It's not unusual for a spinoff to become more popular than its source material: The Simpsons and the Tracey Ullman Show, Led Zeppelin and the Yardbirds, Joey and Friends.* You can add to that list the Subaru Outback and Subaru Legacy. The former outsells the latter by more than 3 to 1, despite the fact that the Legacy is the older nameplate. Subaru isn't about to complain about this situation -- the Outback has been key to the brand's astronomical growth and it commands higher sticker prices -- but neither does it want to give up on the huge mid-size car market. And so, the 2015 Subaru Legacy makes its debut months ahead of its more rugged sibling and attempts to appeal directly to those who buy Honda Accords, Nissan Altimas, and Toyota Camrys.
Looking good naked
The last Legacy grew several inches, which was great for Subaru because it meant the Outback could grow, too. But it left the Legacy looking tall, bulky, and slab-sided. The 2015 Subaru Legacy fills out nicely. It rides on the same 108.3-inch wheelbase as before, but the roofline is lower and the body sides are nicely sculpted. There's nothing particularly sensuous or surprising about the design -- come on, this is Subaru -- but it is a well-proportioned sedan that doesn't leave you wondering if the factory forgot to put on the Outback's plastic cladding.
The shorter roof does rob some headroom, but the cabin feels airy and spacious in a way many mid-size car interiors do not. Interior materials have improved: everything that looks soft actually is soft; the faux wood trim looks, well, not quite real, but nice nonetheless.
The biggest change comes where it's most needed—the center stack. The optional seven-inch touchscreen in our Limited model looks and functions much better than those in older Subarus. The screen responds crisply to inputs and lets you pinch and zoom like an Apple iPad. Bluetooth pairing, a hassle in the last Legacy, is now painless.
Yes, it has all-wheel drive
With all due respect to Subaru's recent television commercials, all-wheel drive -- not love -- is what makes a Subaru a Subaru. But that brand asset has been something of a liability in the mid-size-car segment, where many customers make fuel economy their priority. Rather than submit to the indignity of front-wheel drive, Subaru re-engineered its 2.5-liter boxer four-cylinder and employs fuel-saving technologies like active grille shutters. As a result, fuel economy improves to 26 mpg in the city and 36 mpg on the highway. That's a 4-mpg improvement over the highway fuel economy of the old Legacy and is competitive with other front-wheel-drive sedans in the mid-size segment. Fuel economy likewise ticks up in six-cylinder models, to 20/28 city/highway.
It has spunk
Subaru enthusiasts will remember that the Legacy used to be something of a Q-ship. Automobile Magazine spent a year with a 2005 Subaru Legacy GT wagon that featured a turbo four-cylinder, a five-speed manual, and a hood scoop. These days, Subaru has apparently decided to leave the boy racing to the WRX and the BRZ. The Legacy GT version disappeared several years ago and hasn't returned with the new generation. Worse, no manual transmission will be offered, even on base models. A continuously variable transmission, critical to achieving those lofty fuel-economy numbers, now comes standard with both the four- and six-cylinder engines (the latter uses a heavy-duty version of the CVT automatic borrowed from the WRX).
The 175-hp four needs 8.8 seconds to propel the Legacy to 60 mph, according to Subaru. Yet the engine revs more smoothly and quietly than the boxer engines of old. Simulated shift points programmed into the CVT likewise keep the chatter to a minimum. The 256-hp, 3.6-liter six-cylinder offers more refinement but even it does not feel quick.
Despite all this, we really like driving the 2015 Subaru Legacy. The steering feels quicker and heavier than in the last car, and body control has improved. Like the smaller Impreza -- and unlike most modern cars -- the Legacy has thin A-pillars and front-quarter windows for exceptional forward visibility. Never mind the car's standard all-wheel drive and backup camera -- the unimpeded view out is the Legacy's greatest safety feature. It also makes the Legacy feel smaller than it is when maneuvering in parking lots or looking through a corner on a tight road. Overall, this Legacy feels much livelier than the one it replaces, a lot like the spunky 2005-2009 Legacy (still a great car that commands high resale value).
A nice mid-size sedan that happens to be a Subaru
Subaru has done a marvelous job distilling and marketing a sense of Subaru-ness. Its commitment to all-wheel drive, functional styling, and boxer engines has drawn legions of loyal buyers to models like the Outback and the Forester. Yet these qualities have also been a barrier in some segments. The 2015 Subaru Legacy manages to retain the brand's trademarks and quirky charm but suffers none of the traditional drawbacks -- it's efficient, handsome, and refined. Whereas the outgoing Legacy was likely cross-shopped with the Outback and found wanting, the new Legacy, when it debuts this summer, will provide worthy competition to the likes of the Honda Accord.
*That one's a joke. Just want to make sure you were paying attention.
2015 Subaru Legacy
On saleSummer 2014
Base price/as tested$22,490/ $27,290 (2.5i Limited)
Engine2.5L H-4, 175 hp at 5800 rpm, 174 lb-ft at 4000 rpm; 3.6L H-6, 256 hp at 6000 rpm, 247 lb-ft at 4400 rpm
Trunk capacity15.0 cu-ft
Fuel economy20-26/28-36 mpg (city/highway)
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