ordinary to drive. There’s keyless starting, which is always convenient and a nice chunky leather steering wheel. The electric system it is connected to is set-up to provide some feel, whilst requiring relatively little effort to turn the wheel. There are certainly rivals – notably from Mazda and Ford – who provide a better setup, I think. There’s plenty of grip and the Legacy stays pretty flat in the corners, but you have to conclude that this is setup for everyday motoring, from a handling point of view, rather than to appeal to the enthusiast. The all-wheel drive would be of huge benefit in bad weather situations, and indeed a lot of those US Subaru sales are in the snow-belt, where the model has an advantage of almost all its rivals, few of which even offer this as an option. 225/50 R18 tyres were fitted. The ride was generally good, with the Subaru coping pretty well with the varied and often poor surfaces of California’s roads, though as the surfaces worsened, so did the ride quality. The brake pedal initially seemed quite mushy, needing firm pressure before anything happened but after that, the brakes were well up to par. There is an electronic handbrake, fitted on the dash. Subaru scores particularly well on the safety front, and as well as features inherent in the design which mean should protect you should the unthinkable happen, there were plenty of secondary systems fitted, Lane departure warning and Lane Keep Assist generated beeps when you crossed white lines without indicating, and you also blind spot monitoring, rear traffic cross alert, a rear-view camera, and a collision avoidance system. You can turn most of these off if you want. Visibility was generally good, with a decent field of view from the mirrors, though the blind spot warning was useful, as cars did disappear when alongside, and the camera helped in judging exactly where the back of the car was.
You never chose a Subaru in the past based on the quality of the interior trim. Subaru have made significant efforts to improve matters in recent years, but despite the presence here of plenty of softer-toucher surfaces than used to feature, they’ve only been partially successful. The problem with this test car was that there were simply far too many materials and textures on the dash and door casings, some of them better than others, but as a whole, it looked a bit over-done. In this trim, leather is used on a large part of the door casings and part of the dash, which also has some fairly small wooden inlays and there are metallised-look highlighters in all the usual places. The cheapening comes from the two different sorts of gloss black, which surround the infotainment display screen and the buttons on the steering wheel, and in a less glossy form on the centre console. The combination of the lettering on these and the black itself looked rather cheap and tacky to me, and although all the graphics in the instruments and the display screen were clear and easy to read, they also did not look as “premium” as Subaru probably though they would. There are two digital instruments, with fuel gauge and water temperature set in the lower part of these dials, which are dark blue lined. Between them is a rather simple display which had a graphic for power versus fuel economy and a compass. Below this was the gear selector display and then at the bottom, in a place which I could not read thanks to the relative position of the seat and wheel, was the odometer and trip computer. Twin column stalks operate indicators and lights in the left and wipers on the right of the wheel. There are a lot of buttons on the steering wheel boss, with those for the cruise control inset in the lower left spoke edge as well as audio repeaters on the spokes themselves. The centre of the dash contains the Infotainment display, a newly upgraded unit as part of the 2018 update. It is touch sensitive, and there are lots of functions in it as well as the expected AM/FM and XM Satellite radio with HD radio function. You also get navigation, and a series of functions including Pandora, Apple Car Play and Android Auto which rely on your smartphone being paired up, it all being based on Subaru’s StarLink which includes voice activation. Some of the data panels would show the weather forecast, average fuel prices in the vicinity, as well as all manner of setting and service info for the car. As well as the touch screen, there are a number of buttons surrounding the unit, though the one to select Radio, to the upper right of the screen was a bit of a stretch from the driver’s seat. Below this unit are the knobs and buttons for the dual zone climate control, which were a bit fiddly, but proved quite effective on a day when I did eventually find sun and heat. The overall effect is of a slightly fussy and slightly cheap looking dash, though the fit and finish of the materials was good and a definite improvement on previous generation Subaru models.
Seat adjustment on this trim of the Legacy was electric, with switches on the side of the seat, including a lumbar adjuster. Heating elements for both front seats and they were covered in a nice leather upholstery. Having spent a long driving day in the car, I can attest to the overall comfort. The steering column, manually adjusted, had a telescoping reach/range as well as in/out to it, so I could get the driving position I wanted, though as noted above, there was a bit of the instrument cluster that I could not see as a consequence. The glass sunroof did not seem to have much of an effect on the amount of headroom. Rear seat occupants should be equally happy, Despite the sloping rear roof line, headroom was sufficient that my head cleared the roof by a couple of inches. There is a small central tunnel, but this will not be much of a limitation for a middle seat occupant. Legroom was in generous supply, and even with the front seat set well back, there should be enough space for adult legs. There is a drop down central armrest, which has cup holders in the upper surface, and there were heating elements for these seats as well.
