It's not surprising that the Subaru Legacy is one of the best-kept secrets in the midsize car market.
Even as a station wagon, where competitors aren't quite so numerous, the Legacy is pitted against a few of the most popular cars in the business, including the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry and Ford Taurus wagons.
With a smaller vehicle, a smaller dealer network and smaller marketing resources, it's hard for the Legacy to sustain much visibility.
Nevertheless, the Legacy Wagon has been a strong seller, particularly against other imports. And when you factor in all-wheel drive, a Subaru specialty, the Legacy Wagon is the national sales leader.
Though there aren't many AWD wagons contending for this title, it's clear that Subaru is doing something right.
And with fresh styling, a little more power and a longer wheelbase, the Legacy Wagon has even more appeal.
When the original Legacy made its debut five years ago, it alienated some Subaru buyers. The brand had built its image as an inexpensive car built to stay that way.
The old Loyale wagons were your basic no-frills transportation, and looked it. They were, if anything, an anti-fashion statement. The Legacy, on the other hand, was stylish enough to park alongside such competitors as the Accord.
The all-new 1995 is even more handsome. It retains a relatively square shape that company officials prefer to call "distinctive European lines."
The physical changes in the '95 continue beneath the skin. The wheelbase has grown a full 2 in., to 103.5 in. The vehicle itself is an inch wider, 2 in. taller, and 2 in. longer. It's also lighter than the previous model by 150 lb., a tribute to good engineering.
Among the more noteworthy safety features, the Legacy Wagon comes standard with dual airbags and 5-mph bumpers. The vehicle also meets the new 1997 federal side-impact standards.
One small disappointment: Anti-lock brakes (ABS) are available only with AWD as part of a $3000 safety package that also includes 4-wheel disc brakes and cruise control.
This package is standard equipment in all but the basic Legacy Wagon, however. We agree with Subaru that AWD is an active safety feature, and this has always been a Subaru strong suit.
For '95, Subaru is capitalizing on the Legacy's station wagon appeal by offering no fewer than six variations. There are four regular Legacy model options - base, L, LS and LSi - and three special packages with AWD as an integral feature.
The package deals include the Legacy Brighton Wagon aimed at budget-minded buyers who want the extra traction of AWD, the Legacy Outback for buyers whose get-away-from-it-all lifestyles include occasionally getting away from pavement, and the Postal Wagon that features a right-hand driving position for rural letter carriers.
Our test vehicle was the midlevel Legacy LS Wagon, which included the AWD/ABS package in its base price, as well as a truly impressive array of comfort and convenience features.
Here's where Subaru has made some of the biggest improvements in the Legacy. The new model's interior is markedly more attractive, much roomier and more efficient.
Gauges are well-placed and easy to read. Controls are generally within reach, though we thought the radio could be repositioned slightly. Our only real complaint: The power-window controls were awkward to operate.
One of the nicer touches is the optional CD changer's location under the front seat rather than in the rear, making it easier to get to - a plus in bad weather.
Seating is more spacious than in previous models, though our 6-ft. front passenger said there wasn't enough legroom even with the seat all the way back.
The semi-bucket seats are easy to get in and out of, and the telescoping adjuster on the driver's seat is especially useful. We found the rear bench seat cramped, though, with three adults jostling for legroom.
The cargo area, however, is generous - nearly as big as a Ford Taurus Wagon. There is one drawback: The second seat doesn't fold flat. Even so, it's roomy enough for a family to tote two weeks of luggage, camping gear and maybe an inflatable raft.
Still, it's no minivan, and there's no third seat. We would appreciate a remote tailgate release. A cargo net or tie-down would also help, as would more concealed storage.
Subaru interiors have often seemed to us a little cheap. The new Legacy Wagon represents a major improvement in this regard. Fit-and-finish are top-notch.
This is a very well-mannered vehicle. Under all but the most demanding conditions it's easy to forget you're driving a wagon. Straight-line stability is precise. Handling is nimble whether you're sweeping around a highway interchange or switching lanes in traffic.
AWD doesn't make an ordinary passenger vehicle into a sports car, however. It's an advantage in low-traction situations, but on dry pavement it tends to increase a phenomenon that automotive buff books refer to as understeer. This is a vehicle's tendency to continue straight ahead when you turn the steering wheel.
In varying degrees, this applies to any vehicle. The faster you go, the less it wants to turn the corner. Most AWD systems magnify this trait a bit.
Generally, we found our Legacy Wagon to be free of quirks, and after 10 miles of driving we knew how it would behave in almost any situation.
Though there have been no changes in the basic dimensions of the Legacy's 2.2-liter 4-cylinder engine, the '95 version produces more power: 135 hp versus 130 hp for the previous model. That's generally quite adequate, though in hilly country, our automatic did tend to downshift to the point of annoyance.
Thanks to the increasing sophistication of powertrain computer controls, a number of manufacturers offer smart transmissions. With the Legacy's Auto Response automatic, you don't have to choose between power and economy modes. It automatically detects which is right by the way you're driving.
Pressing hard on the accelerator will switch it to performance mode almost instantaneously. The transmission is generally responsive, but does tend to be a bit jerky on running downshifts.
We had a chance to drive the manual as well, and found it more efficient at exploiting the engine's power. On the other hand, the automatic masks vibration better.
The trade-offs for a little vibration are packaging efficiencies - it's quite compact - and inherent toughness. Subaru engines just don't break, which is one of the reasons why so many owners keep coming back for more.
The Legacy Wagon has a stiffer chassis than the old model and new suspension mounts up front that reduce harshness. Still, it's not as smooth as others in its class, particularly the Camry.
The Legacy Wagon is a clear improvement over the first-generation model. It's more stylish, more technically sophisticated, more comfortable and even fun to drive.
the biggest selling point is the AWD option, which isn't available on any of the Legacy's competitors. It's a feature that has made Subaru a perennial favorite in regions with slippery winters.
Four-wheel-drive sport/utility vehicles have taken a bite out of Subaru's traditional market in recent years, but not everyone wants a truck. And if a trim little wagon with superior all-weather capability suits your needs, the Legacy merits a test drive.
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