By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist Photo courtesy of CARICOS
Subarus used to be such an easy sell.
If you were a buyer looking for an AWD car, Subaru was one of the few that sold them. And pretty much the only one that wasn’t also an expensive German brand.
Subarus — including the 2015 Legacy reviewed here — still come standard with all-wheel-drive. But several competitors now offer it, too — including the 2015 Chrysler 200 I reviewed recently (see here) and also the Ford Fusion.
That makes life tougher on Subaru.
So does the government — whose fuel economy fatwas have succeeded in killing off one of the Legacy’s formerly available (and fairly uncommon in this class) features — a six-speed manual transmission.
It’s gone now — replaced by a more economical (but less entertaining) CVT automatic.
This, by the way, is “trending” across the industry; manuals are on the way out because automatics (CVT automatics especially) can be programmed to squeeze out an extra MPG here, another MPG there. That matters a lot when there are hefty fines dangling over the heads of automakers whose cars don’t make the cut. And that cut is going to notch up to 35.5 MPG on average a little more than a year from now (2016).
So, bye-bye six-speed manual.
But, the Legacy — like all Subarus — still has its unique (and inherently better-balanced) “boxer” horizontally-opposed engines. Well, they’re unique if you’re looking to pay less than $50k to start (the base price of the least expensive Porsche, the only other new cars on the market that come with an engine design of this type).
And the just-updated Legacy can also tout an impressive suit of safety technologies — as well as a roomier-than-previously interior.
The already Subaru-inclined will probably be very happy with it. The Final Jeopardy question is whether Toyota/Honda (and Ford/Chrysler) leaning buyers can be swayed by it.
WHAT IT IS
The Legacy is Subaru’s “big car” — the roomiest (and most luxuriously fitted out) sedan in the lineup. It goes up against mid-sized rivals such as the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry sedans (neither of which offer all-wheel-drive) as well as the Ford Fusion and Chrysler 200 sedans (both of which do offer AWD, but as optional equipment).
It is distinguished by its standard AWD and unusual-in-this-price-range boxer engines, which sit flat rather upright and which are naturally balanced (and so, smooth) by dint of each pair of pistons (two on each side) “boxing” one another on opposite sides of a centrally located crankshaft.
Base price is $21,695 for a 2.5 with AWD and the now-standard CVT automatic transmission. A top-of-the-line 3.6 R (with a larger, more powerful, six-cylinder version of the Subaru boxer engine), the CVT automatic, leather interior, sunroof, navigation and Subaru’s EyeSight suite of safety technologies stickers for $29,595.
The ’15 Legacy is extensively — but subtly — updated for the 2015 model year. The body is slightly longer (and wider) and the interior is a bit roomier than previously.
As mentioned earlier above, the formerly available six-speed manual transmission has been dropped from the roster, but gas mileage is a couple of MPGs better than previously — with the 2.5 liter/CVT combo now posting a very good (for this class) 26 city, 36 highway vs. 24 city, 32 highway for the 2014.
The mileage delivered by the optional six (which is also now paired with a CVT instead of the formerly available five-speed automatic) is slightly better, too: 20 city, 28 highway vs 18 city, 25 highway last year.
Fuel efficiency is now class-competitive.
Affordable AWD (to get AWD in the Chrysler 200, you must buy the optional V-6 and the base price climbs to $27,890 — $6,195 more than the base price of an AWD-equipped Legacy).
The “latest” in safety systems, including a bundled-together package (EyeSight) that includes adaptive cruise control, collision warning and automatic braking. Seat cushion air bags are standard, now, too (bringing the total standard airbag count up to eight).
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Mediocre acceleration with either engine.
Interior’s not as lush and high-end looking as are the cabins of several rivals, most notably the new Chrysler 200 and the also-new Toyota Camry.
Ride quality may be a bit too firm for a car marketed mostly on the merits of its efficiency and safety.
UNDER THE HOOD
The Legacy comes with either a four or (optionally) six cylinder engine — which is not unusual in this class. But the layout of the Subaru’s engines is unusual.
Instead of four in a row — and standing straight up — the Subaru’s 2.5 liter four (175 hp) lays flat, with the cylinders laid on their sides, one opposing another across the crankshaft in the middle.
The optional 3.6 liter six (256 hp) is laid out the same way.
Why is this a desirable layout? Two reasons. First, the engine’s weight sits lower in the chassis, which is helpful in terms of the car’s handling. Second, this type of engine is naturally balanced, the push-pull of one piston acting as a counterbalance on the one opposing it, canceling out vibrations.