The boot proved to be a good size, too. It is wide across the back of the car, and is quite long from front to back. There is more space under the boot floor, and you can get a longer load platform by folding the rear seat backrests forward. Provision for odds and ends in the cabin is reasonable. The glovebox is a reasonable size, and there is a small cubby under the central armrest, as well as one under a lid in front the gearlever. The door bins are not that generous, with those on the rear doors limited more or less to the form factor of a large bottle. There are map pockets in the back of the front seats.
There are five trim choices for the Subaru Legacy, and with no external badging, I can’t be sure which one I received. It certainly was not the top of the range car, the 3.6R Limited, as a look under the bonnet enabled me to count the cylinders, proving that I had one of the 4 cylinder models. The car was well-equipped, but with Subaru offering various option packages, it is possible that it was one of the lesser models, with these added, though having reviewed what comes as standard, and ticking every item off from the list of features, I am reasonably sure that I had a 2.5i Limited. Hertz having acquired something rather more plush than the usual near to the bottom of the range variants that tend to feature in rental car fleets. It certainly was not an entry level car, the Legacy 2.5i, which has a starting price of $22,195. This comes standard with manual air conditioning, a 6-way manually adjustable driver’s seat, Bluetooth, a USB port, and the Starlink infotainment system with a 6.5-inch touch screen, Android Auto, and Apple CarPlay and a 6 speaker audio system. It doesn’t offer any other notable infotainment or driver assistance features. The Legacy 2.5i Premium starts at $24,295. In addition to the base trim’s features, the Premium comes with tri-level heated front seats. dual-zone climate-control system, a larger 7 inch high-resolution touchscreen, voice commands for most functions (including for the climate-control, phone, and audio functions), Satellite Radio, an upgraded 6-speaker sound system, a leather wrapped steering wheel & gear lever, and an 8-way power adjustable driver’s seat. You can add a moonroof for $1,195. An option package that includes Subaru’s EyeSight, blind spot monitoring, and rear cross traffic alert costs $1,545. There’s also an option package for $3,140 that includes the moonroof, the EyeSight package, and an upgraded Starlink system with a larger touch screen and navigation. Next up is the Legacy 2.5i Sport, added to the range for 2017, which has a starting price of $26,345. The Sport comes with a moonroof, push-button start, and some styling upgrades including 18″ alloys and a rear spoiler. One option package is available for $2,095. It includes EyeSight, blind spot monitoring, lane change assist, reverse automatic braking, and an upgraded Starlink system with a larger touch screen and navigation. The Legacy 2.5i Limited starts at $29,095 and comes with leather upholstery, matt faux wood trim inlays, heated front and rear seats, blind spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alert, and a 12-speaker Harman Kardon audio system, dual USB ports in the centre storage area, a Blind Spot Detection system with Lane Change Assist & Cross Traffic Alert, and two-position memory for the Driver’s seat and exterior mirrors. The Limited offers the same option package you can get in the 2.5i Sport. Top of the range is the Legacy 3.6R Limited which has a starting price of $31,945. This trim is the only one to come with the six-cylinder engine, and it is otherwise nearly identical to the 2.5i Limited. The same option package is available, but it costs $500 less in the 3.6R Limited.
I handed the Legacy back very pleased I had had the chance to test it, but not entirely convinced by it. There’s nothing really wrong with it, though it could usefully do with a bit more power, but equally, there was nothing that really stood out to make you want to select it over a dozen or so rivals, all of which have their strengths and few weaknesses (yes, even the much derided Toyota Camry is a decent car these days!), as the things that the Legacy does well are also things that many of its rival do at least as well, if not better. I think the answer is that if you lived somewhere in the snow belt, the all-wheel drive system would prove to the reason for selecting a Legacy over everything else, but if you aren’t really going to get any benefit from it, then it confers no particular advantage to the car which leaves a worthy but ultimately undistinguished car. It will appeal to the Subaru faithful, but conquest sales will be hard to achieve. On that basis, the decision not to try to sell it in the UK, where the brand’s presence is so weak now, looks sensible, even if the only way to sell more cars is to have things to sell in the first place. But in America, if you see one at the rental car facility, and want to try something different, then by all means take it and revel in those Subaru uniques that are still there even if they have been diluted somewhat in the interests of wider market acceptance.