2015 Subaru Legacy

Subaru has a problem on its six-starred hands, but you wouldn't know it at first glance. Sales are up; in fact, the Japanese automaker has recorded 28-straight months of increased sales in the United States, leading to the best first-quarter Subaru has ever recorded, and 2014 will almost assuredly be the seventh straight year it has posted improvements. So, what's wrong? The answer is simple, though clearly complicated to resolve. Sedans – specifically, midsize examples – have proven a tough nut for Subaru to crack.

The vast majority of those impressive sales statistics have come from just a few models, namely the Forester, Outback and XV Crosstrek. The Impreza continues to sell at a respectable pace, but it's telling that the XV, after just three years on the market, is already Subaru's third-best-selling nameplate, outpacing the aforementioned Impreza (on which it's based), its high-performance WRX sibling and the Legacy, which is now entering its sixth generation, having been first introduced way back in 1989. It's that last model we're examining today.

Despite the fact that the Legacy plays in a hotly contested market segment that includes such stalwart sales champions as the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Ford Fusion and Nissan Altima, Subaru's competitor registers as a barely visible blip on the radars of new-car buyers. Graphically illustrated another way, Toyota sells 17 Camry sedans for every new Legacy that Subaru moves.

Naturally, Subaru is well aware of all this sales data, and it knows how much its bottom line would appreciate another percentage point of the midsize sedan market share. The question that remains unanswered, then, is this: What is the company going to do about it?

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It's the styling equivalent of, "Nothing to see here, move along."

Before we go any further, it's worth mentioning that the last Subaru Legacy was most certainly a credible entry into the midsize sedan market. It boasted plenty of interior roominess, a smattering of engines that either sipped fuel, snorted with turbocharged eagerness or offered a healthy dose of six-cylinder torque, and all, of course, included all-wheel drive. It faltered a bit on the styling front, with cartoonishly large fender flares being the most egregious offense, but had plenty of appeal for performance-minded shoppers... at least until the shift-for-yourself 2.5GT model was dropped in 2013. We'll get back to that in a bit.

We're generally pleased with the more refined look of the 2015 Legacy over the awkward duckling of generation five. While its overall look is bland, there are a few interesting styling flourishes to be seen upon closer inspection, including the overt, six-sided front grille and the stylized headlight clusters that bracket it on either side. Bodysides are clean, pulled taught by deep creases in the shoulder and ankle lines. The rear end is pretty basic, with six-cylinder models getting dual exhaust outlets in place of the smaller engine's lonely single exit. Like we said, it's ho-hum and not particularly memorable, but it's inoffensive; the styling equivalent of, "Nothing to see here, move along."

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The tale of the tape puts the Legacy atop competitors that are noted for their roominess, like the Honda Accord and Volkswagen Passat.

And so we will, to the interior. Materials are of high quality, with nary a squeak or rattle to be heard, due in part, we're sure, to the new acoustically laminated windshield, liquid-filled engine mounts, additional foam insulation and thicker steel used in key structural areas. Unfortunately, the commensurate decrease in road and powertrain din also means the low hum of wind noise around the A pillars can be heard loud and clear.

The gauge cluster is perfectly legible, and if the Legacy is equipped with the optional $1,195 EyeSight driver-assistance package which uses twin cameras at the top of the windshield to keep an eye on the road ahead for functions like pre-collision warning, blind-spot detection lane-change assist and adaptive cruise control, it will boast a five-inch LCD screen. (Models without EyeSight use smaller 3.5-inch displays.) All controls are logically placed, falling readily to hand right where you'd expect to find them. That's an improvement over the last Legacy, which had a few oddball human-interface mistakes that included an electronic parking brake buried in the dash to the lower left of the steering wheel. There are no such glaringly offbeat bits for 2015.

All pieces the driver interacts with feel good, especially the leather-wrapped, three-spoke steering wheel that has just-right bulges in the neighborhood of 10 and 2. A step up the pricing ladder from Premium to Limited trim brings with it leather upholstery in place of cloth, and low-gloss fake wood trim that looks a grade or two better than we'd expect at its price point. We're also happy with the restrained use of plastic trim finished to mimic aluminum. Sitting atop the center stack is a 6.2- (on base models) or 7-inch touchscreen that includes tablet-like swipe and scrolling gesture controls. We found the new system pretty responsive and easy to use, with important interface pieces like audio and climate controls still operable with dials. That audio system can be had with as many as 12 speakers, powered by a Harman Kardon Green Edge system that pumps out the equivalent of 576 watts but draws significantly less actual power.

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Computer algorithms controlling the CVT mimic the feel of traditional gears.