Upright (inline and “v”) engines typically need to have counterweights installed on the crankshaft — or externally — to balance the engine’s rhythms and tamp down vibration. The Soobie boxer engines do this without such weight-adding crutches.
The boxer layout has also proved to be immensely durable — and this has been a Subaru selling point for decades.
Both engines are now paired with a continuously variable (CVT) automatic. The previously available six-speed manual (with the 2.5 liter engine) and five-speed automatic (with the V-6) have both been retired. Chiefly, for the sake of upping the Legacy’s MPG stats, which are now — with the base four — slightly better than some rivals (e.g, the Ford Fusion, which rates 34 highway with its base four).
The Legacy’s optional six is still fairly thirsty, however — especially given its middling output/performance. The new Chrysler 200, for instance, offers an available 295 hp V-6 that’s capable of shooting the car to 60 in under 6 seconds (about a second sooner than the 3.6 Legacy) and still manages 18 city, 29 highway with AWD — virtual dead heat vs. the AWD-equipped 3.6 liter Legacy’s 20 city, 28 highway.
The Legacy 3.6 stacks up better against the Ford Fusion equipped with its optional 2.0 liter turbocharged “EcoBoost” four — which is a mandatory option if you also want AWD. So equipped, the Ford can get to 60 in just under 7 seconds (about the same as the Legacy 3.6) and its EPA city/highway numbers (22/31) are only slightly better than the six-cylinder Subaru’s 20/28.
But the big disparity is that neither Ford nor Chrysler offer a lower-cost AWD version of their respective sedans.
Only Subaru does.
It might not be the quickest thing around, but it’s not the most expensive thing around, either. And it’ll get you through almost anything. Or at least, through conditions that would likely leave the cost-equivalent FWD competition foundering like the Titanic after it hit the iceberg.
Trust me on this. I live in a rural (and white scheisse-prone) area. Subarus abound — and abide. Because they rarely get stuck — and seem to last almost forever.
ON THE ROAD
To appreciate the Legacy’s virtues, wait for a snow day. That’s when you’ll be grateful you bought an AWD car. Subarus are legendary for their capabilities as street-bound, four-wheeled ice breakers — going even where some 4×4 SUVs dare not tread. Fit one with a set of Blizzaks and you are ready. Bring it on.
On other days, the Legacy’s personality is kind of like the elevator man in a nice NYC high-rise apartment. He’s friendly, but not in your face. A kind of calming part of the everyday routine. The Legacy shares this quality — highly desired, if sales figures are any guide — with best-sellers like the Camry. But it has that extra measure of capability the Camry (and Accord) lack and which the 200 and Fusion insist you pay a small fortune for.
The AWD system is sophisticated (Subaru being an AWD pioneer, this is not surprising) but very “background.” There’s no setting to select, no lever to engage, no knob to turn. The only AWD-related item inside the car is an LCD display that shows all four wheels are turning. But they can turn individually, at varying rates, to maximize the car’s grip — in a straight line on wet/snow-slicked pavement as well as in a dry curve at high speed. Unlike truck-type 4WD, which is designed for traction rather than handling, AWD gives you both in the same car.
The now-mandatory CVT is not a bad box — and is programmed to mimic a conventional automatic’s stepped gear changes (these can be engaged manually, up or down, if you wish) but without the shift-shock of transitioning from first to second and second to third (and so on). Instead, the engine speed varies as you proceed; it’s more of a spooling-up effect, not unlike a turbine.
Interestingly,Subaru elected not to ape the others and offer various driver selectable “modes.” No “sport,” “normal” and “eco.” Put the transmission in Drive — and drive. I like that. It’s less pretentious.
Also — big cheer here — no obnoxious auto-stop/start. The last five cars in a row I tested had this system, which automatically kills the engine when the car rolls to a stop in order to save gas (the engine restarts automatically when the driver depresses the accelerator). It doesn’t save much fuel, though. These systems exist chiefly to boost a automakers’ fleet average fuel economy numbers. But they do waste your time (it takes a moment for the engine to re-start, delaying your forward progress) and may very possibly waste you money down-the-road, when something breaks. Subaru — so far — hasn’t aped the others here. either.
Some reviewers describe the Legacy’s ride as overly firm. I didn’t feel that way. But the truth is that “ride” is a highly subjective thing — hence the importance of a test drive. What I can tell you for certain is that all new cars ride “firm” relative to what was common 10 (let alone 20) years ago. Part of the reason why is that current new cars typically come with what’s known inside the business as “low aspect ratio” tires. It means short, stiff sidewalls. Necessary to fit the currently common 17 and 18 inch wheels one finds fitted to most new cars. This includes the Legacy, which comes standard with 17s (though surprisingly, these are steel 17 inch wheels; alloy 17s are also available) with 18s optional.
