2010 Subaru Legacy: First Drive

Subaru’s family car is finally a mainstream competitor… at least the 4-cylinder model is

2010 Subaru Legacy: First Drive

Sitting in a dimly-lit conference room I was shocked at how candid Subaru’s product planning boss was. To paraphrase, he said that when consumers look for a mid-sized sedan, they don’t look at Subaru.

FAST FACTS

1. The 2010 Legacy is now longer, wider and taller to match sizes with its family car competition. It also boasts 3.9-inches of extra rear seat room.

2.  A CVT transmission on base 2.5i models is new for 2010, delivering a drastic increase in fuel-economy of 23/31 mpg.

3. The turbocharged 2.5GT model gets more power and a much broader powerband. With 265hp and a 6-speed manual it can hit 60 mph in less than 6 seconds.

How refreshing. No marketing spin. No focusing on the positives and ignoring the reality.

Instead the focus was on what Subaru needed to do to get people interested in the mid-sized Legacy and how the all-new 2010 model is poised to achieve those goals, not to mention the primary goal, to move more product and grow the Subaru brand.

Subaru has never had any problems keeping customers, but getting new ones has been difficult. With the launch of the latest Impreza and Forester, however, the Japanese automaker decided to leave some of its niche market appeal behind and offer a product that was more mainstream. And it’s worked, with sales surging, even in the midst of a recession. This is exactly the same plan Subaru is following for the 2010 Legacy.

To achieve this goal the 2010 Legacy has been improved, primarily in three areas, offering more interior space, better fuel-economy and a more attractive sticker price.

And on top of all that, Subaru has added more power while giving the Legacy a look that will help it stand out from the throngs of Accords and Camrys. In fact, the Legacy’s new sheetmetal, its larger size and relative uniqueness in the marketplace help to give it more luxury appeal than other mid-sized sedans. Plus, the car has a strong road presence thanks to shorter overhangs, large flared fenders and thick side-skirts that not only give a ground-hugging appearance, but also make even base models look more up-scale than they are.

A set of 17-inch wheels on most models gives a sporty/luxurious look, although base models do get 16-inch steel wheels with hubcaps. The 2.5GT Premium model is offered exclusively with 18-inchers.

PLENTY MORE REAR SEAT ROOM

Previous models were critiqued for being too small to compete with mainstream Japanese and American mid-sized cars, so for 2010 the Legacy gets a noticeable improvement in interior space – particularly in the back seat.

The car is now 3.2-inches higher for better headroom and 3.6-inches wider,. The new platform features a longer wheelbase by 3.2-inches and yet rear legroom has been increased by 3.9-inches, due in part to sculpted front seatbacks. And getting into and out of the rear seat is much easier thanks to doors that swing wider than on the previous model.

The longer wheelbase also makes for a more comfortable ride, while the new double-wishbone rear suspension and wider track help keep the Legacy’s agile handling characteristics. Also helping in that department are reduced front and rear overhangs, even though the actual length of the car has increased (by 1.4-inches).

Impressively, all this added size has not come at the expense of increased heft, as the different Legacy models maintain their weight in the 3,400 to 3,600 lb range.

From an aesthetic standpoint the cabin is nicely designed and reasonably well-equipped, but is a bit of a letdown when compared to the exterior design. The standard cloth seat material looks excessively economical, although Limited models get leather. The seats are reasonably well bolstered yet comfortable, although a set of sportier seats (even optional ones) for the turbocharged 2.5-liter GT model would be nice.

Unfortunately top Limited models get hideous wood-grain trim. The standard faux-aluminum is much nicer, and looks good with the monotone black interior. Along with black leather, a “Warm Ivory” color is also offered, and the two-tone look with the black dash significantly ups the luxury factor.

Base models come with power windows, mirrors and locks with remote entry, air conditioning, a tilt and telescopic wheel with redundant audio controls and cruise control and a multi-information display with an easy-to-see transmission gear indicator. Standard audio includes a four-speaker AM/FM single CD stereo with MP3 and WMA capability and an auxiliary jack.

Two new standard features include an electronic parking brake and an electronic hill holder system, neither of which are located in particularly easy to reach places. As for the hill holder system, it should be automatic and not require you to push a button each time to turn it on. It’s also located quite close to the automatic trunk release, making us wonder how many times Legacy drivers will accidentally pop their trunks while trying to engage this system.

Mid-level Premium models add a 10-way driver’s seat with power lumbar, a driver’s auto up/down window and a leather wrapped steering wheel. Top-level Limited models deliver leather, dual-zone climate control and a 4-way power passenger’s seat. There’s also a 440-watt Harmon-Kardon audio system as well as two-stage heated front seats, heated mirrors and a windshield-wiper de-icer (all of which is optional on the Premium trim).

All models get six-airbags including front, side and curtain. Subaru’s VDC traction and stability control system is also standard for 2010.

