With the introduction of the turbo 2.5-liter engine in the Legacy last year, Subie performance nuts finally had what they wanted - almost. The Legacy still lacked some of the added performance hardware to take full advantage of the new engine's added power, and finally for 2007 it all comes together in a more cohesive package, dubbed the Spec.B (note the strategic lack of a space).
The 2007 Spec.B, which goes on sale in August, attempts to be to the Legacy range what the WRX STi is to the Impreza range - a sport sedan that's geared toward high-performance. While it doesn't sacrifice nearly as much comfort as the STi, nor does it have the STi's peaky, high-boost engine, the Spec.B does get serious hardware from the STi, in the way of a heavy-duty six-speed manual gearbox, along with a four-pinion front differential and a rear Torsen limited-slip differential.
The 2.5-liter turbocharged four carries over into the Spec.B with no significant changes versus the GT Limited model that otherwise tops off the model range. A new-design turbocharger is used for '07, though boost remains the same, at a peak of 13.5 psi (versus 14.5 psi in the STi). Actual output of the engine doesn't change for 2007 either, though it's now rated 243 hp (versus 250) and 241 lb-ft of torque (versus 250 for '06) due to the new SAE system.
Serious performance cars don't have automatics, right? Well, the Spec.B plays to that, offering only a six-speed manual. If you still want the turbo powertrain, a five-speed automatic is available on the GT Limited.
Six-speed or sayonara
The new six-speed manual transmission offered in the Spec.B is a great gearbox, though. It's basically the same unit as in the WRX STi, with short, precise gates, but it's been modified for smoother shift action and a lighter clutch pedal. Altogether, it works very well with the torque curve of the engine - sixth gear about equivalent to fifth gear on the five speed (which is still offered in other Legacy/GT models), so it allows third, fourth, and fifth gear to be a bit lower. At 70 mph, the six-speed's fifth is noticeably deeper into the engine's power curve than fifth on the five-speed. Sixth is a relaxed ratio for Interstate cruising, though a downshift isn't always needed to squeeze in with faster-moving traffic.
The 2.5-liter turbo has that same mechanically exposed, sewing-machine sound in gentle driving that's characterized Subaru flat fours for years, but it develops into a nice growl on hard acceleration. With variable valve timing and a relative lack of turbo lag, it has the flexibility for everyday driving.
Electronic, "by-wire" throttles present new opportunities for fine tuning the way a car behaves for a particular purpose, and that's where the big news for '07 comes in. Just as many off-road-capable SUVs now offer a more delicate throttle tip-in when in 4WD Low, Subaru has a new system that offers several modes suited to different driving demands. What the so-called SI-Drive essentially provides is three different throttle calibrations, with the engine control maps changed as well. The modes of SI-Drive are accessed with a dial located on the center console just behind the shifter (placed much like the controller for BMW's iDrive), and can be selected at any time during driving. The three modes - Intelligent, Sport, and Sport Sharp - are indicated by an in-dash display in the lower part of the tachometer, showing a rough graph of how the throttle-response curve is altered.
The latest-generation BMW M5 and M6 has a system called Mdrive that allows 400 hp and a more relaxed throttle in one mode, while another mode allows 500 hp, a more aggressive engine character and throttle, and several other performance settings to change its personality. Sound familiar?
Subaru's system, at least so far, only affects the powertrain. Intelligent mode cuts off about 20 percent of overall power and torque, lowers boost and smoothes it out, and is designed to feel much like the normally aspirated 2.5-liter engine. The mode has the gentlest throttle tip-in, and is to be used for more economical driving or in slippery conditions. Sport mode then allows full engine power, and a more linear response leading up to it, with a slightly more aggressive tip-in than Intelligent. Finally, there's Sport Sharp (designated by an S# on the dial), which changes the throttle attitude to be very aggressive, with full power and boost available earlier - with some smoothness sacrificed. Subaru officials said that S# won't bring faster raw acceleration times, but it would improve times during maneuvers that require lifting off the gas and getting back on it quickly. There's much less of a difference between S and S sharp.
While SI Drive doesn't actually boost the engine's peak power or torque, it does allow quite different driving experiences from the same car. In our Spec.B test car, we noticed that when making a gentle standing start, throttle/clutch coordination was improved in Intelligent mode, and the car was easier to drive smoothly in the lower gears; while at the opposite end, in S# mode, the six-speed was very difficult to drive smoothly in the lower gears due to the on-off nature of the throttle.
By the way, SI-Drive will be available on all Legacy and Outback models with the turbo engine. In a brief stint in a GT Limited with the five-speed automatic, we found the difference between modes wasn't quite as striking, though SI-Drive does alter the transmission's shift program and we did notice that downshifts were quicker in S#.
We can see how SI-Drive has its place on a model like the Spec.B, but we were left wondering, since these differences between modes are rather technical, will the typical Outback buyer understand, or even care, what the modes do, and will dealerships will be educating buyers on what each respective mode does and when to use it?
