1990 Subaru Legacy AWD
1990 Subaru Legacy AWD

In late 1989, when I first set eyes on the car that would eventually replace the Subaru Loyale, I said to myself, “This 1990 Legacy can’t be a Subaru. It’s so normal, so suburban. There’s nothing oddball or quirky about this car at all. Obviously, it can’t be a Subaru. Must be a Toyota, or a Honda or a Mazda or a Nissan or…or something, anything but a Subaru.”

By Jeremy Cato

But the Legacy was, indeed, both a Subaru and a mainstream Japanese-built family sedan. Park a ’90 Legacy next to a ’90 Honda Accord, a ’90 Toyota Camry, a ’90 Mazda 626 or a ’90 Nissan Stanza and it looks right at home. Pack that old Legacy with kids or groceries, and it shows off all the characteristics common to those other family movers: reasonably comfortable, perky and predictable handling and acceleration, and generally user-friendly.

But the Legacy has always differed in one key area: from 1990-95, the Legacy was sold as both a front- and all-wheel drive sedan and wagon. Accords and the rest were only front-drivers during the ’90s. Starting in ’96, a year after the Legacy received a major makeover for the ’95 model year, the Legacy became strictly an all-wheel-drive vehicle.

In 1990, though, Subaru was anxious to be accepted by middle Canada as a legitimate alternative to the Camry, Accord and others. In an attempt to grow into something more than a niche automaker — one building interesting but somewhat quirky cars which catered to a limited piece of the market — Subaru strove to take the Legacy to a broader market in 1990. It was not a successful move for several reasons, not the least of which was that Subaru simply did not have the marketing bucks to battle Toyota, Honda and so on.

1994 Subaru Legacy
1994 Subaru Legacy

That said, an older Legacy – front- or all-wheel-drive – represents generally good value in an older family car. If you’re shopping, note that the Legacy from 1990-94 was sold as both a sedan and station wagon. In 1990, there were three Legacy trim levels: base, L and LS. Be aware that a decade ago four-wheel-drive (4WD) was an option, not standard as has been since 1996.

The standard 2.2-litre four-cylinder, a flat or horizontally opposed engine, is not overly powerful (130 hp.) but adequate and its running characteristics are very smooth and reliable. A turbocharged version of this engine (160 hp.) arrived in some models for ’91. The basic power numbers of the four-banger (non-turbo) are similar to virtually ever car in this class from that era. Transmission choices in ’90 included a five-speed manual standard and an optional four-speed automatic.

Subaru’s manual was the only one on the market to include a “still holder” to make driving on hills easier. This feature involves a valve which keeps brake fluid up on the front discs when the car is at rest, the brakes are applied and the clutch is depressed. The front brakes will only be released when the clutch is let out. The 4WD option was available with either manual or automatic transmission.

Also note that the Legacy arrived as a larger and more refined model than the outgoing Loyale. Its wheelbase of 258 centimetres (101.6 inches) made it the first Subaru with more than 254 cm (100 inches) between the front and rear wheels. This version of the Legacy has a wheelbase marginally less than the ’90 Camry and 14 centimetres (5.5 inches) shorter than the Accord.

In people terms, the ’90’94 Legacy will seat four adults comfortably, five in a pinch. Headroom is adequate, although drivers with long torsos might find it a bit tight in sunroof-equipped cars. Fortunately, the front seats adjust in all sorts of ways. As for cargo space, the trunk in the sedan is spacious and benefits from 60/40 split fold-down rear seats which make it into something similar to a hatchback. The wagon is capable of holding enough luggage for an extended European holiday.

On the safety front, four-wheel anti-lock braking was optional with some models from the outset and a new driver’s side airbag arrived on some models in 1992. For comfort and convenience, a dash-mounted slide-out cupholder was added in ’92, as were rear heater ducts.

Subaru owners are notorious for their loyalty, which means it’s often difficult to find a good one on the used car market. But not impossible. I’d look for one with all-wheel drive; Subaru has long offered one of the best in the business. If you find a legacy to your liking, you’ll be looking at a family that’s not quite as sophisticated as rival Accords and the like, but just as well built.

Used vehicle prices vary depending on factors such as general condition, odometer reading, usage history and options fitted. Always have a used vehicle checked by an experienced auto technician before you buy.

Connect with Autos.ca