Subaru's new Legacy: Bigger, more refined


by By TOM VOELK / Special to

Posted on July 30, 2009 at 11:20 AM

Updated Friday, Oct 23 at 3:06 PM

Video: Driving Northwest: Subaru's new Legacy

You see a lot of Subarus in the Northwest. Look around. There's old ones, new ones, red ones, blue ones (man, I've been reading too many Dr. Seuss books). One in my neighborhood is painted up in plaid. The other day I spotted an old Loyale painted black and white with an orca fin glued to the roof. So very Pacific Northwest.

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In our neck of the woods Subaru is the fourth most popular brand behind Honda, Toyota and Ford. They're weathering the severe auto slump too, down by just 1 percent while others struggle with an average 30 percent drop. Still, nationwide the Legacy sedan has never sold like the major players Accord, Camry. Maybe the folks in Arizona don't think they need all-wheel drive. Besides, Subaru claims that Accord and Camry are not on their radar screen. Too mainstream. They look to compete with VW Passat, Mazda6 and Nissan Altima. Isn't that just like Subaru?

Subaru is confident the all new 2010 Legacy sedan will attract more buyers. And why not? It's bigger, more refined, better looking and less thirsty. That's a good start. With their Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive they also have a clear advantage, especially when the weather isn't. All Subarus have AWD and have for some time. They're slapping larger "AWD" badges on the back now having been more coy the last few years with very discreet window decals.

You don't have to live in Duluth, Minnesota

Obviously this brand has made its mark in the snowbelt, but the benefits can be enjoyed anywhere. All-wheel drive improves driving dynamics on dry pavement as well. But that's not the only reason why Subbies handle so well. Enter the Boxer engine. Boxer engine pistons punch toward each other horizontally, yes like a couple of boxers, not vertically up and down like most engines. Porsche uses a similar set up. Laying flat and deep in the engine bay they have an especially low center of gravity. Remember your basic high school physics? Then you know that is a very good thing.

Subaru boxer engines come in a few varieties. I'm driving the base 170 horsepower 4-cylinder that comes standard with a 6-speed manual or an optional CVT automatic transmission for $1,000. Power is fine for a family sedan, 0 to 60 comes up in around 8.5 seconds. For those who have speed on their minds there's the GT model with a turbocharged 4-cylinder good for 265 HP. It gets pair up with a 6-speed manual tranny. Keep in mind it drinks premium fuel. Also available is the 3.6R. Its H6 engine, (remember it lays flat so it's not a V or inline 6) makes 256 horsepower. The traditional 5-speed automatic tranny blips when downshifting manually.

There may be different models and engines but the folks at Subaru say the suspension changes are minimal. They're revised mostly to account for the different drivetrain weights. Of course different tires and wheels are used too.

The 411 on AWD

Subaru's Symmetrical all-wheel drive system is a robust piece of work. With it, I've slogged through very deep mud and extremely rugged roads, all with little sweat forming on my brow. Know that Legacy uses three different systems depending on engine and transmission. Cars with the 6-speed manual transmission get the Continuous version that has a viscous-coupling locking center differential that normally sends power equally to the front to rear axels. Should there be slippage more power is sent to the opposite side.

Legacys with the Lineartronic CVT use the Active Torque Split version. Here an electronically controlled continuously variable transfer clutch manages power distribution based on acceleration, deceleration, and the amount of traction. Impressive, I can't multitask like that. All power can be sent to the wheels (or wheel) with the most grip.

With its 5-speed automatic transmission, 3.6R cars get the super premium advanced Variable Torque Distribution version. A planetary gear center differential talks to an electronically controlled continuously variable hydraulic transfer clutch to dole out the right amount of power to each wheel. VTD normally has rear wheel power bias. That's good, just ask BMW. But as it monitors wheel slippage it adjusts power accordingly so stability and control is maximized.

The Legacy of good handling

Legacy is quiet and comfortable. To keep wind noise down, frames now surround the side glass. There's a good amount of sportiness to this car when slinging around corners. Subbies are always great fun to toss into turns and with new front and rear subframes and double-wishbone rear suspension, the 2010 Legacy is no different. A sophisticated Vehicle Dynamics Control system constantly analyzes what's happening. VDC includes stability and traction control with lateral-g and yaw sensors. In short, it helps keep Legacy on the road unless of course you're trying to head off of it.

