Story and photos by Greg Wilson
Probably the best AWD car under $30,000
With a little help from Paul “Crocodile Dundee” Hogan, the Subaru Outback has become Subaru’s best-known vehicle – perhaps at the expense of the more affordable and under-rated Legacy, the car upon which the Outback is based.
Last redesigned in 2000, the Legacy is a four cylinder, mid-sized car that’s a little smaller than the current Honda Accord. It’s available in both four-door sedan and wagon bodystyles (one of the few cars in this class still offered as a wagon). All Legacy’s come with standard all-wheel-drive, a feature not offered on any of its under-$30,000 competitors including the Honda Accord, Nissan Altima, and Toyota Camry. The Toyota Matrix and Pontiac Vibe hatchbacks are available with all-wheel-drive, but I wouldn’t consider them direct competitors to the Legacy.
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2002 Legacy’s are offered in three trim levels: Brighton (wagon only) ($24,995), L ($26,995), and GT ($30,395). As well, a Special Edition model ($27,995) was added midway through the 2002 model year. Based on the L model, the Special Edition adds a bunch of extra features for a package price. These include 205/55R-16 inch all-season tires mounted on BBS-style alloy wheels (instead of 15 inch tires and steel wheels), keyless remote entry, halogen headlights, front fog lamps, power/heated body-coloured door mirrors, body-coloured door handles, and body-coloured side mouldings. It’s available in two Special Edition colours: Black Granite Pearl and Silver Stone Metallic.
Note that the Special Edition sedan is available only with a four-speed automatic transmission, while the SE wagon is offered with a 5 speed manual or 4-speed automatic transmission (for $27,595 and $28,595 respectively).
Considering the number of additional features, the Special Edition model is a relatively good value. While it costs $600 more than the base ‘L’ model, it has approximately $2,000 worth of extra features.
Value in AWD system
If you think the Legacy is priced higher than its popular competitors, you’re right. Base Legacy L models start at $27,395 while a Honda Accord LX starts at $23,000, a Toyota Camry LE starts at $23,755, and a Nissan Altima at $23,498. The Legacy’s $4,000 price premium over other Japanese mid-size sedans is primarily due to its standard all-wheel-drive system. I don’t think the Legacy’s premium is unreasonable given that other automakers charge as much or more for their all-wheel-drive systems. For example, Volkswagen’s 4Motion all-wheel-drive system adds a little more than $4,000 to the cost of the Passat 4Motion, which is priced at a hefty $37,180.
Subaru’s all-wheel-drive system is a permanently-engaged system that needs no intervention from the driver. Integrated with the transmission, Subaru’s AWD system is relatively small and lightweight. Under light load conditions, approximately 80% of the engine’s torque is directed to the front wheels and 20% to the rear — this is done to improve fuel efficiency. Under acceleration and when the front wheels slip, 50% of the torque is directed to the front and 50% to the rear wheels. Subaru’s AWD system differs from ‘on-demand’ AWD systems, such as the ones in the Matrix and Vibe, because they run in front-wheel-drive most of the time and only send power to the rear wheels when the front wheels slip. In theory, Subaru’s system provides instantaneous traction and improved stability over typical ‘on-demand’ systems.
As well, the Legacy is available with a rear limited slip differential to direct power to either rear wheel should one slip.
Unique horizontally-opposed engine design
Under the hood is a unique horizontally-opposed ‘boxer’ 2.5 litre SOHC four cylinder engine that develops 165 horsepower @ 5600 r.p.m and 166 ft-lbs @ 4000 r.p.m. — that’s better than the Accord’s 150 hp @ 5700 rpm and 152 ft-lbs @ 4900 rpm, and the Camry’s 157 hp @ 5600 rpm and 163 ft-lbs @ 4000 rpm – but less than the new Altima’s 175 hp @ 6000 rpm and 180 ft-lbs @ 4000 rpm.
Few people are aware of it, but when the Legacy was last redesigned, its 2.5 litre engine switched from dual overhead cams to a single overhead camshaft which, along with other refinements, improved the engine’s low and mid-range torque, efficiency and fuel consumption.
