Driven at All Corners: The 2005 Subaru Legacy & Outback

Subaru’s station in the automotive world has been one of moderate but low-key success, but that’s a situation the brand is looking to change. Often overshadowed, at the low end by high-volume makes like Toyota and Honda and at the top by leather-clad luxury car purveyors like Lexus and Audi, the spunky Japanese brand hasn’t gotten much attention from mainstream buyers. Although the Forester, Outback, Legacy and Impreza models have always been decent cars with a small but loyal following of iconoclasts, it was the hot Impreza WRX and explosive STi models, however, that put Subaru back on auto enthusiast’s maps. Now, having tasted triumph–glowing media coverage and strong sales to aspirational buyers–Subaru is determined not to fade back into obscurity. Not missing a beat, Subaru has pulled out the all-new 2005 Outback and Legacy models for our consideration, and perhaps for the first time for those who love to drive, they’re worthy of a good, long look.

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One item of note: as part of Subaru’s growth strategy, the brand has decided to move upmarket. New Subarus are becoming more expensive and better-equipped than their predecessors, a fact which has been loudly proclaimed in their new advertising. Perhaps you’ve seen the magazine ads lately where their ’05s are compared to high-end German makes, with a tagline implying that the BMW and Benz boys are in mourning over the new competition. What’s possibly most surprising about the campaign is that it’s not all hype–in fact, it isn’t hyperbole when Subaru states that their latest and greatest are in many ways as good as the cars they’re targeting. The only downside to all this, of course, is that prices have risen commensurately and Subarus are no longer the bargain non-SUVs that they used to be.

‘250 Horsepower!’ is the headline-grabber at the top of nearly every Legacy/Outback press release. Yes, they’re both now available with 250 horsies kicking under their sexily scooped hoods. Actually, there are two separate motors boasting that output, each with distinctly different power delivery characteristics. The first is a turbocharged 2.5-liter “boxer” four, which appears in GT models. The sporting powerplant, it’s based upon (but not identical to) the hot-rod WRX STi motor, and makes 250 lb/ft of torque as well. The turbo also conquers roads at the highest altitudes without wheezing–a challenge for most normally-aspirated engines. The second 250hp engine, found only under the hood of the Outback 3.0R model, is a boxer six-cylinder. This motor feels more relaxed and silky-smooth, akin to perhaps a BMW inline-six. Registering only 219 lb/ft on the torque meter, though, it doesn’t get the heart pumping like the turbo does, and is better suited for folks who bought their Subaru for all-weather capability and reliability as opposed to speed-demons who really wanted a four-door Porsche. Still, both go far beyond adequate. ‘Adequate’ is an apt description of the powerplants in the previous-generation Legacy and Outback, around 30% less powerful than these pieces, but good enough to get the job done (the old motors still do duty in the base models). No, these new Subies are less ‘adequate’ than ‘awesome.’ In the turbo models, the run to 60 mph takes place in a claimed 5.8 seconds. That’s BMW and Porsche territory-like we said, awesome.

Stepping into the Legacy or Outback is very much like visiting an old friend. Everything falls right to hand and the driving experience offers no unpleasant surprises. These cars are comfortable, powerful, and immensely capable. Our most recent experience with one of these Subarus came during the first snowstorm of winter, which emphasized the Subie’s utility even further. The car was able to move with authority through frozen roads that most cars didn’t dare traverse–and gave pause even to many SUVs, with their high centers of gravity and portly stature (not to mention the scores of two-wheel-drive models bought by consumers choosing to save some cash while still cashing in on the rugged appearance of these vehicles).

In better weather, we’ve tested both the Legacy with the turbo 2.5-liter and an Outback 3.0R. Both felt capable of keeping up with nearly anything else out there, but the turbo’s quick response and thrust-you-back-in-your-seat delivery makes it the enthusiast’s choice. Raring to go at every stab of the throttle, the turbo suffers little lag, and responds to feather-light touches of the throttle. On back roads, we routinely had a hard time staying within anything even approaching the legal limits. Put simply, these cars are fun!

Both the Legacy and the Outback rate as nice places to spend some time. Step inside, and you’re greeted with an attractive interior that makes you want to check the owner’s manual–’did I really just get into a Subaru?’ Controls are laid out in an intuitive fashion, and the top-notch tactile materials could teach Infiniti’s interior designers a thing or two. The layout is modern and refreshingly user-friendly, and the overall feel is decidedly upscale. Optional leather upholstery is very high quality-while many of the hides you’ll find in Japanese cars feel more like vinyl than cow skin, Subaru’s feels like your favorite bomber jacket. Seats themselves are supportive in all but the most spirited driving and accommodations for rear passengers are spacious and comfortable. The steering wheel, from aftermarket firm Momo, is one of the best in the business. Automatic models feature shift buttons on the wheel, allowing you to snick down a gear in a sweeping corner without your hands leaving the wheel–but the lag between the button-pressing and the actual shifting means you have to predict your shifts well in advance, Nostradamus-like, or give it up altogether. Optional wheel-mounted audio controls can be had as well, and these little convenience items are well worth the investment. Even if it does seem a trifling matter to save the effort of reaching an extra eighteen inches to change stations, the fact is that in-car entertainment systems are more complicated than ever. Any reduction in time spent by drivers deciphering controls and displays means more eyes on the road more often–and that’s hard to argue with.

