by John Rettie
Re-engineered for improved performance, refinement and safety.
Base Price $18,395
As Tested $24,790
Subaru has made a name for itself as a manufacturer of tough cars with a permanent all-wheel-drive system that makes them safer for highway use and great for light-duty off-road use. The company has introduced an all-new, third-generation line-up of Legacy sedans and wagons for model-year 2000.
Among them is a new Legacy GT that offers handling capable of competing with many European sporty sedans. The Subaru Legacy GT might not have the aura of a BMW or Audi, but it is likely to turn more heads than many of the other compact sedans on the market.
The 2000 Legacy lineup consists of three sedan and three station wagon models. (Although it is still based on the Legacy, the Outback is now being sold as a separate model line.)
Legacy sedan models include the: $19,195 L, $22,795 GT and $24,295 GT Limited. Legacy wagons: $18,395 Brighton, $19,895 L and $23,695 GT. (You'll need to add the $495 destination charge to those prices.)
There is little difference in the specifications of these models. All are powered by Subaru's 2.5-liter four-cylinder boxer engine, which produces 165 horsepower. (The 2.2-liter engine is no longer available with the new Legacy models.)
A five-speed manual transmission is standard; a four-speed electronically controlled automatic is optional for $800.
Legacy L models are well equipped, with anti-lock brakes, air conditioning, power windows, mirrors and locks, and AM/FM/cassette.
GT models add a sport-tuned suspension, bigger wheels and tires, slightly different gear ratios, a limited-slip rear differential, sporty cloth and other trim. GT Limited models get side-impact airbags, leather upholstery and a CD player. We drove the Legacy GT Limited.
Subaru's designers have come up with an attractive new design that lets it look at home among its European competitors. From behind, it's possible to mistake this model for a BMW 3 Series.
A high trunk line lends a distinctive look, aids aerodynamics and increases cargo capacity. The profile tapers down from rear to front. A low hoodline gives the car a wedge-shaped stance. The cabin is relatively long with decent-sized doors and a fairly low belt line. All the door windows are pillarless, which is quite unusual in a four-door sedan and gives the car the sporty look of a coupe. Simple cladding along the middle of the doors and along the sills adds character to the lines of the car. The front of the car features a big grille and large headlights that fit flush with the bodywork.
The new Legacy is slightly longer and wider than the previous model.
Station wagons are the most popular Legacy models sold in the U.S. However, as with many modern station wagons, there is little difference between the sedan and station wagon variations other than capacity and looks. This is certainly true with the Legacy for 2000.
The interior of the Legacy has been substantially redesigned for 2000 with a much tighter cockpit environment for the driver. The positive aspect of this design is that switches and controls are all within easy reach of the driver, so stretching is not necessary. The disadvantage is that there is not a lot of knee room for drivers with short legs. Ironically, tall drivers might find the cockpit environment a little less cramped, as their right knee will be farther back.
There are four round gauges in the instrument pod: a large tachometer and speedometer along with a smaller fuel gauge and water temperature gauge. They are well shaded, which makes them easy to read in all lighting conditions. The dash is covered in a nice black and gray plastic trim with a heavy grain finish. The Limited model has imitation wood paneling as well.
The climate and radio controls fall to hand conveniently in the center. The Limited models we drove included a six-CD player with the changer built into the dashboard. The sound system worked well, as did the climate control.
Apart from the slightly cramped cockpit feel for some drivers there was plenty of leg- and headroom in the front. Rear-seat passengers will be pleasantly surprised by the Legacy's generous legroom, which is better than many cars in its class. Headroom in the rear is adequate for those shorter than 6 feet tall. The moonroof, which is standard on high-line models, takes away about 1 inch of headroom.
There is a pass-through hole from the trunk behind the armrest in the center of the back seat but the rear seats do not fold down.
The first thing one notices about the Legacy GT is its handling. No, it's not like a stiff sports car with a go-kart character that rattles your bones. Instead it has a refined smooth feeling of sure-footedness. It comes from a combination of suspension design, all-wheel-drive and a low center of gravity aided by the horizontally opposed four-cylinder engine. Subaru and Porsche are the only two companies with this type of engine layout on the market.
The all-wheel-drive system ensures that the power is distributed to all four wheels. This makes the car easier to control on dry pavement and is especially helpful when the road surface is slippery. Unlike part-time four-wheel-drive systems designed for off-road use, Subaru's system adds little weight, and the all-important viscous coupling unit is no larger than a grapefruit. This effectively replaces the hefty transfer case you'll find in a truck or SUV.
The four-cylinder engine produces 165 horsepower, which is good for this size of car. More important, the engine generates good low-end torque, which is the force that propels you away from intersections and up steep grades. Subaru's engine is more powerful than the four-cylinder engines in the Audi A4, Honda Accord and Toyota Camry -- and those are bigger cars. (The A4, Accord and Camry are available with optional six-cylinder engines, which Subaru does not currently offer.)
The manual transmission is smooth and pleasant to use. As in all four-cylinder cars it helps get the most out of the engine. Acceleration performance suffers somewhat with the optional automatic. With its new notched-gate pattern, you need to make sure you don't select third gear instead of drive.
In regular driving on smooth dry roads it is all but impossible to tell the Legacy has all-wheel-drive. It is transparent to the driver, which is as it should be. The steering feels nice and precise and there is no torque steer when accelerating hard.
Overall the Legacy GT offers a driving experience that is a cut above that of numerous cars in its segment. It still doesn't quite offer the excitement of many European competitors but it's closer than most similar sized cars from domestic or Japanese manufacturers.
If you live in an area of the country with weather conditions that include snow or lots of rain -- and you enjoy driving -- then take a test drive in the Subaru Legacy. Whether you're a professional rally driver or not, you'll find you can travel more safely in bad conditions with Subaru's all-wheel drive than in cars that are front- or rear-wheel drive.
There are really no disadvantages to driving an all-wheel-drive Subaru, so even for those of you who live in areas of the country that enjoy nice weather all year round the Legacy is still worthy of a look. With its stylish new design it's good enough to take you in style to the opera in the evening and safely transport you down a dusty lane the next day to a campsite.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.