2010 Subaru Legacy: First Drive

By Kelsey Mays  on July 6, 2009

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I just spent all week driving Subaru’s redesigned 2010 Legacy around the Seattle area, a region whose consummate splendor in July and August very nearly makes the remaining 10 months of overcast yuck seem tolerable. (I know; I grew up here. Nirvana never gets old.)

Unlike summertime ‘round these parts, the new Legacy is nothing to write home about. Apart from having all-wheel drive and, considering that, pretty decent gas mileage, it doesn’t offer any compelling reason to look past the litany of Camrys, Accords, Fusions, Altimas and Malibus vying for that spot in your driveway. It’s also a value choice, starting under $20,000 with that all-wheel drive.

No doubt Subaru will position its contender as a unique choice; press materials already claim the car’s styling “stands apart with a bold, high-tech look.”

Alas, unique doesn’t always mean better.

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Let’s start with that, um, styling. Fellow editors found the Legacy’s styling better suited to its Outback sibling when Subaru introduced the pair at the New York auto show last spring. Having driven it all week, my opinion follows suit. The old Legacy was lean and agile, a sporting alternative to the portlier family cars of its day. The new Legacy seems purposefully heftier, like it tried to join that crowd by way of cladding everything outward. It’s a distracting appearance. I see bits of Infiniti G37 and Saab 9-5, a profile too long in its overhangs, and a lot of general chaos around the front bumper.

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Things get better inside, but not much. The dash and doors on my 2.5i Limited tester had respectable graining and a low-gloss finish, but the dash panels weren’t padded — something the panels in nearly every competitor short of the rental-grade Dodge Avenger are. The center controls have a textured silver plastic, and it looks higher-end than the flatter grays in the Accord and Camry.

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Somewhere along the way, though, Subaru decided to cram all the A/C and stereo buttons into a smallish area above the gearshift. That’s where they usually go, but the space reserved seems needlessly constricted. The controls push and rotate with luxury-car damping, but their pinky-sized packaging comes off looking chintzy. Combine that with the Legacy’s trendy italicized gauges and over-lacquered faux wood trim, and the cabin just doesn’t evince luxury like an upscale family car should — or at least should do a good job faking. The Accord, despite its over-buttoned dash and too-stiff seats, does.

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Trade luxury for utility, as many Subaru fans do, and the Legacy fares a bit better. The backseat, improved by some 4 inches’ legroom for 2010, is as roomy as the Accord’s, save for a significant floor hump to accommodate the AWD driveshaft. There’s ample room in the glove compartment and center console, and all four doors have sizeable pockets — not something you often find, at least not in rear doors.

My tester’s four-cylinder engine, coupled with a continuously variable automatic transmission, was powerful enough around town. (There’s also a turbo four and a six-cylinder; I tested neither.) On the highway, the CVT could be a bit more responsive; getting around semis requires quick 65-to-75 mph spurts, and the transmission dallies in lower parts of the tach a bit too long for confident passing.

Ride quality is generally good — not Camry or Malibu good, but somewhere between those and the firmer Mazda6 and Altima. The steering feels natural and well-weighted, and wind noise is relatively low. In trips up and down Washington’s Interstate 5, however, road noise proved excessive, and at 70 mph or so the sedan became quite susceptible to crosswinds. I spent the better part of a stretch between Olympia, Wash., and Portland, Ore., futzing around with minor steering corrections to stay on course.

Stay tuned for a full review. For now, my lukewarm regard for the Legacy may not matter: In an auto industry slammed by recession, Subaru sales were up — up! — in June. In tough times, Subie knows what buyers want. The Legacy may ultimately prove to be one of the company’s weaker redesigns, but that may not stop the automaker’s fans from welcoming it all the same.

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Senior Consumer Affairs Editor Kelsey Mays likes quality, reliability, safety and practicality. But he also likes a fair price.  Email Kelsey