There's a lot of room inside the Legacy. A total of 104.6 cubic feet of space awaits passengers, which marks a slight improvement over the 103 cubes found in the last Legacy. Front-seat passengers benefit from two additional inches of width (we think it's mostly sculpted out of the doors), and the rear-seat occupants will find 38.1 inches of legroom. The tale of the tape puts the Legacy atop competitors that are noted for their roominess, models including the Honda Accord and Volkswagen Passat. The trunk offers up 15 cubic feet to play with, and split-folding rear seatbacks aid with carrying long objects.

Pop the broad-shouldered hood and you'll be welcomed by one of two available engines, starting with a 2.5-liter boxer four-cylinder. This is the same basic powerplant that debuted last year, but it's been upgraded to make it slightly more powerful and efficient. Peak power comes in at 175 horsepower and 174 pound-feet over what Subaru says is a wider range than before. A six-cylinder boxer engine is optional, displacing 3.6 liters and sending 256 hp and 247 lb-ft to all four wheels.

Regardless of which engine you choose, you'll have a continuously variable automatic transmission to play with. Typically, these stepless gearboxes are plagued with what we have uncharitably referred to as 'rubber-band effect,' which basically means they spin up to a specific engine speed and sit there as the car accelerates, droning about as the car picks up speed. It's a strangely elastic sensation for those used to the meshing teeth of real gears that swap ratios back and forth. We're happy to report that Subaru's so-called Lineartronic CVT mostly eschews this behavior – we've had similar thoughts about this transmission in the Forester and even the lovely WRX. Subaru engineers tell us that there are two separate computer algorithms controlling the CVT that either mimic the feel of traditional gears, invoked with heavier applications of throttle, or force the engine into greater efficiency at low revs when the driver isn't spurring for a headier gallop. Either way, the transmission feels natural and doesn't make its presence felt with any odd sensations.

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The 2015 Legacy is not to be thought of as an oversize WRX.

We suspect most Subaru buyers will be happy enough with the base 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine that they won't feel the need to pay the additional cost to step up to the six (they're a historically sensible and frugal bunch, after all). The starting price for the 2015 Legacy is $21,695 (excluding a $795 destination charge), and the $23,495 Premium model sits in the sweet spot below the $26,495 2.5i Limited model that comes with leather, 18-inch wheels and just about all the bells and whistles available at the top level of four-cylinder Legacy pricing.

The actual cost difference between the four- and six-cylinder models is a bit difficult to figure since the bigger engine comes only in a top-spec 3.6R trim, a guise that costs $3,100 more than the 2.5i Limited's $26,495 asking price, but the price of power will also be felt at the pump. The 2.5-powered Legacy scores EPA estimated fuel mileage ratings of 26 miles per gallon in the city and 36 on the highway, compared to the 3.6's 20/29.

When compared with the models it will be shopped against in the midsize family sedan segment, the four-cylinder engine is competitive in power and efficiency. Sure, the V6 offers quite a bit more grunt, but in the daily city-street grind, the four-cylinder is perfectly adequate, and it goes about its business of propelling you and your stuff without any undue shaking, rattling or harshness. If you want more power, then of course, get the six; but we mourn the loss of the sweet, turbocharged 2.5-liter engine that used to be available in the Legacy GT.

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An overall feeling of quiet competence, not excitement, strikes us as appropriate given the car's intended mission.

There was a time when the Subaru Legacy could be considered a true performance sleeper, with Bilstein shocks propping up an all-wheel-drive sport sedan that paired that rally-bred turbo engine with a six-speed manual transmission. That's all in the past, now, and while the Legacy is still one of the better-handling cars in its segment – joining the likes of the Mazda6 and Honda Accord – absolute cornering grip from either the standard 17-inch or optional 18-inch wheels and passenger-car-spec all-season tires is pretty low. We heard some at-the-limit protestations from the tires at elevated speeds on the curvy roads near Big Sur, CA, which, in reality, is to be expected, despite the presence of Active Torque Vectoring. Most drivers won't be pushing the limits of this four-door sedan the way an enthusiast with all-wheel-drive dreams might wish for, and that's fine. The 2015 Legacy is not to be thought of as an oversize WRX.

Occupants are rewarded with a smooth ride that is just on the positive side of firm. The electric power steering, too, is just right, with good weighting and accuracy, along with a ratio that's actually a tad quicker than we'd have expected at speed. Straight-ahead stability is good, with no particular dead feeling on center to be felt. Brakes are the same ventilated discs all around regardless of which engine is chosen, and they stop the car with confidence.

The Legacy delivers an overall feeling of quiet competence, not excitement, which strikes us as appropriate given the car's intended mission, which is to grab some market share away from the Camry. Subaru isn't expecting any miracles when it comes to Legacy sales – indeed, the company knows full well that taking the sales crown from corporate partner Toyota is an untouchable goal. While a 17:1 Camry-to-Legacy ratio isn't good enough, something along the lines of 15:1 would make the company's bean counters rejoice. We think that's doable, and as an added bonus, those would-be Camry buyers with a taste for something a little more unique will end up owning what we consider to be a better overall car.