Legacy GT Limited a stealth performance car

Friday, October 27, 2006

By ANN M. JOB

The Associated Press

Subaru's Legacy is a compact car that has been around for years, has its fans and loyal owners and yet never generates a big buzz.

But it should.

Competing amid a sea of small- to medium-sized autos, the Legacy differentiates itself with its standard all-wheel drive. It's also one of the few in the segment to offer an uplevel turbocharged, four-cylinder engine.

Fuel economy ratings for many Legacy models are respectable -- as high as 23 miles per gallon in the city and 30 mpg on the highway -- and the car has been a recommended buy of "Consumer Reports" magazine for years.

If that's not enough, the 2007 Legacy earned the top five-out-of-five stars for driver and front-passenger protection in U.S. government front crash tests.

Sold as sedans and wagons, the Legacy carries a starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, of $21,120 for a 2007 base sedan with 175-horsepower, nonturbo four-cylinder and a manual transmission.

A 2007 sedan with optional automatic transmission starts at $22,120.

The lowest-priced Legacy wagon, with manual transmission, also starts at $22,120.

But the real "sleeper" models are the uplevel GTs. They're pricier, with window stickers starting at $28,920, and generously equipped: leather-trimmed seats, moonroof, agile handling without a too-harsh ride, high tech systems and zippy, 243-horsepower, turbo engine.

Competitors to the top Legacy models include the turbocharged 2007 Audi A3 five-door hatchback, which starts at $26,060 in two-wheel drive and $34,700 for an all-wheel drive model, and the turbocharged 2007 Volvo S40 sedan, which starts at $29,085 in two-wheel drive and $29,685 for an all-wheel drive version.

Base Legacy models have pleasant, mainstream looks that are neither showy nor too plain.

The GTs include a working hood scoop, but before you cringe, realize that it's not an exaggerated, boy-racer thing. The scoop's rise in the middle of the Legacy hood is mild and doesn't detract from a pleasing, overall appearance.

Alloy wheels and low-profile tires on the test, 2.5 GT Limited sedan were sizable 17-inchers, but they, too, didn't look that big and blended well into the car's tidy package.

The interior was welcoming, with seats that are good-sized buckets in front with wide side bolsters to accommodate even non-fitness buffs. Notably, both front passengers get lumbar adjustment.

But passengers in all Legacy cars do settle down into their seats as they enter. Thus, they look out and up at the rear ends of higher-riding trucks and sport utilities.

I liked that I could drive the Legacy 2.5 GT Limited with five-speed automatic in a leisurely or aggressive manner, and it was happy to oblige, either way.

Rack-and-pinion steering with engine speed-sensing power assist was quick to respond to moves of the steering wheel, but not so much that it felt twitchy or nervous.

With all-wheel drive and grippy tires on the Legacy, I tracked confidently around curves at good speeds and even managed an emergency maneuver around road debris and never bobbled.

The 2.5-liter, turbocharged and intercooled four cylinder spoils a driver with its quick power, and thanks to the automatic all-wheel drive system, there's no tugging of the steering to one side or the other, as happens in some other turbocharged cars.

Maximum torque is a healthy 241 foot-pounds at 3,600 rpm.

In comparison, the Audi A3's 200-horsepower, 2-liter, turbo four cylinder generates 207 foot-pounds of torque starting as low as 1,800 rpm, while Volvo's S40 with 218-horsepower, turbocharged, 2.5-liter, five cylinder has a maximum 236 foot-pounds of torque starting at 1,500 rpm.

Note that pricey premium gasoline is used in the turbo engines of all three of these cars.

I didn't notice much road noise from the Legacy tires. But the car didn't keep out sounds of nearby vehicles whooshing past or the rattle of a truck's diesel engine in the next lane.

Surprisingly, despite the performance personality of the Legacy GT Limited, the ride was mostly smooth. I felt bumps and heard loud suspension "ba-booms" only on potholes and really rough pavement.

I appreciated the way Subaru officials integrated technology into the car. There's a nifty SI-Drive system -- for Subaru Intelligent Drive -- that lets the driver easily change engine shift points.

Thus, the generously equipped Legacy 2.5 GT Limited with automatic readily upshifted when I focused on fuel economy, and it held gears for high-rev power when I wanted sportier performance. I hewed to the sporty shifting and got only 20 miles a gallon in combined city/highway travel. The government rating for this particular Legacy model is 19/25 mpg.

The navigation system screen includes more than just mapping and directions. It has a display with neat fuel economy graphics arranged in three dials that I hadn't seen in other cars.

Unfortunately, though, to get the nav system, GT Limited buyers must select a $3,700 package. It includes stability control and the five-speed automatic transmission, too.

Standard safety equipment includes front, side and curtain air bags and head restraints for all five passengers.

The last safety recall for the Legacy was more than two years ago, when 1,987 cars from the 2005 model year were recalled for curtain air bags that might not deploy quickly enough in a side crash.

"Consumer Reports" magazine lists the Legacy reliability as above average.

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