2015 Subaru Legacy First Drive

May 21, 2014

Suddenly, Subaru?

It's taken a decade of rescaling and repositioning its cars, ditching some upmarket dreams in the process. And it hasn't happened overnight--just at an enviably steady clip.

Today, the company that once brought you alien outliers like the SVX and the Baja, has found its way into the deepest part of the mainstream, where even the world's biggest car companies get bruised by all the flying elbows.

With the 2015 Legacy, Subaru has engineered a mid-size family sedan that's more relentlessly, conventionally appealing than what Toyota or Chevy or Chrysler or VW currently has on tap.

There's a reason for the more conventional route. Subaru already retails a lot of crossover utilities, as many as it can import and build. Now, it wants to move more sedans as it moves closer to selling 500,000 cars a year in the U.S.

The current Legacy dribbles out of dealers at a measured pace--at a slower rate than such well-loved lights as the Dodge Avenger. Volkswagen's Passat, for all the chatter that it's an underperformer, has twice the market share of the Subaru.

With a little stretch here and a reimagined bit there, the Legacy feels primed for the big time. It's a bit larger where it needs to be, a lot more muted where it has to be, and it's full of features in a way Subaru is really just getting the hang of.

The Legacy's a legitimate Honda Accord alternative, a Nissan Altima equivalent, a sublime counterpoint to the engaging but jiggly Ford Fusion. And we like those cars a lot.

Flagship, of a kind

The  Legacy is Subaru's flagship car, and that speaks to the pragmatic core of the brand...said someone in a PowerPoint at some point, I'm sure. It's not too large, not too frilly, not at all pretentious.

In styling, the Legacy is empty of empty-headed details, pointedly flared instead of pointlessly flaired. Everything just falls into line here, from the raked windshield to the mildly sculpted fenders and lower bodywork. The logo lies inside a six-sided grille--you've seen it everywhere from the Hyundai Sonata to the Ford Fusion. Apparently, if you don't have six sides, you're nowheresville, population one. The side view is as rational as the one on a Hyundai Genesis, without reaching for some elusive upscale look.

From the decklid, you'll have to hunt for the badges before you can definitively name what you're seeing--though to be fair, that's the case with a half-dozen cars in the same class.

Where the details reveal themselves to be Subaru in origin, they're pretty purposeful. The best example: The sideview mirrors are set back behind a small triangle of glass, for better aerodynamics and better visibility.

The Legacy's cabin shifts in lockstep with the sheetmetal toward a handsome, functional median. It's a clean, easily readable design with a band of metallic or woodgrain trim that distinguishes upper-trim levels from base versions. Gauges are lit in blue, with a small LCD display wedged between the dials for a quick read of directions or audio status. The vents are stacked higher on the dash, to make room for a touchscreen interface that sits above a panel of knobs and switches rendered in old-school-Japanese metallic plastic. It's buttoned-down, and you have to look--really look--inside the Legacy for the inexpensive bits of trim.

Slick work

The '15 Legacy wraps itself in a protective shield of predictability. It's wired for careful responses to every input, from the way the gearless transmission blurs acceleration to the way the suspension and steering snub rough road surfaces. It feels more traditional than a Fusion does, for sure--just as the Altima and Accord do--and as "premium" as any Volvo.

It's smooth at just about everything, but the flip side is that it's hard to get either the four- or six-cylinder Legacy eager about anything. It could be relatively lean torque down low, cautious transmission programming, or gradual throttle uptake--no matter the cause, you have to work the gas pedal to get even the six-cylinder Legacy excited about hustling California's best curves.

The base powertrain turns in the best fuel economy, of course, and it's happy to spin through the powerband with a reasonable level of mute applied through its acoustic-glass windshield. It's a 2.5-liter flat four-cylinder that makes 175 horsepower and 174 pound-feet of torque, coupled only to a continuously variable transmission (CVT) and all-wheel drive. The four-cylinder needs and wants to be wrung out when, say, climbing uphill with two aboard. But thanks to extra sound deadening, there's no wall of noise waiting at the other side of the gas pedal.

