Preview Drive: 2010 Subaru Legacy

Bigger overall, redesigned midsize sedan gets new CVT, delivers enticing road behavior even in base-sedan form

by James M. Flammang

2010 Subaru Legacy

SEATTLE, Washington - Subaru launched its first Legacy sedan back in 1989, as a 1990 model. Now entering its fifth generation, the midsize Legacy continues as the company's largest sedan. As before, it's related to the SUV-tinged Outback wagon, which is due to arrive later in the summer of 2009.

Billed as Subaru's "vision of a global midsize sedan," the 2010 Legacy has gained in size and features a larger cabin. Overall length has increased by 1.4 inches (to 186.4), on a wheelbase that's grown by 3.2 inches (to 108.3). Overall width is 3.5 inches greater than its predecessors. At 59.3 inches, the Legacy is 3.3 inches taller than before. Front track width (distance between wheels) has grown by 2.7 inches, and rear track is 3.3 inches wider.

Despite the dimensional gains, weight has grown only modestly, according to Subaru. Built on a more rigid platform, the redesigned Legacy features wider-opening doors. Bright moldings are installed around the glass areas. Trunk space has increased by 29 percent (to 14.7 cubic feet), and gas struts for the trunk lid don't "steal" luggage space.

Beneath the Legacy sits a choice of "boxer" (horizontally-opposed) engines: a 2.5-liter four-cylinder, a turbocharged version of the 2.5-liter, or a 3.6-liter six-cylinder. Horizontally-opposed engines and standard all-wheel drive have been Subaru hallmarks for some years. Model designations indicate which engine is installed: non-turbo 2.5-liter in the 2.5i, turbo four-cylinder in the 2.5GT, and six-cylinder in the 3.6R.

Specifically, the 2.5i's engine develops 170 horsepower at 5600, and 170 pound-feet of torque at 4000 rpm. Gas mileage has grown. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) gives the Legacy 2.5i a fuel-economy estimate of 19 mpg in city driving and 27 mpg on the highway, with manual shift. With the available continuously variable transmission (CVT), the 2.5i model gets an estimate of 23 mpg city/31 mpg highway. This is Subaru's first use of a six-speed manual gearbox on a U.S. model. The new gearless Lineartronic CVT is chain-based, and includes a manual mode that permits selection of six "shift points" (simulated gears).

In the 2.5 GT, the turbocharged engine delivers 265 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 258 pound-feet of torque at 2000 to 5200 rpm. With its standard six-speed manual gearbox, the turbo's fuel-economy estimate is 18 mpg city/25 mpg highway. Acceleration to 0-60 mpg takes place in a claimed 5.9 seconds (1.6 seconds faster than before). Subaru's 3.6-liter six-cylinder engine develops 256 hp at 6000 rpm, and 247 pound-feet at 4400 rpm, using regular-grade gasoline. Acceleration to 60 mph takes 7.8 seconds, and the 3.6 R model gets an EPA estimate of 18/25 mpg with its five-speed automatic transmission.

Subaru uses three distinct "symmetrical" all-wheel-drive systems, depending on the powertrain. All models have new quick-ratio steering, and most have all-disc brakes. A new cradle sub-frame lowers the car's center of gravity and increases front suspension rigidity. Three tire sizes are offered: 16-inch on the 2.5i (17-inch for Limited edition); 17-inch on alloy wheels for six-cylinder models; and 18-inch rubber on alloy wheels for the turbo 2.5 GT.

Inside, rear legroom has grown by 4 inches and toe space by 1.8 inches. Front shoulder room is up 2.1 inches. Subaru claims one of the roomiest rear seats in the midsize segment, and all models have 60/40-split fold-down back seats.

Front seats have hollowed-out backs and a broader adjustment range. A telescoping steering wheel is standard, and an electronic parking brake is installed. The driver faces four illuminated instruments, including an Eco gauge for guidance in obtaining the best fuel economy.

Eight cupholders are standard, along with a 3.5 mm audio jack and remote keyless entry. The Electronic Park Brake can activate itself on a 5-percent or steeper grade. Subaru's available navigation system uses an 8-inch touch-screen and includes harman/kardon audio, a USB port, and a rear-vision camera for help when backing up.

Base sedan performs so impressively, it makes the turbo and six-cylinder less tempting

Subaru's non-turbo four-cylinder engine yields abundant energy; reaching highway speed with little effort and appealing smoothness. This Legacy rides beautifully on good roads; where you can hardly discern any roughness. Pleasant clutch action accompanies the easy-shifting manual gearbox, but it's not always easy to tell which gear you're in. Subaru has a great answer to that little obstacle, however: an instrument-panel readout that shows whether the gearbox is in 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, or 6th gear. A little road noise can be heard, along with a rather luxuriant exhaust note when the engine pushed; but otherwise, the 2.5i sedan is very quiet.

A CVT-equipped 2.5i sedan performs admirably, too, even in PZEV form. Yes, engine noise is an issue when pushing on the gas pedal; but it's not really an annoyance unless you try to make it irritating - or unless you're one of those drivers who simply cannot get comfortable with the lack of actual gears. Manual mode with paddle shifters works very nicely, and instantly.

Definitely more energetic than the base sedan, the 2.5 GT accelerates at a level that approaches thrilling - but only if you're in the best gear for the situation. If not, the GT sedan can be distressingly tame and slow. In any case, the base engine delivers plenty of goods. So, a turbo isn't especially needed.

As expected, performance of the automatic-transmission 3.6 R falls somewhere between the base 2.5i sedan and the 2.5 GT turbo. Though it's undeniably strong, the overall experience is not particularly pleasant - definitely less so than the base Legacy. Engine snarl from the six-cylinder is somewhat nasty when flooring the pedal. Differences in ride quality are negligible. Handling, as expected, is tighter on the 2.5GT turbo; but the other two are close enough in nature to satisfy most drivers.

Seats are nicely supportive and well cushioned for comfort, with fabric upholstery that holds occupants in place neatly. Front occupants enjoy plenty of space. In the backseat, leg space is quite good, helped by the hollowed front seat backs. Toe space is ample, and headroom should satisfy most riders. Even the center rear spot is quite comfortable; apart from a modestly hard seatback. Huge glass area translates to top-notch visibility, and the driver faces a highly distinctive, truly stylish dashboard layout.

With its sticker price of $19,995, the 2.5i sedan with manual shift is priced $800 below its predecessor. CVT adds $1,000 to that figure. A Premium edition goes for $20,995 with the manual gearbox and $21,995 with CVT. Topping the line, a loaded 3.6 R Limited has a Manufacturers Suggested Retail Price (MSRP) of $30,990.

Legacy sales begin in August. A PZEV (partial zero-emissions vehicle) version may be purchased in any state, not just in California or selected areas. Primary rivals include the Mazda6, Nissan Altima, and Volkswagen Passat. Subaru's Legacy also competes against the league-leading Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. Later this summer, Subaru will launch the newest version of its Legacy-related Outback wagon.

During 2008, Subaru led the industry in year-over-year sales. Total sales were "just off a little bit, at 1.8 percent," said chief marketing officer Tim Mahoney. But other makes fell far further in that tough sales year. Thus, Subaru's market share reached 1.9 percent (the highest ever).

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© All contents copyright 2009 by Tirekicking Today
Text and photos by James M. Flammang
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