All-wheel drive is a blessing at this time of year. That was abundantly clear as I drove a Subaru Legacy 2.5 GT through snow flurries and slushy pavement on the way to St. Louis one recent Friday night.As I slogged through the darkness on roads that were so wet and sloppy I used most of windshield washer fluid in four hours, the Subaru never once put a wheel amiss. Headlights with a sharp-edged, European-style beam pattern provided illumination that was noticeably better than average. When interstate traffic got snarled into a two-lane snake moving at 25 mph, I was able to keep rolling calmly because of the grip and balance that comes from having all four wheels working actively. The all-wheel-drive system gave it sure footing on the snowy highway and turned a potentially tedious trip into one that was uneventful and lower in stress than conditions would indicate. Subaru has long been associated with all-wheel drive, and the recent success of the Outback has affirmed its decision to emphasize all-wheel drive in its products. Even though the Outback is essentially Legacy station wagon with all-wheel drive, its rugged facade and taller ride height give it the cachet of a sport-utility vehicle. Playing off its success in the World Rally Championship, where it holds both the driver and manufacturer titles, Subaru has created an all-wheel drive version of its Legacy sedan geared to performance driving. It has a 2.5-liter, four-cylinder engine with 165 horsepower, hood scoop, fog lights, 16-inch all-season tires on handsome alloy wheels and spoilers front and rear. Its flat, horizontally-opposed engine layout has two cylinders sticking out on each side like a Volkswagen bug or Porsche 911. This "boxer" configuration gives it an uneven and distinctive exhaust note that seemed to be magnified by the 5-speed manual transmission, which gives the driver more control in spirited driving. While the ragged firing impulses are not unpleasant as such, they do make the engine feel less comfortable when revved up. I recently sampled an Outback with the same engine and an automatic transmission, and it was both quieter and smoother at high rpm, so if smoothness is more important than performance, pick the automatic. The Legacy 2.5 GT has a ride tuned to have the firmness of a European sports sedan, yet it is not rough or uncomfortable. It handles highway speeds with ease and turns into freeway ramps confidently. While its road holding doesn't have the sophistication found in mega-buck European touring sedans, it is more than acceptable for folks who live on a budget. One thing I didn't like about our test car from Subaru's press fleet was the driver's seat. The padding was too soft, and I felt like I was sitting too far down into the seat. I don't know whether that is normal for all or an aberration specific to our test car, but after four hours at the wheel, and with the lumbar support cranked all the way up , I still wanted more back support. Ergonomically, the Legacy GT falls in mid-pack. Instrumentation is good, but it could use more up-to-date controls for climate control and radio. The cupholder that pulls from the dash blocks the use of the stereo. Audi and Subaru are the main providers of all-wheel drive sedans. The Legacy 2.5 GT and the Audi A4 1.8 Turbo both have prices in the same range. The Legacy may have a slightly bigger interior, but the Audi handles better. Price The base price of our test car was $22,795. Its options consisted of a compact disc player, upgraded stereo system and keyless remote entry. The sticker price was $24,109. Warranty The basic warranty is for three years or 36,000 miles. Vehicles for The Star's week-long test drives are supplied by the auto manufacturers. Point: Subaru's Legacy 2.5 GT is one of the few sedans available with all-wheel drive. Its boxer engine has more power for 1997, its ide is tight and its footing is especially sure in lousy weather. Counterpoint: The 5-speed transmission seems to magnify the engine's uneven firing impulses, the seats need to be firmer and its ergonomics could be improved. SPECIFICATIONS: ENGINE: 2.5-liter, 4-cyl. TRANSMISSION: 5-speed WHEELBASE: 103.5 inches CURB WEIGHT: 3,090 lbs. BASE PRICE: $22,795 PRICE AS DRIVEN: $24,109 MPG RATING: 21 city, 27 hwy.
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