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Story and photos by Laurance Yap
Shimizu, Japan – There’s an awful lot that the parking lot at Subaru’s test and development centre says about the company, and indeed about the cars it builds. Unlike most corporate lots which are filled with spanking-new, spanking-clean cars driven on some sweet company lease deal, the concrete slab in front of Subaru’s operation in Shimizu is littered with dirty, heavily-enjoyed cars, many of them heavily modified and with sides coated with rubber dust from a weekend’s fun at the track. There may be more STi cars parked there than anywhere else in the country, and certainly more than I’ve ever seen together at once.
Subaru has always been a company that has gone its own way, and both its owners and the people who build the things have an almost religious devotion to the brand and the product – hence the personally-owned vehicles that get modified and raced for both fun and to feed back into the development process – as well as the almost religious fervor with which engineers and development people talk during press conferences, ramming home once again the undeniable advantages of the company’s symmetrical all-wheel-drive system coupled with its trademark horizontally-opposed engines.
You’re probably getting as tired as some of us car scribes are of hearing this, but it bears repeating: Subaru’s full-time AWD system is simpler, smoother, more efficient, and just better than anyone else’s out there. The horizontally-opposed engines have a lower centre of gravity and allow for a symmetrical drivetrain that makes for a simpler, more elegantly-designed chassis; the longitudinal layout means power flows directly, rather than going around corners and gears and adding complication. The result is more predictable behaviour, more neutral handling, and less mechanical complexity.
Still, looking at the new 2005 Legacy – which will go on sale in spring 2004 – you might wonder, as I did, if Subaru’s a little too set in its ways – if it’s gotten so good at believing its own dogma that it’s doomed to simply refining the same designs over and over again until they finally reach perfection. The new car retains all of the old Legacy’s fundamentals: symmetrical AWD system, 2.5-litre flat-four base engines; roomy if upright-feeling interior; decent trunk space; and a structure that, reinforced with high-strength steel, will likely score top marks in crash tests like its predecessor.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but despite being all-new – with a bolder grille, slantier headlights with a cool half-circular scallop into the bumper, a sleeker roofline, and new, taller rear end – the new Legacy looks an awful lot like the old one, with the same frameless glass (the better for visibility and safety, Subaru repeats, and they’re right), the same general profile, and even similar wheel designs. Other than some neat details, like turn-signal repeaters in the mirrors, the new Legacy is pretty conventional. Elegant and timeless undoubtedly, but it’s also less than I might have expected given an all-new model, and Subaru’s stated intention to become a design leader.
To be fair, design chief Andreas Zapatinas, brought over from Alfa Romeo, arrived too late to have real influence on this car. And it’s not as if Subaru hasn’t done an amazing job with the interior, which is not only a lot better than the black wall that was the old Legacy’s dash, but is now as attractive and well-assembled as cars from a class above. Some of the neat touches: gauges that light up gradually and whose needles “wave hello” in a friendly sweep when you switch on the ignition; an artfully-integrated 1970s-style McIntosh stereo with 6-disc CD changer on upper trim levels; a smaller, grippier three-spoke steering wheel with shift buttons for the optional automatic transmission; and a set of storage spaces and door bins that are much larger and more practical than the old car’s. Materials feel more solid, the trunk’s lined in flock, and the metal-look pieces are actually real metal.
Though the base 2.5-litre boxer, updated for ’05 with variable valve timing – will be familiar to current Legacy owners, the car’s powertrain options will get increasingly more interesting in the next couple of years. First to come will be a turbocharged 2.5-litre flat-four for the Legacy GT which will probably be shared with the upcoming turbo Forester, probably producing about 250 horses. If time spent on Subaru’s test track with a Japan-market old Legacy is any indication, the new GT will be one fun car, with smooth, punchy power delivery and deliciously flingable handling to go with a Brembo brake package. In the cards is also probably the 3.0-litre 212-hp flat-six currently sold in the top-line Outback, whose smoothness and silence would make for a convincing luxury model. Though the base four will still come with a standard five-speed manual and an optional four-speed automatic, upper-line models will offer a brand-new, and very slick, five-speed automatic as an option.
Those engines will be packed into a shell that, despite looking similar to the current Legacy while incorporating numerous structural improvements, actually weighs significantly less than the current shell, which not only pays fuel-consumption dividends but also makes the Legacy an even more entertaining steer than before. Though Subaru’s insistence that it handles with total neutrality are off base – like any car with a front weight bias, it will ultimately understeer unless you provoke the tail with a deliberate lift and then a jab at the gas – the new Legacy certainly dives into corners with un-sedan-like eagerness and can maintain cornering speeds that would shame many a sporty car. The suspension, struts up front and a four-link arrangement in the rear, keeps the tires firmly in contact with the ground while dispatching with mid-corner bumps; the brakes finally have the firm, positive feel we’ve been asking for years of Subaru. In highway conditions, refinement is impressive, with little wind whistle and tire roar making their way into the cabin.
Subarus have always driven like premium automobiles, even in their cheapest iterations, and the new Legacy is no exception. What will be interesting to see is whether the company’s desire to continue pushing upmarket – remember that it now offers a $47,000 Impreza – can be satisfied with a car that, though it’s built like and drives like a premium automobile, still looks like a very mainstream family sedan in the face of increasingly-stylish competitors like the Mazda 6, Volkswagen Passat, and Nissan Altima.
A lot of it, I guess, will depend on how the pricing pans out. And while I don’t expect that base Legacies will be much more than today’s models, which start in the mid-high twenties, how Subaru decides to position the turbo and (presumably) H6 models will show how far it really thinks it can go. With available bits like Vehicle Dynamics Control, the manumatic five-speed, the killer stereo, and AWD, there will certainly be enough under a loaded Legacy’s unassuming skin to take the fight to the Audi A4s and Mercedes C-Classes of the world. The challenge might be in convincing buyers to actually get in and give it a chance.