I suspect that they will eventually develop a more athletic version similar to the outgoing spec.B, mainly because the auto press always thinks there's a sportier version on the way. The current spec.B, a real sleeper, has a firmer ride calibration. For most drivers the new Legacy's driving dynamic is a great real-world set up. The spouse and kids will be happy on trips, the driver gets to have some fun. The whole world should work this well.

Fuel for thought

A common observation from Subaru owners is lower than expected fuel economy. Getting back to that physics thing, the parasitic drag of AWD and its added weight that has to be hauled around will do that to a car. The engineers were told to eek more miles out of each gallon of gas. The biggest improvement comes from the base model with Lineartronic Continuously Variable Transmission. Legacy now gets an EPA rating of 23 city, 31 highway- a big improvement.

CVT is not a drugstore. That's CVS.

CVTs do not use gears in the traditional sense. Grossly simplified, they use a belt on cone a shaped pulley. That belt moves to the part of the cone depending on what ratio is needed to keep the car going. Since it's stepless, these types of trannies are very smooth. It keeps the engine in an optimal efficient powerband. The disadvantage is they don't sound like the powertrains most people are used to. Floor the go pedal on a car with a CVT and the engine spools up and just stays there as the transmission glides along its infinite ratios.

Mind you this is great for efficiency but not for the ears. The engine drones and the gearbox feels as if it's is slipping and sliding a little (but it's not). Since the improved fuel economy is welcomed, I'll admit to being the spoiled Northwesterner that has his half-caff, extra hot 1 percent soy mocha with no whip and drinks it too. But now that you are informed, check it out on your next test drive. Know that CVTs can be programmed to have simulated shift points to feel more traditional. Legacy's unit has a manual mode with steering wheel mounted paddle shifters that give it the feel of a 6-speed automatic. For those who really want to learn more, here's a Wikipedia link- .

Americans are special

The Legacy we Yanks get is a little different than other countries. Compared to the outgoing car the wheelbase stretches an additional 3.2 inches, but due to shorter overhangs, the length grows less than an inch and a half. That means the interior is roomier now and it's easy to get comfortable behind the wheel with a tilt/telescope wheel.

The instrument panel looks more masculine this time around and redesigned seats accommodate American physiques better. An electronic parking brake frees up space and adds an upscale touch. Faux brushed aluminum trim is attractive. Wood trim is petroleum based and dashboard plastics are hard to the touch but done up in a low sheen finish, the cabin looks good.

Space. The back seat frontier.

Moving to the back doors, the engineers carved out more space along the C pillar (the rear post that holds the back window up). It makes it easier to get in and out of now. Also, the back seat has much more room. Three average adults will be perfectly comfortable (and yes, I've tried it). Foot room is good and the driveshaft tunnel isn't too intrusive. Wish there was an extra map pocket on the back of the driver's seat though.

This optional voice activated nav system responds to real English phrases. Say "I'm hungry" and it asks what kind of restaurant you want. It generally works well though asking for both Japanese and Mexican food consistently gives me Jack in the Box and Burger King. Not my first or second choice. Order the nav and they throw in Bluetooth for both phone and stereo audio streaming. Really though, that's one of my gripes here. To get people off their phone, Bluetooth should be standard. I'll get off my soapbox now Another gripe? The side view mirrors don't have a breakaway feature. Clip one and it can be an expensive repair.

Want to max cargo room? Go Outback.

In the Costco Toilet Paper Test, Legacy's score of 6 warehouse sized packs of TP is average. Accord can swallow 8. But Legacy has split seatbacks, the Honda is an all or nothing proposition. Legacy has space saving scissor hinges that keep the trunk opening clear and don't pinch loaded cargo the way gooseneck arms can. Seatback releases are also found just inside the trunk opening. Really though, if you need maximum room go with the Outback wagon version that's stating to roll into dealers even as I write.

I see some Accord envy in the side profile though Legacy's overall design appears more integrated to my eye. Including destination, prices start at $20,700 with the manual six-speed, the automatic tranny is a grand more. The decked out car I'm driving goes for about 28.5. With Symmetrical AWD, Legacy has always been good for those in the snow belt. With increased room and fuel economy Subaru reaches out to everyone else.