The first-generation Subaru Legacy marked a philosophical change at Subaru when it was introduced in 1989. Once content to offer high-quality, quirky cars to members of the intelligentsia who couldn't afford the Swedish brands, Subaru hoped that the Legacy would succeed in the mainstream market. But the Legacy's styling blended into the background so successfully that few buyers noticed its sophisticated engineering and all-wheel drive. It wasn't until the 1996 Outback variant tapped into an SUV-crazed culture that Subaru found success with its Legacy line. The fourth-generation, 2005 Legacy, slated to go on sale here in the first quarter of 2004, again offers a superb driving experience, advanced technology, and all-wheel drive but persists with handsome yet innocuous styling that might struggle to find an audience.
Subaru played it safe by keeping the roofline design of the previous-generation Legacy while adopting various disparate styling cues from other Japanese sedans. The new Legacy would be the perfect getaway car-no two witnesses would agree on the brand. Inside, the Legacy's cockpit is comfortable, but, again, you get the feeling you've been there before. Build quality is beyond reproach, but the car looks about as original as Famous Ray's Pizza. You can't really blame Subaru for being gun-shy, however; whenever it gambles on styling, as in the SVX, it ends up with bizarre cars that are purchased in small numbers by equally bizarre engineering enthusiasts.
Those who do notice the Legacy will find a sport sedan or wagon whose dynamics are on par with many of the status symbols from Germany. The front strut and rear multi-link suspensions deliver neutral handling that inspires confidence, and the all-wheel-drive system is packaged with its weighty parts located near the center of the vehicle in the interest of balance. The result is initial understeer that gives way to neutrality or easily controllable oversteer, depending on how you use the throttle. Consider this: Subaru let about fifty journalists loose on the Fuji Speedway (of Pole Position video-game fame), and every one of the Japanese-spec, 276-horsepower Legacys returned unscathed.
In the United States, the Legacy will be motivated by Subaru's bread-and-butter 2.5-liter, normally aspirated flat-four with the familiar 3.0-liter flat-six topping off the range. Later, a version of the 2.5-liter turbo found in the WRX STi will be offered with about 250 horsepower. Although horizontally opposed engines inherently provide a low center of gravity, Subaru's obsessive engineers mounted the engine lower in the new Legacy to drop it even farther. A new, Subaru-designed five-speed automatic adds a cog over last year's four-speed, and a five-speed manual again will be offered.
The Outback and the WRX are Subaru's great North American market success stories. Subaru seems to have found the perfect styling balance with the WRX and the Outback: distinctive enough to capture an audience without being so unusual as to alienate buyers. The new Legacy has the advanced and elegant engineering that has always been standard on Subarus. But its derivative styling might mean that another Legacy generation will go undiscovered in our market.