Not all that long ago, Subaru was known for being the purveyor of cars that managed to be both safe and fun. Models from the compact Impreza to the Outback and Forester all served up a surprising amount of playful behavior — a result, to some degree, of the brand’s long rallying history. But these days, apart from the pair of abbreviative-named outliers known as BRZ and WRX, Subaru’s true north has moved more in the safe, family-friendly direction, away from the dynamic joy that once helped define it.
The new Legacy — which shares its bones, muscles, and most of its skin with the equally-new Outback — has all the specs and cred to be a leading contender in the family sedan realm. Yet a week behind the wheel found this new Japanese-designed, Hoosier-made four-door to be many things…just not the things old-school Subie lovers might want it to be.
It may be turbocharged, but this is no sporty Subie.
Years, Subaru sold the Legacy GT — a midsize family sedan with a 2.5-liter turbocharged flat-four making between 250 and 265 horses that delighted drivers with its engaging, playful handling and peppy motor. The Legacy XT models on sale today also boast a turbocharged boxer-four (the 2.4-liter unit first seen in the Ascent), but in spite of 260 horses and 277 pound-feet of torque, the new car is anything but sporty. The steering is as loose, soft and slow as what you’d find in an SUV, with a large dead spot on center; the suspension, meanwhile, seems designed to serve up Lincolnian levels of softness instead of BMW-like balance.
The continuously-variable transmission’s reluctance to let the engine rev without a hearty jump on the gas means it feels grandmotherly-slow in everyday driving. Push hard enough into the throttle, however, and the revs finally jump and push the engine into full turbo boost, slinging you forward with a force the previous few inches of pedal travel leave you unprepared for. It feels like an attempt to make the car feel faster than it is, when in reality, it simply makes acceleration less predictable. And yes, before you ask, that CVT is the only transmission you can have.
Top-shelf versions have interiors worth the money
The fully-loaded Legacy Touring XT model that rolled into our office boasted a price tag of $36,795, including destination. Admittedly, that’s not cheap, but it is right in line with the average new car transaction price these days. Yet the average new car doesn’t come with an interior nearly as nice as this top-shelf Subaru’s guts. Indeed, the Legacy Touring’s interior is nice enough to put actual luxury cars a rung or two up the price ladder to shame.
The overstuffed Barcalounger-spec seats trimmed in Nappa leather are prime for long, lazy road trips. The climate control blows with the sort of forceful, reassuring heat that you find when holding your hands in front of a space heater — perfect for chilly winter mornings in the northern climes where Subies reign above all other cars. The vertically-oriented 11.6-in touchscreen infotainment system isn’t quite iPad smooth, but it’s quick enough, and it makes the most of all that space to serve up large buttons and easy-to-use controls (blessedly flanked with hard buttons and knobs for oft-used functions, like radio volume and interior temperature).
The safety features can become annoying for some — but they’re likely perfect for the safety-conscious
As part of its redirection away from sportiness towards safety-above-all, Subaru has begun outfitting its cars with more active and passive safety systems than ever. (Witness the Legacy’s continued status as holder of the IIHS’s coveted Top Safety Pick+ award.) The EyeSight active safety system that comes standard on every Legacy brings with it adaptive cruise control, lane keep assist, and automatic collision prevention, all handy features that ought to be standard on every car. Still, the Subaru’s are among the more aggressive of the breed, slamming on the brakes when the car in front still seems reasonably far away (to this New Yorker, at least).
The top-shelf Touring model also benefits from the DriverFocus Distraction Mitigation System, which uses dashboard-mounted cameras to watch your face and make sure you keep your eyes on the road. It’s a great idea in principle; Cadillac uses a similar system to great effect in concert with its SuperCruise feature that let the car drive itself under select circumstances. In practice, however, it proves overly sensitive to the point of frustration. Block just one eye with a hand for a moment to rub your forehead, and it’ll chastise you with a beep.
Now, many cars have overactive active safety systems; as an auto journalist, you become accustomed to shutting off the annoying ones the moment you hop in the car — and come to appreciate the ones that remember when you’ve turned things off and keep them that way. The Subie, however, not only defaults to turning them on when you re-start the car, but it also makes turning them off as difficult as possible by forcing you down through levels of touchscreen menus — or doesn’t let you turn them off at all. Combine that with the sensitivity of the active safety features, and the car starts to feel overprotective at times.
For those who take pleasure in the act of controlling a car, such nanny state manners will probably be a turn-off. Those who consider driving less joy than chore, however, will likely be imminently pleased to know the lengths and depths their Subaru is going to keep them safe. Or, to put it another way: It’s not a car I’d buy, but it’s one I’d buy for my mom.