ADDED FUEL-ECONONY & PERFORMANCE

In terms of fuel-consumption, always a top priority with consumers, the 2010 Legacy has made significant strides forward (on some models), thanks in part to a six-speed manual gearbox and a new CVT transmission, which replaces the automatic box on all 2.5i models.

The base 2.5-liter boxer four-cylinder doesn’t get any more power on paper, at 170hp and 170 ft-lbs of torque, but power comes on 400 rpm earlier, making it feel peppier. In fact, while it’s certainly no powerhouse, it’s enough to get by on and even has useable power to pass on the highway. The only time it felt lacking was on steeper hills.

Fuel-economy on this motor gets a significant increase from 20/26 mpg with the automatic to 23/31 (city/highway) with the new CVT. The same can’t be said for the manual, however, as the new six-speed box drops one tick from the old five-speed unit, measuring 19/27 mpg.

As for the CVT, Subaru’s version works excellently. While there technically is only one long gear (or “infinite” gears, depending n how you look at it), the Legacy comes with paddle shifters and six pre-set “gears,” to help you get the most out of the engine. Just slap one of the paddles and the gears shift almost instantaneously – in as little as 100 ms.

It does take some getting used to the fact that when under full throttle there is no gear change. Instead the engine just revs away at some lofty rpm as the car surges forward.

Due to the lack of torque interruption, the CVT accelerates faster than an automatic, helping the 170hp feel like more. Subaru’s chain-driven (as opposed to belt driven) CVT also means it’s five percent more fuel-efficient than other CVTs on the market.

The middle-range of Legacy models, the 2.5GT, really should be the top dog. With 265hp and 258 ft-lbs of torque, power is up slightly over the previous model thanks to a larger turbo (which now sits below and in front of the engine) as well as a new exhaust system. Torque comes on significantly lower, however, with peak torque available at just 2000 rpm. Combined with a six-speed manual transmission the GT can hit 60 mph in less than six seconds. It doesn’t pull quite as ferociously as the lighter Impreza-based WRX but it’s still gobs of fun.

Fortunately or unfortunately the 2.5GT is no longer offered with an automatic transmission. Most likely Subaru found that few of the previous 2.5GT buyers actually went with an automatic, with auto customers opting for the six-cylinder model instead. Besides, an auto-box would have made the GT less exciting to drive and worse on fuel.

That would be particularly bad, as the GT doesn’t get any fuel-economy improvement over the past model with a rating of 18/25 mpg (city/highway). No doubt Subaru figures the “enthusiast” buyers won’t care as much about fuel consumption. Oh, and premium fuel is required.

Premium fuel isn’t, however, required for the six-cylinder 3.6R model, a pleasant change from the old 3.0R. Oddly, however, despite over a half a liter increase in displacement, power isn’t up much for this model; and neither is fuel-economy. Horsepower is up 11 ponies to 256 and torque is up more noticeably by 32 ticks to 247 ft-lbs. As for fuel-economy, it has increased just one mile per gallon in both the city and highway categories to 18/25 mpg.

Along with the seemingly useless added displacement, another reason for the lack of improvement in fuel-economy is the continued use of a five-speed rather than a six-speed automatic. As it stands, the five-speed is a great unit, especially as it throttle-blips on the downshift, it just needs an extra gear. And of course you have to factor in that Subaru’s AWD system works against it in achieving the same mileage as front-drive competitors. Still, it’s unfortunate that this is the only option for those who want six-cylinder power and an automatic transmission.

REDUCED PRICE (ON SOME MODELS)

As for the all-important price factor, Subaru has lowered the MSRPs across the board.  A base 2.5i is now $900 cheaper at $19,995, while the 3.6R is $1,600 less at $24,995. Unfortunately the Subaru faithful are being asked to swallow some of the cost of these discounts as models like the 2.5GT Limited are roughly $1,100 more.

THE VERDICT

As outlined above, it’s hard to give the 2010 Legacy a passing of failing grade in general. When you break it down into the different trim levels, however, it’s much easier.

Subaru’s goal of offering more interior space, better fuel-economy and a more attractive sticker price easily holds true on base 2.5i 4-cyl models, which can be ordered as Premium or Limited with all the leather and toys you could want. And on top of all that you get a mid-sized sedan with AWD that gets almost exactly the same fuel-economy (23/31 mpg) as a 4-cylinder Camry (22/32 mpg).

As for the 2.5GT model, it’s a bit disappointing that fuel-economy isn’t improved, but you do get that same mpg rating with more power and a six-speed manual. Combine that with Subaru’s AWD system and there just isn’t another mid-sized car that offers this much excitement for $27,995.

Sadly, the top-level 3.6R is a bit disappointing. Sure it’s a wonderful vehicle with a lower price, more power and more space, but that five-speed transmission is hurting fuel-economy (even if it is one of the best five-speeds in a mid-sized car).

Overall, the 2010 Legacy has an aggressive luxury look that sets it above the pack, while the company’s AWD system offers something special. And considering the increasing popularity of AWD systems, this fifth generation Legacy is certain to far exceed the popularity of its predecessors.

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