It's a long way from the rugged, agricultural cars of Subaru's 1970s youth to the company's current idealized self-image as a Japanese BMW." So reads the very first entry in our Subaru Legacy GT Limited wagon's logbook, which continues: "Nevertheless, the latest Legacy is a significant step in that direction."
Twelve months later, that sentiment still applies. If anything, the notion has only grown stronger. A big reason is that with this generation of the Legacy, the GT version has finally come into its own.
Of course, the arrival of the Impreza WRX and WRX STI got Subaru performance aspirations off with a bang, but the WRX would have remained an oddity in the lineup if the Legacy hadn't significantly increased its sport quotient.
Subaru had sold a GT version of the previous two Legacys, but it always seemed to be a model that the company gave little thought to, in contrast to the Outback, which completely overshadowed the rest of the Legacy line.
Indeed, we chose an Outback wagon the last time we ran a Four Seasons Legacy (in 1996). After we first became acquainted with the newest Legacy, however, we knew that this time, we wanted a GT for our long-term test. We decided to get the station wagon, because Subarus are--still--strongly identified with wagons and because the combination of performance and practicality in a sporty station wagon appeals to us.
Our long-term Legacy GT wagon arrived in Limited trim, an upscale version that adds leather seats with power adjustment for both driver and passenger and a huge, two-panel power moonroof that stretches from the front to the rear seats. Buyers who can live without those features can save $2700 by choosing the standard Legacy GT. Even that car comes comprehensively equipped, with six air bags, antilock brakes, seventeen-inch cast-aluminum wheels, seat heaters, and a pretty good CD stereo. We added only two minor interior trim bits to our GT Limited wagon, and most of us felt that our car wanted for nothing--except, perhaps, for stability control, which is fast becoming an essential bit of safety gear on family cars but which Subaru reserves for only the very top-of-the-line Legacy Outback 3.0R VDC Limited.
If the Legacy GT has enhanced Subaru's credibility as a peddler of enthusiast autos, a large part of the credit must go to its new engine. With a whopping 85-hp increase (better than 50 percent) over the previous Legacy GT's normally aspirated 2.5-liter, the 250-hp turbocharged four-cylinder has transformative powers.
"The turbocharged GT engine is super-sweet," opined senior editor Joe DeMatio. Although a boxer four will never sound as melodious as an in-line six, this engine's power--quite a bit of it if you choose your gears right--comes on in a nice rush. There is a turbocharged quality to it, which some drivers found objectionable, but this is not the severely elastic throttle response of, say, a Saab turbo. However, we would have liked to see better gas mileage; our 22-mpg overall average is not bad for a four-wheel-drive car, but our around-town tankfuls in the teens were depressingly SUV-like.
In addition to the turbocharged engine, the well-sorted chassis helps the Legacy lay claim to the enthusiast heart. "The chassis takes a set beautifully, and the steering stiffens up nicely," said DeMatio after a high-speed run through the hills of Kentucky, adding, "Completely predictable handling under all conditions." Executive editor Mark Gillies also noted the "lovely brake feel and steering."
Happily, considering the state of Michigan's highways--among America's worst, we're proud to say--the Legacy GT's handling prowess is not achieved at the expense of a harsh ride. Our wagon rode surprisingly well, considering its low-profile (45-series) rubber on seventeen-inch wheels. We were not so thrilled with the standard tires, Bridgestone Potenza RE92s, which were disappointing in rain and snow. When spring arrived, we fitted a set of Vredestein Ultracs, a summer tire, and they improved wet-weather grip and trimmed ten feet off the 70-to-0-mph stopping distance. At 178 feet, though, that braking distance is still long, and the undersized brakes also exhibited some fade.
Going for the full-sport immersion, we ordered our Legacy GT with the five-speed manual transmission, and that gearbox and clutch ended up drawing the car's most significant criticism. The chief complaint was that all the clutch action takes place within inches of the firewall, which most drivers found wearying but the odd few professed to like. We went so far as to take the car to the dealer to see if the clutch had slipped out of spec, but we were reassured that "they're all like that." That clutch calibration combined with an occasionally balky shifter led us to speculate that the Legacy GT might be preferable with the optional automatic transmission, a notion bolstered by the letters from reader-owners with Legacy GTs so equipped, who praised the automatic and its two distinct manual shift modes.
Previously, Subaru was miles away from BMW not only in driving dynamics but also in the driver's environment. But this is another area where the new Legacy has made considerable strides. Our wagon's monochromatic black interior wasn't a design standout, but it worked well. Seating is comfortable, space is adequate, and switchgear is straightforward.
"Although the interior decor is plainish, it is nicely bolted together," noted Gillies. "I particularly like the rubberized grab handles, red-lit dials, and chrome rings around the radio and HVAC controls, which work with a kind of precision few automakers seem to be able to achieve." Production editor Jennifer Misaros added: "Great ergonomics, nice plastics, and sporty yet sophisticated red dash lighting all add up to a very pleasing environment." And contributor Ronald Ahrens summed up: "For a Subaru, this is one hell of a good interior."
For Subaru, this is also a pretty stylish exterior, at least compared with earlier Legacys. Opinions among the staff were about evenly split, with "Exterior styling unremarkable; it doesn't look particularly sporty" balanced against "Exterior styling is very pleasing, especially at the rear. Exterior and interior have moved up half a class in quality, both real and perceived."
But even some of the design's critics noted that the plain wrapper combined with the thrust of the turbo made our silver wagon something of a Q-ship. Said one: "This unassuming-looking GT is a true sleeper when it comes to performance."
Although it seems Subaru no longer wants to be known for economy, durability, and ruggedness, we are happy to report that the durability part still applies. "It seems impossible that this lovely car has more than 28,000 miles on it," gushed contributor Matt Phenix near the end of our test. "It's astonishingly pristine, inside and out."
While many of its far more expensive Four Seasons siblings lit up one dashboard warning light after another, demanding restorative visits to their dealer service departments, our Legacy stoically motored through its twelve months with barely a hiccup. We replaced one burned-out headlamp and a failed gearbox neutral safety switch, both under warranty. Not only did our Legacy's reliability surpass many of its luxury-brand Four Seasons brethren, but so did the dealer service at our Ann Arbor Subaru store.
There's nothing wrong with the honest charms on which Subaru built its initial success in America. But we have to admit that Subaru's newfound attributes of performance, comfort, and quality, as demonstrated in our Four Seasons Legacy GT Limited wagon, are ones to which, as driving enthusiasts, we're particularly receptive.
"Overall," wrote Gillies in the logbook, "my kind of car."
Our kind of car, actually.