The Legacy’s ‘boxer’ engine design has some distinct advantages over conventional inline four cylinder engines. Firstly, it is mounted longitudinally rather than transversely so that it is in a direct line with the transmission and all-wheel-drive driveline. This helps reduce vibrations and provides optimal weight distribution, thereby improving the car’s ride, handling, and vibration levels. As well, the ‘boxer’ engine has a lower centre of gravity than taller inline four cylinder engines which also improves handling and balance.
If you’ve never heard of a ‘boxer’ engine before, there’s no need to be concerned about its reliability or performance. Subaru has been using ‘boxer’ engines successfully for decades – as have Porsche and Ferrari.
The downside to the Legacy’s standard all-wheel-drive system is that it adds weight to the car and the engine uses more fuel than typical front-wheel-drive mid-size sedans. For example, the standard Legacy with a 2.5 litre four cylinder engine averages 9.4 l/100 km (31 mpg) while a front-wheel-drive 2002 Toyota Camry with a 2.4 litre inline four cylinder engine averages 8.5 l/100 km (35 mpg). The Legacy is not alone here though — all all-wheel-drive and four-wheel-drive vehicles suffer reduced fuel consumption.
Another difference between ‘boxer’ engines and inline engine is that they have a different sound to inline engines – more of a ‘rumble’ than a ‘buzz’. This may or may not be music to your ears. But while early Subaru ‘boxer’ engines were rather noisy, I’m happy to report that the new Legacy’s engine is amazingly quiet.
By the way, the Legacy is not offered with the new H6 ‘boxer’ six cylinder engine that’s now available in the Outback.
I was quite impressed with the SE’s clean, attractive exterior styling – its bigger, meatier 16 inch tires and lattice-style alloy wheels add substance and style to the car’s appearance, and the extra add-on bodywork makes the car look lower and sportier. My car was finished in metallic silver colour which gave the car a rather expensive look. One thing I didn’t like though was the Legacy’s oversized full-width taillights.
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When you open the driver’s door, you’ll notice that it has frameless side windows. While most cars have a steel frame around the side windows to help seal out air leaks and prevent window rattling, Subaru chose to go with frameless windows. During my test-drive, I didn’t notice any rattling or air leaks around the side windows — in fact, the car was exceptionally quiet – but I can’t vouch for how they’ll perform in ten years when the rubber seals have become bent or crimped.
Once in the driver’s seat, I found the quality of the seat and dash materials to be above-average — I liked the textured quality of the dash materials, the durable tweed cloth seats and matching door inserts, and the big side bolsters in the front seats which offer support and comfort when cornering.
The Legacy’s large, round instruments, which include a tachometer and a digital outside temperature gauge integrated into the tachometer, are simple and easy to read. The thick-rimmed steering wheel has a nice grippy feel and the sweeping centre stack is thrust towards driver for easier reach of the controls. There’s plenty of storage including a storage drawer and open storage bin in the dash, and a storage bin and powerpoint in the lower console.
A floor shifter operates the automatic transmission and it has an attractive stainless steel, gated shift gate. There are also two cupholders on the floor between the front seats.
I found front and rear legroom and headroom to be adequate for adults, but the Legacy’s interior is definitely not as roomy as the new Altima and Camrys’.
The Legacy has a roomy trunk (351 litres) with a wide trunk opening, a flat floor, a low liftover height (654 mm), and there is a pass-through for skis through the rear armrest – but astoundingly, the car does not offer a folding rear seatback!
Standard safety features include five height-adjustable head restraints, five three-point seatbelts with front pre-tensioners and load limiters, three rear child seat anchors, rear child door locks, and dual-stage driver and passenger airbags — side airbags are not available.
Noteworthy is the Legacy’s excellent performance in crash tests. When the Legacy was redesigned in 2002, its body structure was strengthened, and subsequent crash tests showed the Legacy to be one of the best mid-size cars. 40 mph frontal offset crash tests conducted by the U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety resulted in a ‘Good’ rating, the top rating.
