1997 Subaru Legacy Outback
1997 Subaru Legacy Outback. Click image to enlarge

By Chris Chase

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In the early 1990s, Subaru had a handle on a niche market. Unfortunately, the buyers in that niche were few, and besides, a niche market is not a profitable one for a manufacturer of compact and mid-size sedans and wagons. Honda and Toyota had a stranglehold on the mid-size import sedan segment with their Accord and Camry and there was little room for oddball cars with quirky, comparitively unrefined, engines.

But as the mid-90s neared, it was becoming obvious that if Subaru didn’t make a big move soon, they were destined to remain a bit player in the very lucrative mid-size market. And while the redesigned 1995 Legacy didn’t look a whole lot different than the car it replaced, those in touch with the auto industry knew that Subaru was ready to hatch a big plan – one that would ultimately turn its fortunes around and save the company from having to soldier on in obscurity or worse, disappearing altogether.

Under the 1995 Legacy’s new skin was a more refined car designed to appeal to a wider audience. But it was in 1996 that Subaru made the two decisions that would finally give its cars the mass appeal they had previously lacked. The first was to make all-wheel-drive standard on all of its cars, a feature that would become the company’s calling card. The second was the brilliant idea to dress up a Legacy wagon with grey lower-body cladding and a raised suspension and call the result the Outback. Coupled with a clever and effective ad campaign featuring Paul ‘Crocodile Dundee’ Hogan, the Outback’s appearance took the SUV-hungry marketplace by storm and Subaru suddenly had a lot more friends.

For 1995, all Legacys were powered by a 2.2-litre, horizontally-opposed four-cylinder engine carried over from the previous generation car. In 1996, a 2.5-litre engine was phased in for higher-end models. Subaru stuck to that arrangement for the rest of the model run, except for Outback models, which got the 2.5-litre motor as standard equipment from 1997 onward.

1997 Subaru Legacy Outback
1997 Subaru Legacy Outback. Click image to enlarge

This second generation Legacy, like the rest of Subaru’s late-1990s lineup, also gained a reputation for reliability. Though its used car data doesn’t cover the first two years this generation of Legacy was on the market (1995 and 1996), Consumer Reports (CR) does give 1997 through 1999 models its recommended used car rating. There are a couple of weak spots, however: head gasket problems are reported both by CR and past and present Legacy owners posting in Internet forums though those same owners state that good maintenance plays a big part in heading off serious problems. These cars also suffer from weak brakes, a problem those Internet-savvy owners say can be solved with upgraded aftermarket brake pads.

Fuel consumption, while not unreasonable for a mid-size car, is higher than average for the class due to the extra inertia of the all-wheel-drive system. Cars equipped with the 2.2-litre engine and 5-speed manual transmission are rated 9.7 to 10.5 L/100 km in the city and 6.5 to 7.4 L/100 km on the highway (depending on model year) while models with the 2.5-litre engine consume 11.2 L/100 km in the city and as much as 8 L/100 km on the highway.

1997 Subaru Legacy L
1997 Subaru Legacy L. Click image to enlarge

The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that the 1995-1999 Legacy earned four stars each for driver and front passenger protection in frontal impact crash testing, and three stars for front seat occupant protection in side impact tests. Rear seat occupant protection wasn’t tested. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) gives the second-generation Legacy an acceptable overall rating in its frontal offset crash test, with results indicating a higher-than-average chance of injury to the driver’s left leg and foot.

Price-wise, a used Legacy or Outback should come in a little cheaper than a comparable Accord or Camry despite the added value of the Subaru’s all-wheel-drive system. What’s really interesting is that when they were new, the Legacy and Outback were more expensive, on average, than both the Accord and Camry despite the Legacy’s lack of available V6 power. As well, after 1995 you could no longer get an Accord wagon and the following model year was the last time a Camry wagon graced Toyota showrooms, essentially leaving Subaru to corner the market for mid-size import station wagons.

Taking all of this into account, it’s hard not to recommend a used Legacy or Outback as an affordable alternative to not only a Camry or Accord, but also many mid-size SUVs, which can’t match the Legacy for handling or fuel economy and offer little or no advantage in terms of interior space. If you’re still not convinced, well, where’s that Crocodile Dundee when you need him?


