When Subaru dropped off the Legacy 2.5i wagon, my first thought was that somebody had screwed up. I asked for the base model; the car they dropped off had alloy wheels and big dual chrome exhaust tips peeking out from under the bumper. The key had a fob for remote unlocking. Inside it was well trimmed with fabrics, comfy-looking cloth seats, power windows, CD player, air conditioning all the comforts I've come to expect from most automaker's mid-level cars. Base models are usually "loss leaders" that draw prospects into the showroom so the dealers can sell them a more expensive model. That's what I was expecting.
Fortunately, before I whipped out my cell phone and made a complete jackass out of myself, I checked the window sticker. This was, indeed, the 2.5i, not the pricier GT or Limited, and it was virtually option-free. Wow! Hard to believe that such an attractive car was the lowest-priced model -- yet here was the proof, parked right in my driveway.
$23,000 isn't chump change, and the Legacy isn't the lowest-priced car in this class. But it's one of few available as a wagon and the only one to offer all-wheel-drive (AWD - all four wheels are driven by the engine) as standard. (More on why AWD is so important in a moment.)
In the Driver's Seat
The Legacy isn't unique for its level of standard features; even the least expensive Camry ($18,375) comes with power windows and locks, A/C, antilock brakes and airbags all around, just like the Legacy, though it lacks the Legacy's alloy wheels and remote locking.
What sets the Legacy apart is the feel.
I can't quite put my finger on it; maybe it was the high-quality plastics and fabrics or the security of knowing I had all-wheel-drive. Maybe it was the novelty of a wagon, or the knowledge that the Legacy is so closely related to the all-conquering Outback. Whatever it was, the Legacy just felt... more expensive.
I love wagons. OK, they're a bit nerdy, but so am I. The Legacy hits all the wagon high notes: a well-balanced easy-to-close hatch lid, rear wiper, hidden storage under the cargo floor, a windowshade-type cargo cover, and rear seats that fold down perfectly flat. Subaru's stylists even managed to give the car a swoopy-looking back end that doesn't intrude on cargo space. Subaru didn't miss a single trick.
On the Road
In the Rust Belt folks know that a Subaru is the car to have when the snow flies. Subes will go even when some SUVs can't. But AWD is just as beneficial on rain-slicked roads and bone-dry pavement. Good handling can be the difference between having an accident and swerving around it. The Legacy offers a rare combination of sports-car-like grip and a soft, gentle highway ride.
If there's a weak spot, it's the engine. Not in terms of power -- the 2.5 liter engine's 168 hp is more than adequate for the 3255 lb Legacy (surprisingly light for an AWD wagon). It's just loud. Above 2,800 RPM it sounds like a rabid Volkswagen Beetle (no coincidence; both use the same horizontally-opposed engine layout). If I shifted the 5-speed manual early to keep the noise down, the car felt slow; if I shifted at 4,000 RPM the power was great but I felt as if I was caning the poor thing. 70 MPH equates to a noisy 3,000 RPM. Good news, though: The excellent stereo easily drowns out the din.
I forgot about the racket once I hit the gas pump. Subaru claims 23 MPG city/30 highway. The nature of my week-long test drives means I rarely see those numbers, but I matched that figure in the city and scored an amazing 35 MPG on the freeway. Amazing!
Every review comes down to one thing: Would I spend my own money on the car? The question is particularly pertinent for the Legacy because I am in the target market. And the answer, as you have no doubt already guessed, is an unconditional "YES".
Other mid-size cars may have lower prices, but all-wheel-drive justifies the Subaru's extra cost. It's big, well built, enjoyable to drive, and I feel safe carting my family around in it.
The Legacy is also available in plusher Limited trim, and the GT offers a turbocharged engine that'll put a mile-wide grin on your face. Both are great cars that I would highly recommend. But liking a car is one thing. Being able to afford it is another.
After sitting in the top-of-the-line models parked in the dealer's showroom, the base models are often a let down. With the Legacy 2.5i, there's no need to feel like you've settled for second-best.
I'm a writer and Robin is a massage therapist. We find a lot of fulfillment in our jobs, but neither one will make us rich. That's part of the reason I appreciate the Legacy 2.5i so much -- it's a really nice car that us ordinary folks can afford.
Well done, Subaru -- and thanks.