The Legacy is a car that you need to drive to appreciate. Its all-wheel-drive system notwithstanding, the Legacy is a car with an exceptionally smooth ride, minimal cabin noise and vibration, a smooth powerful engine and transmission, and balanced handling. The Legacy drives and rides like a more expensive car than it is, which is always an indication of quality.
Despite being heavier than four cylinder versions of the Accord, Camry and Altima, it’s 0 to 100 km/h performance of about 9.3 seconds is comparable or better (performance stats courtesy of Roadcompanion.ca). I found its 2.5 litre boxer engine reasonably quiet on acceleration, with a low throaty burble and very little vibration. It is so smooth, that there were times when I thought there must be a six cylinder engine under the hood.
On the freeway, the engine does 2,500 r.p.m at 100 km/h and 3,000 r.p.m. at 120 km/h when in fourth gear, and it sounded very relaxed. The four-speed automatic transmission is very smooth, and the integrated all-wheel-drive system is virtually transparent to the driver and passengers.
In a way, the AWD system does a very bad job of selling itself. Even in poor weather conditions, you don’t notice how good the traction is or how stable the car corners. It’s only when you lose traction or start slipping and then regain traction that you think — “Gee, I’m glad I have four-wheel-drive!”. It’s a testament to the effectiveness of the Legacy’s AWD that you don’t notice that it’s working.
I found the Legacy’s ride very comfortable and stable ride with minimal roll, pitch or dive when braking — four wheel discs with ABS are standard. The ride is assisted by a fully independent suspension which soaks up the bumps individually and provides excellent control and steering feedback. The Legacy tracks very well at high speed needing very little steering input. Despite having AWD, it has a reasonably tight turning circle of 10.8 metres. Outward visibility is very good, and the driving position is very comfortable. Overall, I found it a very easy car to drive.
The Legacy doesn’t really have any AWD competitors in its price range — other than the Toyota Matrix AWD and Pontiac Vibe AWD, or even the Subaru Impreza 2.5RS — but these cars are compact in size and not nearly as refined as the Legacy. The closest AWD competitors are the VW Passat 4Motion, Audi A4, Jaguar X-Type, BMW 325Xi, or Volvo S60 AWD. Small SUV’s under $30,000 may be considered competitors, but none of them offer the refined ride and handling of the Legacy. It’s more likely that Legacy buyers will consider the front-wheel-drive Accord, Camry, 626, Altima, Passat, Taurus, Malibu, Sebring, L-Series, Sonata, Grand Am, or Alero, and judge just how badly they need all-wheel-drive.
Two big thumbs up! An exceptionally well-built car with the refined road manners of a car and the traction and stability of standard all-wheel-drive. I liked the sedan, but if I had the choice I’d go for the extra roominess and practicality of the wagon.
The Legacy is built in Lafayette, Indiana.
Technical Data: 2002 Subaru Legacy Special Edition
|Type||mid-size 4-door, 5 passenger sedan|
|Layout||longitudinal front engine/all-wheel-drive|
|Engine||2.5 litre horizontally-opposed four cylinder, SOHC, 16 valves|
|Horsepower||165 @ 5600 r.p.m|
|Torque||166 ft-lbs @ 4000 r.p.m.|
|Fuel||Regular Unleaded (87 Octane)|
|Transmission||4 speed automatic|
|Tires||Bridgestone Potenza RE92 205/55R-16 inch|
|Curb weight||1501 kg (3309 kg)|
|Wheelbase||2650 mm (104.2 in.)|
|Length||4685 mm (184.4 in.)|
|Width||1745 mm (68.7 in.)|
|Height||1415 mm (including roof rails) (55.7 in.)|
|Trunk capacity||351 litres (12.4 cu. ft.)|
|Fuel consumption||City 10.8 l/100 km (26 mpg)|
|Hwy 8.2 l/100 km (35 mpg)|
|Warranty||3 yrs/60,000 km|
|Powertrain warranty||5 yrs/100,000 km|