Thursday, September 10, 2009

Subaru Legacy sedan grows bigger, roomier for 2010

A car for every purse and purpose was once a famous mantra of General Motors, and on a much smaller scale, Subaru is adopting that principle with its redesign of the 2010 Legacy.

The sedan is bigger, roomier, has an updated engine lineup and looks a bit sharper than its predecessor. And it's got a little something for everyone: a base model with solid fuel economy, a turbo for enthusiasts and a bigger displacement six-cylinder unit that’s paired with an automatic transmission for ease of driving.

The goal is to make the Legacy more mainstream and more of an option for consumers outside of its historic base--which despite being avid, is relatively small. The redesign is significant because it positions the Legacy to better compete with sedans from Mazda, Nissan, Volkswagen and to a lesser extent, Toyota and Honda.

That's the key reason for the Legacy's growth spurt. It is 1.4 inches longer, 3.6 inches wider, 3.2 inches taller and 3.2 inches longer between the wheels, though it has shorter overhangs that make for a more aggressive stance. The result of this body building is an interior that's larger than the previous car and quite comfortable for the driver and passengers. It's also quiet, with new door frames that keep wind noise to a minimum, and decent-looking plastics that present well.

Based on the Legacy "concept" (which was actually an early pre-production car dressed up and blinged out) revealed at the Detroit auto show in January, the new sedan looks a little more distinctive on the outside, with bigger headlights and prominent wheel arches that are meant to hint at its all-wheel-drive capabilities. The grille with the Subaru wing is beefed up a bit this year, and the sides have clean lines that offer a crisp appearance, though it's still a fairly run-of-the-mill midsize car.

There are few outward differences in appearance among the trim levels, and they all actually handle fairly similar. Subaru brass says steering characteristics and chassis tuning are almost the same for all versions, and for consumers, it really boils down to their tastes in powertrains.

For enthusiasts, it's an easy choice. Check the box that says 2.5GT. This is the configuration with the turbocharged four-cylinder that makes 265 hp (22 more than in '09) and is coupled with a fairly smooth six-speed manual gearbox. This powertrain is the most fun to drive. It's fast, light on its feet and interactive. This is the version of the Legacy that could give Mazda fans something to think about, and with all-wheel drive it's fairly distinctive in the segment.

The sticky summer tires on the GT provided solid grip, and downshifting though corners and building the revs was definitely enjoyable. It’s an athletic sedan in all variations, but it really shows through on this model. The turbo has been improved by placing the unit under the motor instead of on top to make it more responsive, and it breathes better thanks to a new air dam.

Alas, even Subaru admits this is a niche product, and the bulk of the Legacy sales will likely come from the 2.5i, which comes with a normally-aspirated four-cylinder and a continuously variable transmission. This is probably at the other end of the spectrum from the GT in terms of driving fun--but the fuel economy is the true calling card here: 23 mpg in the city and an impressive 31 mpg on the highway.

The chain-type CVT is a little whiney, but it's agreeable and it can be driven as a six-speed manual, which returns efficient shifts when popping through gears with the paddles. A manual transmission is also offered on the 2.5i as the base trim and offers slightly diminished fuel economy.

Further broadening the Legacy's range, the Tribeca's 3.6-liter boxer six-cylinder unit now makes it over to the new sedan. The only option is the five-speed automatic, so Subaru expects this model, called the 3.6R, to have considerable mainstream appeal. Making 256 hp and 247 lb-ft of torque, it's plenty strong and provides nice acceleration. The auto trans makes this ride a little less fun, but it's probably a more realistic option for families than the turbo. And it runs on regular gasoline.

There are few differences in the chassis tuning, and all Legacy models offer an athletic vibe in corners, yet it's soft enough to be comfortable in most circumstances. The suspension is a MacPerson-type strut setup mounted to the engine cradle, and the back is a double wishbone configuration mounted to a subframe. The steering is responsive, though a little loose, and the all-wheel-drive system remains a Subaru hallmark that offers drivers a bit more confidence.

Playing to its outdoorsy audience, Subaru added an electronic parking brake this year, which is quite convenient. Rather than crank a lever, this feature is a simple push-pull proposition on the dashboard, and it automatically releases when you drive away. There is also an eco-gauge, ambient lighting and a "hill-holder" system for parking on inclines.

The wheel selection ranges from 16-inch steel to 18-inch alloys. The Legacy starts at $20,690, including destination charges. It's arriving at dealers this month.

BASE PRICE: $20,690
DRIVETRAIN: 2.5-liter, 170-hp, 170 lb-ft, boxer four-cylinder, all-wheel drive, six-speed manual (base configuration)
CURB WEIGHT: 3,379 lb
0-60 MPH: 5.9 seconds (mfr.)
FUEL ECONOMY: 23 city/31 highway (mfr.)


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