The four-cylinder can click off 60-mph runs in the mid-8-second range. The six-cylinder shaves a second or so off that, and it's unstrained, but not so obviously quick. The 3.6-liter flat-six engine turns out 256 horsepower and 247 pound-feet of torque; GM's turbo fours beat it by about 50 pound-feet. There’s no turbo lurch here, no double-gearchange down, just a seamless sweep that comes off as maybe less dramatic than it should.

The six-cylinders also come with a CVT, a different one derived in this case from the WRX sport sedan, one capable of handling the higher torque. With either setup, the Legacy gets a set of steering-wheel paddle shifters and six programmed points on its infinite ratio curve--you'd call them "gears" in a conventional automatic or manual, but CVTs use belts and pulleys instead. The paddles can pull more emotion out of either engine, though it takes more than a click or two down before things get interesting. Unlike other applications, there's no SI-Drive setup in the Legacy--no more aggressive throttle or steering programs, no eight-point shift pattern. There's room here for an easy upgrade.

Between the all-wheel-drive's new torque-vectoring feature--it can shift power front to back, and use the brakes on an inside wheel to tighten a cornering line--the Legacy's default mode is calm, cool and collected. It skimmed gracefully down coastal Route 1 without any of the traction-control drama that's obvious in some overpowered front-drivers. Its electric power steering is a nice compromise of increasing weight off-center, but not excessive weight on-center. It tracks very well, and doesn't weight up unnaturally or step off center too quickly. It just flows with the same ease as the compliant ride. The Legacy is settled, but also absorbent--not squishy and listless like a base Camry, not borderline stiff as in any Fusion.

It all comes, at least with the four-cylinder, with very competitive fuel economy. The Legacy 2.5i models now achieve 26 mpg city, 36 highway—which, Subaru says, results in the best combined rating (30 mpg) of any mid-size sedan with all-wheel drive. All Legacy 2.5i models have active grille shutters to cut wind resistance when closed, and a weight-saving aluminum hood. Six-cylinders are quite a bit more drinky, getting 20/29 mpg or 23 mpg combined.



Nearly full-size; outsized safety

The Legacy's all grown up now, with a couple inches added side to side, and more than an inch added between the wheels. It could be difficult to reconcile, but the '15 Legacy is now roughly the size of a Honda Accord or Ford Fusion or even a Toyota Avalon, and it's just a fraction of a cubic foot shy of full-size status.

Subaru's not shy about the gains. The Legacy's its most spacious car ever, and it's claiming the biggest mid-size cabin in the segment.

By the numbers, the Legacy is 188.8 inches overall, with a 108.3-inch wheelbase. Weighing in at about 3,500 pounds in base trim or 3,700 pounds in six-cylinder guise, it sports 119.6 cubic feet of space in the cabin and trunk--120 cubic feet would make it a full-sizer. Leg room is a critical measure for the Legacy, at 42.9 inches front, 38.1 inches rear.

Compare those numbers to its top competition and a sedan that's been left behind. The Fusion has a 112.2-inch wheelbase, weight about the same, and has 118.8 cubic feet of interior volume. It nets out with 44.3 inches of front leg room, 38.3 inches of rear leg room--but it also loses some of that volume and leg room to a more sloped roofline. The Accord is closest to the Legacy's specs, with an inch more wheelbase and a zero-sum gain in front and rear legroom; the Altima gives front seat passengers two inches more in legroom, carved right out of the back-seat space, with 2 cubic feet less interior volume.

The Chevy Malibu doesn't seem so small, but it's down in every critical measure from the Legacy--most noticeably off 1.3 inches in rear seat legroom and 3 cubic feet of space.

The superior space is rationed out inside the Legacy to very good effect. The front seats sit higher for better visibility, though the power seat adjusts over a very wide range. The seats themselves? In cloth or leather, they could use more side bolstering, and really need a lot of tilt in the cushion to feel adequately supportive. The console that divides the front seats has a big pair of cupholders and a shallow, covered bin that holds a power point and two USB ports--aside from the console bin, deep enough to hold an iPad.

The Legacy's back seat has a better setup than the Fusion; the Altima has better cushioning but the Subaru's rear bench has a less sunken feel, maybe a perception issue stemming from the brighter colors and trim in our primary test car. You could probably put three adults across in back for short trips and still have a working relationship with them afterward.