Online resources

www.ultimatesubaru.net – With just under 12,000 members, UltimateSubaru.net is a smaller community, but this is still a busy site that’s definitely worth checking out.

www.subdriven.com – If you could liken an internet community to a city, Subdriven would be a suburb of the almost city-like CarLounge.net, which in turn is part of the Vortex Media Group community of automotive forum websites. Despite the huge size of this group of sites, the Subdriven forums are very quiet. That said, it’d be worth joining here anyway just to have access to The Car Lounge, which can be a tremendous resource no matter what kind of car you drive.

NASIOC.com – NASIOC stands for North American Subaru Impreza Owner’s Club. This is arguably THE place to be if you own an Impreza of any kind. Almost 84,000 members call NASIOC home, and for good reason: there is a seemingly bottomless well of knowledge here and a very strong feeling of community as well.


Recalls

Transport Canada Recall Number: 2001183; Units affected: 12,569

1995-1999: Certain passenger vehicles equipped with front coil springs. The front coil springs were produced with poor paint quality which, after continued exposure to corrosive salt, can result in breakage of the spring. Depending on the location of the fracture, a broken spring could move past the spring seat and contact a front tire. Some tires have deflated due to contact with a broken spring. Correction: Dealers will notify customers to bring their vehicle to an authorize dealership to have a spring guard installed on both front struts to prevent tire puncture and replace any broken springs free of charge.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 1999020; Units affected: 3,442

1995: On certain vehicles, the front tow hook may contact curbing, dips, speedbumps, potholes etc. and cause inadvertent air bag deployment. Correction: Front tow hooks will be removed on affected vehicles.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 2000069; Units affected: 46,003

1996-2000: Certain vehicles do not comply with Regulation 6 – Statement of Compliance. Compliance label was not expressed in both official languages in regard to vehicle classification. Correction: No corrective action will be taken for existing vehicles. Correct compliance label will be affixed in current production vehicles.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 1998107; Units affected: 1,866

1996-1997: A weld fracture may occur on the hanger bracket of the front transverse links. This could result in separation of the bracket with subsequent failure of the lower suspension mounting and loss of vehicle control. Correction: front transverse links will be inspected and replaced if necessary.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 1998029; Units affected: 3,364

1997: The throttle shaft ball bearing on the sensor side of the throttle body assembly may not have been installed on these vehicles. This could eventually lead to incomplete return of the throttle valve and consequently a high idling condition. Correction: throttle body will be inspected and if the bearing is missing, the throttle body will be replaced.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 1998030; Units affected: 1,393

1997-1998: The automatic transmission shift lever assemblies on these vehicles may fail due to poor welds within the assembly. This can result in stuck ignition keys, broken shift levers/linkages and improper movement of shift levers. Correction: automatic shift lever assembly will be replaced with one furnished by a different supplier.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 1999043; Units affected: 16,710

1998-1999: On certain vehicles equipped with anti-lock brakes (ABS), the brake master cylinder secondary circuit may not function in extremely cold weather due to brake fluid bypassing the fluid supply valve, which remains open. This condition can result in the brake pedal going to the floor during normal light brake application, thereby increasing stopping distance. Correction: Brake master cylinder will be repaired or replaced as required.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 1997200; Units affected: 1,360

1997: The hazard warning flasher button can bind in the housing causing continued operation of the hazard warning lamps, or their being turned off but the turn signals becoming inoperable. Correction: dealers will install a modified hazard warning switch.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 1998176; Units affected: 2,207

1998: The original oil filter cans on these vehicles may fatigue and fracture causing an initial vaporized oil spray and subsequent oil leak. Such vaporized oil spray can result in oil vapour ignition by the hot exhaust system and subsequent underhood fire. Correction: vehicles which have not had their first service inspection will have the oil and filter changed.

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.

For information on recalls, see Transport Canada’s web-site, www.tc.gc.ca, or the U.S. National Highway Transportation Administration (NHTSA)web-site, www.nhtsa.dot.gov.

For information on vehicle service bulletins issued by the manufacturer, visit www.nhtsa.dot.gov.

For information on consumer complaints about specific models, see www.lemonaidcars.com.

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