Subaru Legacy Wagon: Best for Last

Subaru will be retiring the Legacy wagon for 2008. If you want one of the zippiest family cars on the market, you better hurry

Editor's Rating:

The Good: Handling, cargo space, safety, four-wheel drive

The Bad: Generic styling, no telescoping steering wheel

The Bottom Line: It may be a station wagon, but it has speed, panache, and offers good value

Up Front

This is more of a lament than a review. In a few months, Subaru is phasing out the Subaru Legacy station wagon, one of the most affordable, practical, yet fun-to-drive family cars on the market. As of the '08 model year, the Legacy will only be offered as a sedan. The sole station wagon version of the vehicle will be the far more SUV-ish Subaru Outback.

That doesn't make any sense. Survey after survey shows that most owners rarely if ever actually do any off-road driving. So, what's with the American obsession with high-profile, high-riding vehicles? And why is it that any vehicle that looks even remotely like a traditional station wagon doesn't sell? I mean, 1950s-style furniture and ranch-style homes have made a comeback. Why not station wagons, which have just as much space inside and usually handle better than small sport-utility vehicles?

Nothing against the Outback, but for people who like sporty driver's cars, the Legacy is a cut above its sister model. The Outback wagon is identical to the Legacy wagon in length, width, and wheelbase, and (like all Subarus) both models only come with all-wheel drive. But a couple of telling statistics set the two apart: The Outback, which is designed for the U.S. market to have a rugged, SUV-like look and feel, has a ground clearance of 8.7 inches, nearly as much as General Motors' (GM) Hummer H3 and two-and-a-half inches more than the Legacy. The Outback also is five inches taller than the Legacy.

The upshot is that the Legacy sits lower on the pavement than the Outback, and handles and hugs the road better. Sure, the Legacy is much more of a traditional station wagon, and its styling is hardly head-turning. But if you're trading down from a gas-guzzling SUV and like to drive, it's a great option to consider. Lower-end Legacies offer remarkable value, and the high-end GT Limited version of the Legacy wagon has the speed and handling of European wagons such as the Audi A4 Quattro and the Saab 9-3.

When I noticed Subaru enthusiasts fretting on the Internet about the possible demise of the Legacy wagon, I scheduled a test drive of the 2.5 GT Limited, which starts at $31,520. Powered by a peppy, turbocharged, 243-horsepower four-cylinder engine, it's one of the great smaller family cars on the market, and may be the best Legacy wagon Subaru has ever made. In addition to the turbocharged engine, it has bigger brakes, a limited slip rear differential, fancy electroluminescent gauges, and comes standard with a five-speed automatic transmission with a manual-shifting mode.

The good thing about the Legacy, though, is that there are more affordable versions for the budget shopper. The base model 2.5i Legacy wagon, the only version with a stick shift, starts at just $22,120. Even at that low price, it not only comes with all-wheel drive but a fair amount of standard equipment, including air conditioning, antilock brakes, power windows and doors, and a six-speaker sound system with an auxiliary jack for an MP3 player. It also comes standard with front, side, and side curtain airbags, and the Legacy has earned top crash-test ratings in both front and side collisions.

The next step up is the $23,620 2.5i Special Edition, which has a four-speed automatic transmission rather than a stick shift, plus a panoramic double sunroof and a power driver's seat.

The mid-level is the 2.5i Limited wagon, which starts out at just under $26,000, adds heated exterior mirrors, a windshield wiper de-icer, heated front seats, leather upholstery, and an upgraded sound system.

The base model Legacy wagon is rated to get a respectable 22 miles per gallon in the city and 29 on the highway, but mileage drops to 19/25 in the turbocharged GT Limited. In a stretch of 160 miles of very hard driving, I only got 20 mpg, but you can probably expect to get about 23 mpg in more normal mixed driving. Keep in mind that the turbocharged engine requires expensive premium gasoline.

Why ditch the Legacy wagon in '08? "It's just a matter of numbers," says a spokesman at Subaru's U.S. headquarters in New Jersey, who adds that Outback wagons far outsell non-Outback Legacy versions of the car. Subaru doesn't break out sedan vs. wagon sales, but sales of both Outback models combined held steady at a little under 60,000 units last year. The Legacy has lagged by comparison, with combined sedan and wagon sales slipping 10.8% last year, to 25,180.