The upside to these short-sidewall tires is much faster steering response and road feel, as well as generally more athletic handling.
That said, I’d rank the Legacy as being among the softer-riding cars in this class. More so than the Accord, definitely — and the newly macho’d up Camry, too. The only one I’ve driven that’s noticeably plusher-feeling is the new Chrysler 200 — which rides like the previous (2014) Camry.
AT THE CURB
How do you tell how much your 13-year-old has grown over the last year? He looks pretty much the same, after all. Well, you break out the tape. Same deal here. The ’15 Legacy looks at first glance a lot like the ’14 Legacy — but it, too, has grown.
The new model is 1.3 inches longer (188.8 inches vs. 187.2 previously) and about three-quarters of an inch wider (72.4 inches vs. 71.7 before). It’s not a difference your eyes can pick up, but it’s one you’ll notice when you climb in. Especially in between. While legroom is increased slightly, hip room has been expanded hugely. There’s 55.5 inches up front now — and 55 in the second row — vs. 54.5 up front and 53.9 in the second row in the ’14.
By this measure, the Legacy trounces the otherwise uber-plush Chrysler 200, which only has 52.7 inches of second row hip room (and about an inch less legroom, too). The other AWD-available car in this class — the Ford Fusion — meets or beats the Legacy on most measures of interior space (it has 1.4 inches more front seat legroom, slightly more second row legroom — and nearly an inch more backseat headroom) but this expansiveness is tempered by the expense of this car when it is equipped with AWD.
And of course, the other players in this class don’t offer AWD at all.
Styling-wise, the Legacy is on the nondescript side. Not ugly. Just not memorable or turn-your-head-what-was-that? This is not necessarily a bad thing. The Camry made hay for decades being the car no one much noticed.
But the interior may be an issue. Not because it’s awful. But because the bar has risen so high in this segment.
I’ve mentioned the new Chrysler 200 several times. Go see it and see what I mean. Also the new Camry. Everyone’s been upgraded from coach to business class.
Well, except the Legacy.
Its dash is hard plasticky and austere; the touch-screen monitor’s a little late 1990s Star Trek Next Generation-looking. Trying to change radio station channels was also a little exasperating. You need to turn the knob (top right) slowly. Turn it too quickly and there’s a lag between your input and the channel changing … while the system thinks a little. Often, it jumps ahead too far. Then you have to dial it back… slowly. Granted, once programmed, with your favorites inputted, this problem goes away. But I think it’s too sensitive, nonetheless.
On the plus side, the rotary controls and related buttons for the AC and heater and fan are direct, their operation instantly comprehensible and usable by feel, without having to look at the same time. The available seat heaters (standard in Premium trims) do a good — but not excellent — job of getting warm and staying warm. If you want hot, try a German car. They seem to be the only cars on the market with seat heaters that actually heat rather than merely warm.
The Legacy’s seats themselves are, however, excellent. Not too squishy — not too confining. Very comfortable for short hops and long road trips.
Subaru’s EyeSight pedestrian-detection and collision avoidance system differs from other such systems in having the cameras it uses to detect pedestrians and potential collisions mounted up high, near the upper edge of the windshield, rather than down low in the front bumper — as is usual practice. Subaru says this increases the system’s field of vision — putting it on the same plane as the driver’s actual eyes (hence the name). All these systems are the leading edge of the not-far-off-now autonomous/self-driving car. Some will cheer its arrival. I will mourn the passing of a time when drivers were expected to pay attention to their driving — and know how to drive.
For now, the system remains optional — bundled with Lane Departure Warning and Adaptive Cruise Control (it maintains the speed you set, slowing — and accelerating — as needed automatically).
As mentioned earlier, eight air bags are now standard in this car — including a pair in the seat bottoms (driver and front-seat passenger). These are meant to keep the occupants in place during a crash to minimize injury potential.
Here again, I’m a little leery. Eight air bags. Wow.
One might save your life, granted. But if two (let alone three or four) go off, the car will probably be a total loss, even if it’s otherwise fixable. Because the cost to replace those bags is killer — and can push the total fix-it cost after even a relatively minor accident too close to the 50 percent-of-pre-wreck-market value threshold — at which point most insurance companies will crush rather than fix the car.
Now you know why it costs so much to insure these things.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Despite some competition on the higher end, the Legacy remains the go-to choice for an affordable AWD-equipped family sedan.