Help at the pump, too
In this time of pinching pennies at the pump, SI-Drive has another surprise advantage: When used in Intelligent mode it actually increases fuel economy slightly. In another instance of Subaru chasing that 'ultimate driving machine' from Munich, all Legacys (and Outbacks) with the 2.5 Turbo engine now get an analog Eco gauge, just below the speedo. It behaves much like the gauges in BMWs that relate to instant gas mileage, but it's actually a little more useful than that. There's simply a middle, zero point, with plus and minus on either side. Using injector data as well as engine vacuum, the gauge changes its behavior based on previous driving. For instance, if the vehicle has been driven aggressively, then relaxed driving will initially show heavily on the plus side; on the other hand, if the vehicle has been driven quite economically, it will become increasingly difficult to keep the needle on the plus side. Engineers said that such a gauge seemed like the best choice, as it allows the driver to constantly improve his or her driving. The gauge's log clears its data with each fill-up. With the Intelligent mode plus the Eco gauge, Legacy engineers said that a typical driver will see an overall fuel-economy gain of about two miles per gallon in nearly identical driving situations by following the gauge while in Intelligent mode.
But now, to the rest of the goodies in the Spec.B: The GT Limited's already competent sport-tuned suspension is replaced with Bilstein inverted front struts and control arms in front, and a rear multi-link setup, both with some aluminum components to reduce weight - along with an aluminum hood and liftback (wagon only). In addition, the Spec.B gets Bridgestone Potenza RE050A summer performance tires and additional aerodynamic ground effects. Spec.B models, along with GT Limiteds, have a quicker steering ratio and bigger brakes than other Legacys. Spec.B models also have a standard VDC stability control system as well as a Torsen torque-sensing rear limited-slip differential.
Despite all this weight-watching, the Spec.B actually weighs about 100 pounds more than the GT Limited. This is because the Spec.B's packaging is a bit conflicted, caught in a role that's part performance-honed niche-appeal and part loaded-to-the-gills Legacy flagship. For instance, the Spec.B includes a standard navigation system, power everything, dual climate control, the top sound system, and plenty of other goodies. C'mon guys; we're still holding out for the STi equivalent - throw a lean rally version out to the real drivers.
Crisp, but comfortable
And given that, it's not much of a surprise as to how the Spec.B rides and handles - much like the GT Limited - a little bit harder, but still with decent comfort from larger potholes and frost heaves while at the same time maintaining excellent body control in transitional maneuvers, whether low-speed esses and high-speed lane changes. The summer performance tires also help make turn-in sharper, and bring a little more feedback to the steering wheel.
The Spec.B gets an exclusive interior appearance, with Charcoal Gray leather trimmed upholstery and Dusk Blue Alcantara inserts, and brushed-alloy pedal covers and dead pedal. The Alcantara seats are a step up over last year's leather upholstery; they're supple, grippy, and slightly better contoured with deeper lower cushions and a bit more lateral support. All Legacys get a 60/40-split folding rear seatback with trunk pass-through for '07 as well. GT Limited and Spec.B models get electroluminescent analog gauges with red-lit indicator arms.
The only most significant downsides to the Legacy are a backseat that's just not as big as it looks to be, and an interior boom that comes and goes depending on the pavement surface. It's a problem on many sport sedans with extremely stiff bodies, and the Spec.B with its stiff-sidewall performance tires is no exception. If the surface is uniformly coarse, the boom is most noticeable, and could be an issue on long-distance hauls. We also noticed it in a GT Limited wagon, but it was a lower frequency that wasn't as fatigue-inducing.
Speaking of booming, the powerful sound system now has a built in auxiliary jack (with a 12-volt power outlet near) for easy iPod attachment, and it also has the capability for XM Satellite Radio, and also playback of MP3 and WMA files. When switching between modes, such as between iPod input and FM, the system automatically adjusts the base volume level so as to avoid drastic differences.
The Legacy should still be high on shopping lists for safety; it comes with standard side and side-curtain airbags, along with active front head restraints, and was recently given the IIHS's first-ever "Top Safety Pick Gold" award.
Subaru looks set to continue its move upmarket and establish itself as more of a performance-safety-technology automaker with future products that include a first-ever diesel boxer engine, as well as adaptation of Toyota's hybrid system to Subie's all-wheel-drive system. For now, with the buffed-up performance hardware, SI-Drive, and interior upgrades, the Spec.B looks ready to take on Audi head-on and BMW is now in its sights.
In fact, with the Spec.B, Subaru is well into BMW's price neighborhood. For about the same price, you could opt for a 325xi sedan, which, admittedly isn't as well equipped or as distinct inside. On the other hand, the Spec.B is just a variation of a car that starts at about ten grand less. But the Subaru feels great, is just as tightly put together as ever, and is, image aside, worth the money.
The comfy Spec.B has the personality of a Euro-sport sedan, not at all similar in feel to the edgy STi, and it might not give hard-core performance-heads quite the high-performance Legacy they want. But those looking for a satisfying all-weather sport sedan should put the Subaru near the top of the list.
2007 Subaru Legacy GT Spec.B
Price: est. $34,000
Engine: 2.5-liter horizontally opposed four, 243 hp/241 lb-ft
Drivetrain: Six-speed manual transmission, all-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 186.2 x 68.1 x 56.1 in
Wheelbase: 105.1 in
Curb weight: 3515 lb
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): N/A
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags, front-seat side-impact airbags, side-curtain airbags, front-seat active head restraints, anti-lock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution
Major standard equipment: Dual-zone automatic climate control; power windows/locks/mirrors; memory power seats; heated front seats and side mirrors; cruise control; tilt steering; power moonroof; 60/40-split folding rear seatback; in-dash navigation system; steering-wheel-mounted audio controls; 120-watt, six-speaker AM/FM/CD/MP3/XM-ready sound with six-disc in-dash changer and aux input; summer performance tires
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles, including roadside assistance
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