So it makes business sense to drop the Legacy wagon. And offering the Legacy only as a sedan and the Outback only as a wagon will give each model a clearer identity with consumers. It's just a shame that more station-wagon-style vehicles like the Legacy can't co-exist on the market with crossovers and SUVs.

Behind the Wheel

What's new on the '07 Legacy wagon is that you can now get it with both a turbocharged engine and the Subaru Intelligent Drive system, which allows you to alter the car's performance characteristics by manipulating a knob on the center console. Putting the car in "Intelligent" mode moderates acceleration, improves fuel efficiency, and provides better control on slippery roads. "Sport" mode provides for "linear acceleration" that makes the car a bit speedier. "Super Sharp" mode makes the throttle more responsive and sportier. It's designed for twisting roads and quick moves on and off of freeway ramps.

The system really does make an appreciable difference in the car's performance. With the car's automatic transmission doing the shifting (as opposed to manual mode), I consistently got 0 to 60 acceleration times of 7.5 seconds in "Intelligent" mode. That's plenty fast for a family station wagon, but when I switched to "Super Sharp" mode, the time dropped to 7.2 seconds. Put this car in "Super Sharp" and floor it on the on-ramp to a highway and you just zoom.

My main complaint is that there's a noticeable hesitation before the car takes off after you punch the gas. I also found the steering-wheel-mounted shifters that allow you to do the shifting manually at the push of a button a little sluggish, so I didn't use them much.

The Legacy handles extraordinarily well in winter driving conditions. One evening, I took my test vehicle out and ran it 80 miles on a variety of roads during a major late winter snowstorm. I threw the car into curves and tried to make it spin out in icy parking lots, but I never really succeeded. This car's road-grip in inclement weather is incredible.

Also, unless you plan to do a lot of heavy-duty off-road driving, you really don't need the higher profile of the Outback. At 6.1 inches, the Legacy's ground clearance is nearly an inch greater than the VW Passat's, and the Legacy powers through three or four inches of fresh snow with no problems. If there's more snow on the ground than that, most people are going to stay at home until the streets have been plowed.

On a more practical level, this is a good car for a family with one or two young children, but it doesn't have the size you need for heavy-duty carpooling. Since there's no third row of seats, maximum seating capacity is five, and three adults would be scrunched in the rear seat. Front-seat legroom is adequate for most people but may be tight for the tall or plus-sized. Rear seat legroom, which is only listed at 34 inches, is tight.

There's plenty of cargo space. The rear seats fold down in a 60-40 pattern, and there's 33.5 cubic feet of space in back with the rear seats up. If you need more space, a roof rack comes standard in the Legacy wagon, and Subaru dealers can sell you cargo carriers ($335), bike racks ($155 to $460), and ski racks ($140) to increase the car's carrying capacity.

My gripes about the Legacy wagon are mainly minor. For instance, it's too bad you can't get it with a telescoping steering wheel, which would help make the driver's seat more comfortable for tall and heavy-set occupants. As in other Subarus I've driven, the steering also feels a little heavy. In general, though, I love the way this car drives.

By It or Bag It?

If you prefer an SUV-like vehicle, the Outback is identical to the Legacy wagon in every key parameter (cargo space, leg and shoulder room, etc.), except height and road clearance—and is getting a modest redesign for the '08 model year. There are also numerous alternative small and midsize SUVs and crossovers to choose from, ranging from the modestly priced and larger Kia Sorento to the Honda (HMC) CRV.

But if you can set aside the irrational American prejudice against station wagons, give the Legacy wagon a test drive. Through Apr. 2, Subaru is even offering $750 back on the model (and on the '07 Outback, as well), so it's a good time to buy. You may just be surprised by what a practical, quick, sweet-handling vehicle it is, especially if you can afford the 2.5 GT Limited version with the turbocharged engine.

Don't dally, though. The Power Information Network, which, like Business Week, is a unit of the McGraw-Hill Companies, says the Legacy wagon is in relatively high demand, spending only 39 days on a dealer's lot before selling (vs. 117 days for the VW Jetta wagon and 62 for the Volvo V50).

Click here to see more of the 2007 Subaru Legacy.

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