Well-balanced and nicely designed with all-wheel drive.
by John Rettie
Base Price (MSRP) $19,295
As Tested (MSRP) $25,764
Completely redesigned last year, the all-wheel-drive Subaru Legacy can handle any road conditions dealt its way and is an enjoyable car when the sun shines.
The Legacy lineup consists of three sedan models and two station wagons. (See separate nctd.com review of the Outback models.)
Legacy sedans include: $19,295 L, $22,895 GT, and $24,395 GT Limited. Legacy wagons: $19,995 L and $23,795 GT.
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.
A five-speed manual transmission is standard; a four-speed electronically controlled automatic ($800) is optional.
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 features and trim. GT Limited models get side-impact airbags, leather upholstery and a CD player. We drove the Legacy GT Limited.
Subaru has never been known for making beautiful cars, but the clean lines and short overhangs of the Legacy give it a purposeful look. The more time we spent with it, the more its looks grew on us. Subaru's designers have come up with an attractive design that lets it look at home among its European competitors.
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.
Station wagons are the most popular Legacy models sold in the U.S. There is little difference between the sedan and station wagon variations other than capacity and looks.
The interior of the Legacy was substantially redesigned for 2000 and it's far more contemporary than previous Subaru interiors. Switches and controls are all within easy reach of the driver, so stretching is not necessary. Drivers with short legs have reported there is not a lot of knee room, but most drivers find there is plenty of head room and leg room. The seating position offers excellent visibility.
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, and 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 shifter surround is an attractive piece finished to look like brushed aluminum. The leather-wrapped steering wheel feels comfortable.
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, though the tuning buttons are a bit small. Climate controls are above the audio controls and are straightforward and without frills. Window controls are conveniently located on the doors.
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 arm rest in the center of the back seat but the rear seats do not fold down.
Subaru has struck an excellent balance between handling and ride quality. The Legacy 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. (Subaru does not offer a six-cylinder engine in the Legacy.) Under hard acceleration, the engine sounds boomy at low rpm, but that quickly gives way to an enthusiastic growl.
The manual transmission is smooth and pleasant to use. As in all four-cylinder cars it helps get the most out of the engine.
The optional automatic transmission uses a well-designed gated floor-mounted. Drive and third is a straight shot, making it easy and fun to shift between them. Move it over into a dogleg to downshift to second and first. Who needs a Tiptronic? It allows quick shifting between drive and reverse when turning around; there's never any doubt which gear is being selected. It isn't cumbersome like some of the old Mercedes gated shifters. Gear ratios are spaced well to make maximum use of engine power.
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.
Handling is very balanced. Dive into a corner with too much speed and it goes into mild understeer; lift off the throttle and it transitions into oversteer. Translation: it's easy to drive, even at the limit of the tires. That's good news if you're ever upon for an evasive maneuver. Anti-lock disc brakes and the all-wheel-drive system help the driver avoid accidents by managing grip while the driver steers around the obstacles.
Subaru's Legacy GT doesn't offer a lot of sex appeal, but it's a well-designed, fun to drive all-wheel-drive sedan.
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.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.