Question: The April 2010 Consumer Reports' "Annual Auto Issue" gives the 2004 Subaru Legacy's four-cylinder engines the worst possible rating. I read this, but still had a mechanic look a 2004 Subaru Legacy over I might have purchased, except the mechanic told me: "It's got Subaru's classic head gasket problem". CR was right on with its poor rating on the ’04. I checked it again and saw the 2005 Subaru Legacy engine had the best reliability ratings. I'm unsure that I can afford a 2005 model, I'd like to ask you how a rating can go from the pits to the best in one model year? And, if I can't afford an ‘05, does the negative stuff in CR mean I should steer clear of all 2004 Subaru Legacys?
I'm going to explain the "worst-to-best" phenomenon first, and then--in a follow up article--I'll tackle your question as to whether you should avoid a 2004 Subaru Legacy altogether, even if it is affordable.
People often don't realize how CR comes up with their ratings on cars. They don't simply look at the surveys of owners of six year old Legacys and see if they are better or worse than the 5 year old Legacy. What is going on is that the 2004 Subaru Legacy engine received survey results from actual 2004 model owners who rate its reliability as a six year old vehicle. The marks it gets for reliability is not a comparison of the 2004 engine's reliability to the 2005 engine's reliability. So, in comparison to every single 2004 vehicle that is rated in the Reliability section, the reliability of the 2004 engine is pretty poor. In fact, among ALL vehicles with six years of wear and tear, most of these vehicles' owners say their six year old cars, trucks and vans have better reliability ratings than what owners of 2004 have to say about their vehicle's six year old engines.
As poor of a rating that owners of the 2004 Subaru Legacys reported back to CR, to say that the 2005 model Legacy is better, or even much better, would be as impressive as comparing the intelligence of an idiot to a tomato. The idiot is far more intelligent than a tomato, but that doesn't qualify the idiot to enter MIT.
So now, if you realize that CR is not even thinking about comparing how the ‘04 Legacy model faired against the ‘05 model, we're on track.
So while it is true to think of the 2005 Subaru Legacy's engine as being much better than the 2004 Subaru Legacy engine, you are missing the point if you don't realize that the ‘05 Legacy is not being compared to the ‘04 model, but compared to every single 2005 car, truck and van that CR rates in its 2010 Annual Auto Issue.
Now I can be impressed to realize that 2005 Subaru Legacy owners who rated their cars after five years of use, abuse, care or neglect, gave the 2005's engine such high marks for reliability that few others matched. In other words, we're not comparing an idiot to a tomato--we are comparing a Subaru Legacy to the very best models offered in 2005 by Lexus, Toyota, Acura, Honda Infiniti and Nissan. The result of that comparison is that the 2005 Subaru Legacy engine is every bit as reliable, if not more reliable, as the best car, truck or van sold new back in 2005, having lived its car "life" for five years. Now we're comparing the intelligence of an incredibly intelligent person to others whose intelligence is extraordinary. And this is not a matter of some magazine's opinion; this is the way the dice fall when all 2005 vehicles are compared, using feedback from actual owners, who have lived with those vehicles after it has been used for five years.