Dual-zone climate control is a useful feature for finicky passengers, and Subaru’s system, combined with the heated seats, does an excellent job of making the Legacy and Outback temperate for all constitutions. The available extra-large sunroof offers a panoramic view of the heavens, even for those in back, and is an option not to be missed. An in-dash 6-disc CD player is optional as well. Sound quality is above average, although not entirely on par with the audiophile-quality (NOTE, I originally had here “…’audiophile’s-wet-dream’ systems…” but my proofreader suggested that may be a little too much, even for
the RoadFly audience. Thoughts?) systems found in vehicles such as the Acura TL that we automotive journalists become spoiled by. No navigation system is currently available, although a rectangular storage compartment in the center of the dash hints that Subaru hopes to offer one soon. Such gizmos are often little more than expensive adult video games, but some buyers may be put off by this deficiency.

Tear yourself from the driver’s throne for a bit and you’ll observe that these new Subarus sport the kind of attractive, aggressive good looks that, frankly, Subaru was never really known for. The style itself evolved from the previous Legacy/Outback twins, but while the originals brought to mind a tweed jacket with suede elbow patches, the ’05s somehow give the impression of a crisp Italian suit. The lines on both are clean, looking muscular and just a tad menacing. Outbacks feature rugged-looking lower body cladding, which, combined with the increased ride height, give it a rough-and-ready appearance that even many tall SUVs lack these days. The Legacy sedan is more formal and communicates its sporting nature clearly. Both Legacy and Outback are available in sedan or wagon configurations, and Subaru’s clever designers have thankfully made the choice between them less of a matter of sacrificing sexiness for utility. Either style, on either model, will wear well for years to come.

The mirror-mounted turn signal repeater feature is a safety touch that every carmaker should adopt. Also on the safety front, the Subies feature a rigid frame with crumple zones; and standard adaptive airbags in the dash, front seat (chest) area, and side roof rails. (A recall was issued for those curtain airbags on early production cars, but only 130 vehicles were affected, and Subaru acted early to correct the problem.) Also keeping drivers safe and sound are seatbelt pretensioners, active head restraints, and a collapsing pedal/footrest structure. In keeping with the security theme, Outbacks offer Subaru’s advanced Vehicle Dynamics Control (VDC) system, which incorporates stability and traction control to keep the least Andretti-like drivers among us on the straight-and-narrow. More importantly, though, the safest vehicles are those that can avoid accidents altogether, and this is where Subaru’s philosophy of plentiful power and standard all-wheel-drive shines.

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“These guys sure are pretty darn serious about all-wheel drive.” That’s what kept running through this reporter’s (admittedly simple) mind while sitting through the introductory press conference last fall. Sure, the fact that every Subaru is driven by all four wheels is the primary trait the company has traded on since time out of mind. However, sitting at a 7:30 a.m. presentation run by people who really, truly CARE about the complexities of such technologies really drives the point home. With no less than four distinct AWD systems, mated to transmissions that promise more high technology than day-old laptops, Subaru engineers have created cars that promise better off-road performance than you’ll get from just about any AWD sports sedans and even many SUVs. Just one all-wheel-drive system might have sufficed, but Subaru’s taking the time to design distinct, optimized versions for each application is proof of a level of dedication that bodes well for the entire flagship line.

The excessive engineering of these Subarus is evident in other respects as well. Like Atkins on amphetamines, Subaru’s engineering geeks went so far in their diet that they lowered the windshield washer fluid and moved the battery by 26mm. The boxer motors–a commendable configuration, as the low-slung design lends a lower overall center of gravity–are now mounted yet closer to the asphalt. The automatic tranny still isn’t the true driver’s choice, but it is blessed with an upgraded electronic brain that measures lateral g forces to eliminate annoying mid-corner upshifts. Even the steering ratio has been tweaked for quicker response.

Subarus in general are reliable cars, but just a couple niggles did pop up in our time with the test cars. For one, we found the speedometer to be optimistic to the tune of almost 8%. More annoying, in repeated tests we were never quite able to replicate the claimed 0-60 mph time of 5.8 seconds. Using an electronic performance meter, the best we achieved was on the high end of six seconds. Admittedly, we only had a few chances, in imperfect conditions, to get the launch technique right-and we probably never did. A disappointment, but still, the numbers don’t actually change the fact that this Subaru feels really fast.

On the whole, these Subies can compete with the best in the all-wheel-drive performance sedan and wagon market. However, with prices reaching $33,000 for full-zoot models, it remains to be seen if the market will buy into Subaru’s new upmarket aspirations. Recent sales have been hovering just under the brand’s target of 9,000 per month; a slight disappointment, but still 25% better than the previous models. As more drivers begin to experience the benefits of the new Legacy and Outback–with improved motors, drivetrains, styling and interiors–we can only expect sales to increase.

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