First Drive: 2010 Subaru Legacy

June 25, 2009

At nearly every media brief on new models, for years now, your editors at TheCarConnection.com have become accustomed to asking the weight question. Automakers have had to increase safety features, add standard equipment, and meet higher standards of refinement. And something has to give. So usually in product presentations, weight is quickly glossed over, and someone will simply ask, "How much heavier is it?" But Subaru has a story here; officials point out—without being pressed—that the new 2010 Legacy models are no more than 65 pounds heavier than equivalent 2009 models, while some variants are actually lighter, and fuel economy is up.

That's quite a feat when the new car includes more standard equipment and is larger. Thank high-strength steel and, according to Japanese engineers, a clean-slate design that started with the interior and seating space, then worked the rest of the design around it.

Compared to the '09, the 2010 Legacy is just 1.4 inches longer, but it's nearly four inches wider and three inches taller, and has a wheelbase that's been stretched by more than three inches. That directly translates to a lot more legroom in back; this 6'-6" tester could sprawl out back there without slumping. And the trunk is huge.

Halvorson in 2010 Subaru Legacy 2.5i

Halvorson in 2010 Subaru Legacy 2.5i

Back to that point about weight, the new Legacy performs just as well, if not better than before, with its base 170-horsepower, 2.5-liter horizontally opposed 'flat' four-cylinder engine. Subaru has finally given the affordable Legacy its due with more sound insulation and new fluid-filled engine mounts that altogether with great suspension tuning give the sedan a much more refined feel than before with this engine. Considering its bargain $19,995 base price, it was our frugal favorite of the four variants we drove this past week on a variety of two-lane highways around the Puget Sound, near Seattle. It's not quick, but if you keep the engine at a boil it's satisfying enough, and surprisingly fuel-efficient.

If you go with the 2.5i, you have a choice of a new six-speed manual or a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT), which Subaru calls Lineartronic. Turbocharged 2.5GT models come only with the six-speed manual, while six-cylinder 3.6R models have a conventional five-speed automatic transmission.

The new Lineartronic transmission actually gets better fuel economy than the manual transmission (with a best-in-class EPA rating of 23 city, 31 highway), and it includes paddle shifters that simulate six ratios; downshifts occur in as little as a tenth of a second. Manual ratios can be locked in by shifting to the Manual gate that's to the left of Drive. Full-throttle acceleration doesn't involve the loud drone of some other fours; but the transmission ramps engine revs up to about 5500 rpm and keeps them there. While cruising, even at highway speeds, revs are kept mostly below 2000 rpm. Despite some full-throttle runs, we saw an astounding 33 mpg over about 50 miles on two-laners in the CVT car.

Our enthusiast hearts of course were won over by the 2.5GT, which now upgrades to the 265-horsepower version of the 2.5-liter engine. It's clearly the fastest of the three engines, and as in the WRX the new engine has a much torquier, responsive character than the previous mill. It's only offered with an all-new six-speed manual transmission, which we appreciated due to the smooth, light clutch action, gentle throttle tip-in, and nice clear shift gates—although it's a bit notchy and the throws are long. Thankfully, quick downshifts are still possible in the manual car because Subaru still allows blips of the throttle (many other automakers have 'slowed' their throttle response to meet emissions). The new 3.6R model replaces the old 3.0-liter model, moved by the Tribeca's 256-horsepower, 3.6-liter flat-six. The six brings a completely different character—it's confident, torquey, and relaxed, and its fuel efficiency is about the same as the turbo engine. Its five-speed automatic also has paddle shifters, but downshifts aren't quite as quick as with the CVT.

2010 Subaru Legacy

2010 Subaru Legacy

2010 Subaru Legacy

2010 Subaru Legacy

2010 Subaru Legacy

2010 Subaru Legacy

2010 Subaru Legacy 3.6R

2010 Subaru Legacy 3.6R

While suspension tuning is essentially similar between all three models, there are wheel and tire differences that give each model a slightly different feel. Base models feel light and nimble, as do 2.5GT models, while the 3.6R feels a little bit heftier, with a more nose-heavy feel in sharp corners. Push the Legacy hard into a corner and there's some body lean, yet the suspension maintains grip beyond expectation; it's tough to upset the sedan's poise—especially in inclement weather—and in the best road conditions there's surprisingly little nosedive in hard braking or front-end lift in hard acceleration. All three models have quicker-ratio steering that feels boosted just right for most drivers, along with a supple ride that soaks up small imperfections, potholes, and general coarseness, and relative to its predecessor and most other mid-size sedans the new Legacy's cabin has very little road noise.

It proved difficult to find anything but a few minor issues with the new 2010 Legacy. In shifting to fifth gear on manual models, our knuckles several times hit the ill-placed hazard button (we feel the need for a short-shift kit), and a Bluetooth hands-free interface isn't offered on the base model—at a time when driver-handheld phones are quickly becoming illegal.

Most models in the Legacy lineup have gained standard equipment yet fallen in price. 3.6R models have dropped well over a grand, and throughout the entire model line standard features include a telescopically adjustable steering wheel, an overhead console, keyless entry, steering-wheel audio controls, and an electronically operated parking brake with a Hill Holder that works uphill or downhill. Worth checking out are the new 440-watt premium Harmon Kardon audio system and a new voice-activated navigation system with USB and iPod interfacing and Bluetooth streaming audio. For more detail about features, along with more photos, specs, and other news, you'll definitely want to check out our freshly posted Bottom Line on the 2010 Subaru Legacy.

The previous Legacy, while a popular choice in a few markets, was mainly a niche player. But with lower prices, more room, and higher standards of refinement, much improved fuel economy from the new CVT, and better performance from the turbo and six-cylinder engines—and all-wheel drive on all the models—the new 2010 Legacy is on its way to take on the mid-size mainstream without forgetting about Subie fans.

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