If you were looking for one of the most exciting segments in the car industry, you'd be crazy to consider mid-size sedans.
But, of course, the reality is that most people don't end up in the sedan segment out of any particular burning desire. The cars are practical three-box designs with enough room to carry four or five passengers and enough trunk space to accommodate the baggage for said people. It's the classic silhouette of the suburbs, as normal and accepted as a pair of pleated pants or a divorce.
That baked-in sense of normalcy presents some interesting opportunities for manufacturers who tread slightly out of the usual focal length. For years, Volkswagen successfully offered its Jetta as a robust driver's car at a reasonable price, leaving the juggernauts like Toyota Camry and Honda Accord to their own recipe (a successful one, by the way). But ever since VW changed the Jetta's raison d'etre to include something other than driving excitement, it's left a gaping hole in the market.
Buyers are often left wondering: if I can't spend $30,000 and I want something that's roughly a sports sedan, what should I get?
The new Legacy 2.5 GT might be that answer.
In order to appreciate the new, fifth generation Legacy, let's start with the exterior. From some angles, it's not the most exciting design you'll find in the segment, but it has some redeeming qualities that are worth mentioning.
The high shoulder line of the vehicle is strong and straight, with a small character line that tilts in toward the windows, giving it a dignified (and almost German) stance. Even the small kink at the rear window emulates the famous BMW "Hofmeister kink" that the propeller brand made famous (which other companies have been stealing for years). The previous Legacy had a muted version of this design element, but this new model seems to show it off more. Overall from the side and rear, you get the sense that this is both a practical and straightforward design.
But, up front the message changes dramatically. The growling hood scoop and sculpted, angry headlight lenses aren't a balanced display of powerful restraint. They carry a different message: get out of my way.
Perhaps it's because of the Legacy's perennial status as an also-ran from a sales perspective that the company decided to take such a different tact.
If you consider the competition in mid-size cars, they more or less stick to a very traditional design look (with the Accord being the only exception, although even with its new-from-2008 design I'm not sure it could ever be considered that far afield). I consider Legacy's bold front-end design response as either an attempt to get those buyers to realize something they're not ("Hey, look at me!") or an attempt that is less angry but equally strategic: a move to cater to other types of individuals entirely.
Considering the direction Subaru went with its powertrain options for the Legacy, I'm willing to bet the latter. Sure, the car can be had with a garden-variety 4-cylinder (the 2.5i and its Premium and Limited trims), but Subaru took a very different tact with two other engines.
Our test model was a 2.5 GT Premium trim, which featured the incredibly fast, 265-hp turbocharged/intercooled four-cylinder and had a starting MSRP of $27,995. That's the same power you'll find in the WRX sports hatchback and, considering that the larger, 3.6-liter V-6 offered in the Legacy is only rated at 256 hp, it's the most powerful engine you can buy in terms of horsepower alone.
After a week of driving, I can report that it's one of the most thrilling options in the mid-size segment. Like other turbocharged Subarus, we generally just get a kick from flicking our ankle and watching the revs climb up to the red line. While this new Legacy is bigger and heavier than the outgoing model, we didn't feel a great sense of weight when driving the car. But we did feel the overall increase in size; where the old Legacy felt like it could dart through hole in freeway openings like any small car, the new Legacy feels like you're wearing a set of shoulder pads (the poofy, 80s kind). That's something that's necessary for the car, however. Subaru lost some customers in the past when the other Legacy competitors in the segment started offering more interior space, edging ever so closely to full-size car status.
I only have two requests for Subaru: improve the shift linkage and continue to refine the interior experience.
First up: the shifter. Our model featured a six-speed manual (the only transmission offered when you opt for the 2.5 GT), which is definitely my preferred method of shifting.
But, I was disappointed to find some of the same problems I've experienced in Subaru transmissions of the past: a rubbery shift feel and the occasional inability to select a gear. Watch anyone who drives a manual Subaru and they'll likely have a few tricks for how to get the car into first gear, one of the places I found hardest to find. It's not that the gear gets "lost," it's that you really can't move the gear lever into position. This wasn't really temperature-dependent, either. Both from starting up in the cold Detroit morning and after a long day of driving in 40-degree weather, I experienced the same issues.
The other main gripe is with the interior and some of the ancillary controls that the driver uses every day. A good example is the keyless remote: it seems to work on its own pace. A decade after keyless entry systems were introduced, we only need them to do one thing: lock and unlock the door when we press the button. The Legacy's system (and, for that matter, all other Subarus we've driven in the past year) seems delayed and its range is pretty short. Beyond that, if you're going for a two-click procedure to open both driver and passenger doors, you're likely to get hung up.
Are these big problems? Yes and no. The shift linkage mentioned above is something that might bring me to look to other vehicles, but Subaru's in a unique spot: no other manufacturer at their price point offers such compelling driving experiences. Therefore, the buyer who gets intoxicated by the beauty of the 265-hp, turbocharged engine can overlook even something like this. The keyless entry system is more of a nagging problem that all Subaru owners tend to live with.
"I hate it, but if that's the worst thing about it, I don't mind," said a friend of ours from Royal Oak, Michigan who owns a 2008 Forester.
So, in the end, Subaru's given us another opportunity to give them conditional love. The Legacy isn't perfect, but the qualities that we do harbor such strong feelings for make it stand out amongst the crowd.
They're offering a driving experience and exterior design that can't be found anywhere near this price point. Maybe that's the point they were trying to make all along.