Subaru launched the sixth generation of the Legacy mid-sized sedan last week. You can be forgiven if you missed the previous five. Most people did.
Mid-sized sedans, after all, are the car industry’s equivalent of the soccer World Cup “Group Of Death.” The Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, and Ford Fusion sit on top of the segment, and the rest of the entries barely have room to breathe. Kia’s Optima and Hyundai’s Sonata are perfectly good choices, but are buried by the big three. Probably the best overall car in the segment, the Mazda 6, doesn’t even come close to cracking the top 5 in sales. By those standards, the Subaru Legacy has traditionally been like the Saudi Arabian team: Qualifying for the tournament, but an afterthought, gone as soon as the first round is over. (In 2013, Subaru sold half as many Legacy sedans as Dodge sold ancient, wheezing Avengers.)
At a glance: 2015 Subaru Legacy
Engine: 2.5L flat four or 3.6L flat six
Power: 175 hp; 256 hp
Transmission: Continuously variable auto
Drivetrain: All-Wheel Drive
MPG: 26/36 for 2.5; 20/29 for 3.6
Base Price: $22,490
As-Tested Price: $30,390 (3.6R Limited)
I took the new Legacy on a test drive last Saturday in Northern California. My high school buddy and personal physician Dr. Gregg came along with me. He was the perfect person to gauge the vehicle. His wife also works as a doctor. They have two cars: a 2004 Volvo and a 2006 Acura SUV, and they regularly drive up to Tahoe and Mammoth to go skiing and snowboarding. In other words, they’re upper-middle-class outdoorsy types who like to drive, the exact customers Subaru wants to poach from higher-end vehicles.
Dr. Gregg had little to say about the exterior of the car, because it’s almost comically generic, but the interior impressed him a lot. It had comfortable cream-leather seats, nice clean dash lines, plenty of legroom, a nice wide navigation screen, up-to-date Bluetooth tech, and all the modern bells and whistles that cars boast now. For someone who hasn’t bought a car in a decade, it’s like going into the future.
The fact that the vehicle we got into, with the 2.5-liter engine and a full suite of safety technologies, retailed at well under $30,000 was even more impressive to him. “This car is kind of like my car,” he said, “but there’s more value. It’s almost an upgrade. When you have an old car, you really appreciate it. When you can get this for under $30,000, and it’s better than your Volvo, that’s saying something.”
The ride and handling impressed both of us in the 2.5-liter. It handled beautifully on the Pacific Coast Highway, never losing balance, and the engine, while low-wattage, seemed to match the transmission with easy efficiency. Subaru’s best-in-class all-wheel drive system didn’t hurt; Dr. Gregg compared it favorably to similar systems in Audis and in Volvos, and he’s driven both.
All day, that seemed to be the theme. Subaru offers something that other carmakers either can’t, or don’t: Budget traction in a car that belies its sticker price. “I didn’t think this car existed in all-wheel drive,” said Dr. Gregg. “It’s safe and it’s reliable. It’s got decent tech and it gets good gas mileage.”
The 3.6-liter didn’t get the same raves. It felt heavy and clunky and more poorly matched to the continuously variable transmission, taking a simple car and added a gooey layer of “performance” onto it, like a perfectly good sandwich ruined by too much dressing. As my friend said, “if it’s not that much faster and you’re going down seven MPG in efficiency, what’s the point? Does not compute!” With this Legacy, less is more.
As midsize sedans go, the Legacy has a lot to promote, between its good mileage, features and a price that for the highest-volume model will likely start around $24,000. And yet it's likely to get only a little bump in sales because those outdoors types tend to want more cargo space than any sedan can provide. My friend Dr. Gregg is in the market for a car in the next couple of years. I asked him if he’d consider buying a Legacy. “Probably not,” he said. But he’s definitely thinking about the Outback.
Full disclosure: The manufacturer provided transportation, lodging and meals for this review.