2020 Subaru Legacy First Drive: As Good as the Outback

A fine-driving Subaru for those who rarely leave the pavement.

OJAI, California—Route 33 north of Ojai is a great road for when you want to drive something athletic. While Ventura County, just north of Los Angeles, has plenty of good curvy tarmac, the 33 is one of the best—lightly trafficked and very long, with plenty of tight turns and broad sweepers. I'd just been on it a couple of weeks before in the Lotus Evora GT. So I was more than a little surprised when Subaru decided to have us out there to rip around in its new 2020 Subaru Legacy.

Subaru's probably hoping my next line will be something along the lines of ". . . and the Legacy acquitted itself perfectly on this fast, challenging road." Not quite; the Legacy needs stiffer shocks to arrest the up-and-down motion of the otherwise-near-perfect ride. But man, was it ever good—outstanding grip, composure, and plenty of warning before the inevitable understeer materialized. The drive was a reminder of what a wonderful thing an all-wheel-drive car can be.

In a way, Route 33 was a distraction from what the 2020 Subaru Legacy is all about. (And to be fair, before they sent us up to the curvy-curves in the turbocharged Legacy XT, they had us drive some more pedestrian roads in the standard 2.5-liter Legacy.) There's a lot more to this car than its athleticism.

The new Legacy's headline story won't be about its exterior styling, which is nearly indistinguishable from that of the outgoing version. The new seventh-generation Legacy is slightly larger than the sixth-gen car (but shorter in length and taller in height than most of its competitors). From the front, it is virtually indistinguishable from its predecessor; seen side-on, the arches over the fenders have a bit more emphasis (which I think makes even the XT's 18-inch wheels look too small) and there's a curved crease in the front door that's bound to give body shop staffers fits when it comes in for collision repair.

Inside is where the big changes are. The elephant in the room is Subaru's new 11.6-inch, vertically-oriented touchscreen infotainment setup. It's standard in all but the Legacy's base trim and has more than a touch of Tesla with a whiff of Volvo to it. We're very familiar with the Volvo system, as the Automobile staff has been living with it in our Four Seasons long-term V90. In my opinion, Subaru's setup is better—not only because the screen is larger, but because the climate controls are always on display. A ribbon up top displays the driver's choice of helpful information (my favorite: the name of the current road and its speed limit), and there's nothing better than a vertically oriented moving map. That, and it seems to respond and refresh quicker than what we've experienced so far from the Volvo. Subaru's system deploys two processors—one for infotainment and the other for climate and car functions—in an effort to ensure lightning-fast operation. Smart move, guys.

The rest of the interior is pretty impressive as well. If you've driven Subarus in the past—let's go back, say, 10 or 15 years—you'll remember that interior materials were not exactly high on the priority list. Apparently that's all changed. Granted, I only drove mid- and high-level trims, but I was really impressed by what a nice place the Legacy's cabin has become. Even without taking the mondo touch screen into consideration, it's a more elegant environment than that of the Honda Accord or the Toyota Camry (and I'm a big fan of the Camry's asymmetrical design). Subaru offers four interior colors, plus a Sport theme with red stitching for the black interior, so there's also good variety to be had. It's a nice change from Legacys of years past.

Speaking of changes, the most noteworthy one is the reappearance of a turbocharged engine—this time a 2.4-liter direct-injected four-cylinder boxer producing 260 horsepower and 277 lb-ft of torque. Subaru claims a zero-to-60-mph time of 6.1 seconds, but I'm stymied as to how it got to that figure. The engine is powerful enough once it builds up a head of steam, but when you first put the accelerator to the floor, there's an excruciatingly long pause while the engine and its attendant continuously variable transmission argue about how, exactly, they're going to pull off this job. It takes a good second or so before the car gets itself together and starts to boogie. I'm not much of a CVT critic; I like the smooth, shift-free acceleration they provide (you can also paddle-shift through eight preprogrammed ratios). Unfortunately, the Legacy XT's launch performance is not an argument in my favor.

Fortunately, the base engine—an updated version of an old familiar friend, Subaru's 2.5-liter horizontally-opposed boxer four—does a rather good job. I expected the naturally-aspirated Legacy to be rather pokey considering its ratings of 182 hp and 176 lb-ft, but it really surprised me. Around town and highway acceleration is quite good, though passing at speed on a two-lane road takes a nice, long clear stretch. An overly touchy accelerator means you have to master the art of moving off smoothly—a useful skill to have in the 2020 Legacy as the brake pedal is equally sensitive. But overall, it's a nice power package, and with Subaru charging a $4,500 premium for the turbo engine, it wouldn't surprise me a bit if the take rate is as low as the previously available six-cylinder. The turbo is definitely quicker, but I'm not sure it's worth the extra money, unless perhaps you live at altitude.

Other impressive bits: The ride is smooth and comfortable but also communicative, though it does have a tendency to float like a '72 Buick over high-speed bumps. Body roll is kept well in check, and the Legacy is surprisingly good in the curves; even with the body set bouncing by a big mid-corner bump, it doesn't lose its composure or grip. Thank you, all-wheel-drive. The Legacy isn't quite as buttoned down as say a Honda Accord, but it is good. (Incidentally, there is a Sport trim, but it's only available with the less-powerful engine, and all Legacys get the same suspension tuning, regardless of which engine you choose.)

The Legacy's best selling point (and the one Subaru ought to emphasize) is this: With prices starting at $23,645, the Legacy is in the same ballpark as most of its front-wheel-drive competitors, which means they're basically giving away all-wheel drive for free. For this reason alone, Snow Belters should automatically put the Subaru Legacy on their short list, and even us denizens of the Golden State can appreciate the extra grip.

All in all, the new 2020 Subaru Legacy is quite pleasant, a nice surprise considering that it plays second fiddle to the mechanically identical but more expensive—and one must assume more profitable—Outback. In fact, in a did-they-really-just-say-that sort of moment, one of the slides in Subaru's Powerpoint presentation that preceded our drive pointed out the Legacy costs nearly $4,000 less than an Outback. Reading between the lines, it seems Subaru maybe wonders why anyone would spend the extra money. The Outback will go further off-road than most people would expect, but if you plan to stick to pavement and don't need a wagon's cargo volume, we're inclined to agree. Buy the Legacy and spend the money you save on something fun like, oh, a trip to Ojai to try out your new car.

 

2020 Subaru Legacy Specifications

ON SALE Fall 2019
PRICE $23,546-$35,895
ENGINE 2.5L DOHC 16-valve flat-4, 182 hp @ 5,800 rpm, 176 lb-ft @ 4,400 rpm; 2.4L turbocharged DOHC 16-valve flat-4, 260 hp @ 5,600 rpm, 277 lb-ft @ 2,000 rpm
TRANSMISSION Continuously variable automatic
LAYOUT 4-door 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD sedan
EPA MILEAGE 24-27/32-35 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H 190.6 x 72.4 x 59.1 in
WHEELBASE 108.3 in
WEIGHT 3,499-3,790 lb
0-60 MPH 6.1-8.4 sec (mfr est)
TOP SPEED 139 mph/149 mph
Related Articles