by Jonathan Ingram

The world's first sport utility sedan.

Base Price $23,890
As Tested $26,090

A sporty sedan that can handle the backcountry makes a lot of sense, especially for Subaru. To create this new Legacy Sport Utility Sedan, Subaru started with the all-wheel-drive Legacy sedan, raised it off the ground a bit, modified the suspension, and added visual cues to give it an outdoorsy image. More than the sum of its parts, it's a roomy sedan that's enjoyable to drive and capable of taking on the worst roads in the world.

This rugged new sedan is based on Subaru's big success with the Legacy Outback wagon. The Outback is simply a Legacy wagon pumped up a bit to better handle rugged terrain. It does the job magnificently and people have been snapping them up. Subaru's sales soared after launching the Legacy Outback as "the world's first sport utility wagon" back in 1996. In fact, few people buy the standard Legacy wagon anymore -- most buy the Outback. For the past few years, Subaru has focused its efforts on hybrid vehicles and its Outback, Outback Sport and Forester have been hugely successful. So it was only natural that it introduce this Legacy SUS and call it "the world's first sport utility sedan."

There's always the threat a new hybrid could become a marketing mongrel. But the success of the Outback and Forester indicate that there are plenty of folks out there who need to get down nasty roads or through deep snow and don't want to drive a big, ill-handling, unwieldy trucks every day.

Walkaround

At first glance, the Legacy Sport Utility Sedan looks more sporty than refined. The raised platform of the SUS, which translates into 7.3 inches of ground clearance, and the 15-inch, five-spoke alloy wheels give it an aggressive demeanor. Combined with a wheelbase of 103.5 inches, this sedan looks stocky and stout.

Styling underscores the off-road intent. Body cladding that climbs to mid-door height evokes a style that's more in keeping with Nike trail-running shoes than the Ferragamos associated with luxury sports sedans. The cladding wraps around the bumpers and is set off by thick door guards. The complementary slate color reinforces the handsome, outdoors look.

An extended front valence helps offset the stocky look of a short wheelbase with a relatively tall ride height. Large, low-mounted fog lamps are fully barred for rock protection. Both the lower and upper air intakes are discreet, with more grille work mounted upstairs. A big hood-mounted air scoop reinforces the sporty intent of the double overhead-cam engine. Combined with flush-mounted halogen headlights with diamond-cut reflectors, there is no mistaking the Subaru heritage.

The greenhouse features an elegant long arch, with slender A-pillars, flush front and rear side windows and a C-pillar mounted almost behind the rear wheel. The slight fastback appearance leads to a short rear deck and deck-mounted rear spoiler that is high, but well integrated.

The Inside Story

Inside, the Legacy SUS Limited version is visually distinguished by the mock wood trim for the push button windows and the automatic transmission shifter. While the shift is located in the standard center console, the window buttons are located well forward and just beneath the door sills. At first glance, the location seems odd. But the window buttons are very easy to find and use with a natural arm movement. The wood grain trim looks nice, but is available only with the Limited version. A unique standard dimension to the interior is the use of extra padding that reaches in slender arches from the floor up around the armrests, adding comfort and texture to the interior's appearance.

Not surprisingly, the overall interior design is dedicated to utility, although the spare treatment has a sense of elegance. The greenhouse that looks pleasing from the outside provides excellent sight lines from the driver's seat. Subaru paid express attention to this aspect of the ergonomics and succeeded, right down to the rear spoiler that does not interfere with sight lines in the rear-view mirror. Also, the low mounting position of the engine at the front gives an excellent view of the path ahead, increasingly important once off road.

A clear view of the large analog tachometer and speedometer, which dominate the driver's side of the dash, results from the well-placed, wrapped steering wheel whose top half is unencumbered by spokes. The fog lamp, defroster and cruise control are located below the driver's side dash, with all other controls on the stalk. The overhead map lights are easy to reach, bright and focused. The side view mirrors have their own defroster units as well as electronic adjustment.

The heating/ventilation/air conditioning system and stereo are solidly ensconced in the center console to absorb the jarring of rough roads, but are a bit of a stretch for the front passenger. The radio comes standard with a weather band.

Seats provide firm support in a variety of driving situations, particularly on bumpy rides. Back seat roominess is adequate. Neither driver nor passenger are bothered by stepping into the higher than usual platform.

The $23,890 Legacy Sport Utility Sedan comes with a high level of standard equipment. The $26,090 Limited model comes fully loaded; the only options available are a CD player or CD changer.

Ride & Drive

Subaru's SUS handles well on paved and unpaved roads. It offers quick throttle response, and it's stable at high speeds. It's also a very comfortable car. At least part of the credit for these benefits goes to its solid construction, brilliant all-wheel-drive system, and the design and placement of its horizontally opposed 2.5-liter engine.

Quick throttle response more than compensates any lack of power from the 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine. The smoothness of the wondrous little boxer engine makes it a joy for cruising at low or high speeds. The inherent design of the horizontally opposed engine -- similar to that of a Porsche 911 -- allows it to be mounted lower and farther forward than an inline four-cylinder engine. This allows for equal-length driveshafts mounted perpendicularly to the front wheels. This direct line from engine and wheels eliminates torque steer and dramatically reduces friction loss for improved efficiency. That means with just 162 pounds-feet of torque and 165 horsepower, the engine delivers good thrust and the steering is unaffected by hard acceleration.

This thrust comes predominantly from the front wheels. The electronically controlled torque split shifts power to the rear wheels whenever needed -- often under hard acceleration or on slippery surfaces.

All SUS models come standard with an automatic transmission. The electronically controlled transmission responds smoothly and works closely with Subaru's compact and highly efficient all-wheel-drive system. The four-wheel disc brakes, with dual piston calipers at the front, provided excellent stopping without any pulling or grabbing. And ABS is standard.

At the top speed of 110 mph, the SUS is as stable a vehicle as one will find. It provides sure-footed handling at lower speeds. Turning in to corners at low or high speeds is smooth and predictable, though not especially sharp. Subaru's strategy of combining stiff shocks with long spring travel makes for a comfortable ride. The rigid platform allows the suspension to do its job precisely to provide good grip on bumpy roads.

Although we tested the SUS in the South in the absence of ice or snow, heavy rain provided an adequate test of handling in adverse conditions. A torrent of water while attending a race at Sebring International Raceway seemed a mere inconvenience to the Subaru; we switched on the windshield wipers and proceeded on with no worries. The variable speed power steering, sure grip of all-wheel drive and good visibility made a thunderstorm seem like this car's cup of tea. Some muddy, pot-holed ranch roads we discovered in central Florida gave the independent, long-travel suspension a workout. These nasty roads were taken in comfort at low speeds and at higher speeds the SUS bounded through them with aplomb and sure-footed predictability. The Subaru felt secure on the long drive back to Atlanta.

Final Word

The ultimate use of the Subaru's Sport Utility Sedan may be a desire -- or need -- to go off the asphalt path. But its sure-footed performance can be counted on in variety of weather conditions, making it attractive even for those not seeking the mud and snow.

The SUS competes well with other comparable sedans offering performance incentives. Even if the high-riding, all-wheel drive chassis is not desired for recreational driving off road or for reaching that cabin way back in the woods or up in the mountains, the Legacy SUS is a good value because it does all the things expected of a car in this class.

© New Car Test Drive, Inc.

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