And unlike the base Accord, the Legacy's rear seat still has 60/40-split folding rear seatbacks. Once folded down, the seats expose a large cutout that expands the 15.0 cubic feet of trunk space. The trunklid itself is nicely squared and cut widely, so loading wider objects should be a snap.

Sharper EyeSight

Those cargo openings are possible because the Legacy's body is stronger--roughly a third more resistant to bending and twisting. That structure, in turn, leads us to believe Subaru will hit the tougher crash-test bogeys from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The plan is for Top Safety Pick+--and credible, given that Subaru's earned it for every one of its vehicles tested so far.

The new Legacy adds to Subaru's dominance in affordable active-safety technology. A rearview camera is now standard. The latest version of its EyeSight driver-assistance system has improved camera performance and smaller cameras--they're better able to handle glare, have 40 percent better detection range, and can now recognize brake lights ahead in traffic. Subaru also says its system will be less expensive to repair after an accident--since the cameras are mounted inside the windshield, they're protected better from impacts.

The Legacy's list of active safety technology can include Blind Spot Detection, Lane Change Assist, and Rear Cross Traffic Alert; these systems now include rear radar hardware. The Legacy also features—in addition to the usual array of airbags—new front seat-cushion bags that help hold occupants in place in a frontal collision. And new Steering-Responsive Foglights have been added to the list of options, aiding visibility around dark corners.

The safety thoughtfulness goes as far as a feature we never knew existed on any Subaru. A car-mounted touchpad lets drivers set a code that allows the keyless-entry fob to be left in the car. If you're off chasing waterfalls or mudrunning, you can leave the fob behind in the car, and just tap the code for re-entry.

More better infotaining

After years of struggling with poorly thought out, uninformative and unentertaining car-based systems, Subaru drivers will now join the 21st century with the Legacy's new infotainment hub. Even the base Legacy 2.5i now includes a system with a pretty 6.2-inch multi-function touch display that permits tablet-style swiping and scrolling via big icons and tiles. In feel if not in look, the new Subaru system is close to GM's very good MyLink and IntelliLink interfaces--for example, you can mix favorites from any media. A row of buttons could include an XM station, Bluetooth audio, or a local AM station.

The base Subaru system also includes HD Radio, an iPod/USB port, an auxiliary input, Aha and Pandora app integration, and Bluetooth hands-free calling and audio streaming. Models with the audio upgrade or nav system have two USB ports and voice-command recognition with a good grasp of natural language--if "find me coffee, stat" is natural in any context. Depending on which system you get, there's a separate reconfigurable display (up to five inches across) in front of the driver.

Pricing pits the Legacy squarely against some sedans with lesser safety track records and without even an option for all-wheel drive. The base price of $22,420 delivers 30 mpg combined as well as a rearview camera, power accessories, and cruise control. The $24,290 Legacy 2.5i Premium adds equipment like dual-zone climate control, a 10-way power driver’s seat, an all-weather package, Bluetooth hands-free text messaging and a 7.0-inch touch screen for the infotainment system. The Legacy 2.5i Limited, at $27,290, upgrades to leather seats, 18-inch wheels, a harman/kardon audio system and heated rear seats.

The six-cylinder Legacy is only available in 3.6R Limited trim, for $30,390. It comes with the 2.5i Limited's gear, as well as stainless exhaust tips and HID headlights. There are a handful of options, too, ranging from $1,195 for the Moonroof Package up to $2,990 for a package that adds moonroof, navigation, keyless start and Subaru’s EyeSight collision avoidance system.

The 2015 Subaru Legacy arrives in showrooms this summer, on the heels of a new Impreza sedan, its hot WRX and STI spin-offs, and the Forester and XV Crosstrek crossover wagons. An Outback wagon is coming soon. Of all those, it's the crossover SUVs that are its best-selling vehicles--the vehicles that have put Subaru within a half-million sales next year. By any measure the Legacy is poised to add to that momentum--just as it's poised to throw some elbows in the direction of the Malibu, 200, Passat, and Mazda 6, not to mention some bigger targets.

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