Review and road test of the Subaru Legacy (2003 - 2009)
A LASTING LEGACY
BY ANDY ENRIGHT
Buying a used Subaru Legacy ought to be one of the safest purchases it's possible to make. They enjoy a bulletproof reputation for reliability, they're rarely - if ever - thrashed by their owners and they tend to cover modest mileages. All in all, a used Legacy is an outstandingly smart buy. So why don't more people snap 'em up? While they fall over themselves to get hold of used BMW 3-Series models and Audi A4s, Legacy models sit on dealer forecourts, overlooked. The reason is, sadly, that most buyers are ignorant of the Subaru's talents. If you've got this far, you're probably one of the smart ones. Read on to find out how to snare what could the most undervalued used cars out there.
4dr saloon, 5dr estate (2.0, 2.5, 3.0 petrol [S, SE, R, RE, R, Rn, spec B])
There were three generations of Legacy models before the one we examine here. The first generation ran from 1990-1994 and is best remembered as Colin McRae's rally ride. Generation 2 spanned 1995-1999, the third generation lasted from 1999-2003 and then we have the fourth generation model, by far the smartest and best finished of the lot.
Landing in dealer showrooms in late 2003 and early 2004, this version of the Legacy majored on improved build quality and a conscious drive upmarket. It was no longer quite so ludicrous to advise somebody who was looking at an Audi A4 or a BMW 3 Series to take a look at a Subaru instead. Three engines were offered from launch, a 135bhp 2.0-litre, a 162bhp 2.5-litre and a 245bhp six-cylinder 3.0-litre. All of these power plants are horizontally opposed 'boxer' units in true Subaru tradition but overall sales were hampered - also in true Subaru tradition - by the lack of a diesel option.
The Spec-B derivative arrived in 2004 to add a sportier dimension to the range. It matched a manual gearbox to the 3.0-litre engine for the first time and featured bigger alloy wheels with uprated dampers. In 2005, this Spec-B flagship replaced the standard 3.0-litre model and a 163bhp 2.0-litre R variant was introduced that did away with the 2.0 and 2.5-litre models. The standard 2.5 and 3.0-litre powerplants continued only in the more 4x4-orientated Outback variants.
The 2007 model year saw all models receive a revised grille with a chrome 'wing motif' and swage lines running from the top edge of the headlamps into the wings. The 3.0-litre models were tweaked for low end torque and received the SI-Drive system that gives the option of three throttle response settings for greater economy or sharper responses. Measures were also taken to stiffen up the body and improve ride quality at the same time while the interior received a redesigned fascia and centre console.
What You Get
All Legacy models came very well appointed, with even the entry-level models getting all-wheel drive, ABS with EBD, climate control, cruise control, alloy wheels, electric windows and remote central locking. The higher spec derivatives added such niceties as a full leather interior, an 8-way adjustable electric driver's seat, heated front seats and an electric sunroof, amongst other things. Meanwhile, the B Spec added a rear limited slip differential, a CD autochanger, electric adjustment for both front seats and steering wheel audio controls.
The Legacy majors on simple, cohesive styling but it works well. The headlamps with their budging lower edge are probably the main defining feature and overall, the stance is purposeful yet understated. The interior really is very good, and especially so since that combination of words would have been virtually unheard of in a pre-Legacy Subaru roadtest. Higher quality materials were brought in and fitted together with far more conviction than in Subaru models past. The plastics are precisely colour matched for a unified look and there's a classy, high-grade feel throughout. There's a decent amount of rear legroom and a sizable boot that's refreshingly easy to access.
What to Look For
Estates sell on most easily, so these are well worth considering, especially as many would finger the Sports Tourer as being a better looking car than the saloon. The flat-four engine has existed in one form or another for many years now and that's good news, as it's well proven and has been regularly updated. Don't be put off a Legacy just because it's a bit different under the bonnet. Gearboxes are equally well-proven but take a good look over the 3.0-litre cars as these can be very heavy on front tyres and suspension.
Corrosion is notable by its absence, as are electronic gremlins. Japanese reliability is second to none and the Legacy is typical. Do check the driveshaft 'boots' for wear on the more powerful cars - cornering on full lock will have them making awful noises if damaged.
(Based on a Legacy 2.0 R excl of VAT) A clutch assembly will set you back around £240 and a new exhaust about £175 excluding catalyst. Front shock absorbers are close to £150 each. An exchange alternator comes in at around £330 and an exchange starter motor at around £180. A new radiator is about £215.
On the Road
The Legacy engine range is short and sweet but the absence of a diesel is a real clanger. The entry-level 2.0-litre unit is a Subaru trademark four-cam 'Boxer', so the cylinders and pistons are set horizontally instead of vertically and appear to battle each other in a punching action. The unit originally produced 135bhp but was later upgraded to a hefty 163bhp - a remarkable output for a normally-aspirated 2.0-litre - and the earthy growl emitted from the engine as you let the revs rise is a pleasure. 60mph is 9.5s away and there's a 133mph top speed but fuel economy isn't all that great by today's standards at just over 32mpg.
The 2.5-litre cars produce 162bhp which is largely why this engine was discontinued upon the arrival of the 163bhp 2.0-litre. If you can find one of the early models, it will hit 60mph in 9.2s and return around 34mpg. The 2.5-litre continued beyond its demise in the standard Legacy, being offered in the Outback estate model with its off-road augmentations.
That leaves us with the range-topping 3.0-litre flat-six unit. Again, this is an engine that the keen driver will absolutely love until the time comes to refuel. The sprint to 60mph can be dispatched in a mere 7.9 seconds with this 242bhp lump snarling defiantly all the way. Top speed is 147mph and if you regularly try to replicate those figures, your fuel economy will be markedly less than the 29mpg average. The 3.0-litre Spec B is quicker still thanks in part to its six-speed manual gearbox, 0-60mph takes 6.5s and there's a top speed of 151mph. Fuel economy, however, will be around 23mpg.
The driving experience is the thing that will attract buyers in the Legacy's direction and Subaru have take all kinds of steps to ensure it's up to scratch. 'Constant Pulsation' exhausts feature on all models aiding power and economy and contributing to that sweet, burbling boxer engine note. Weight was pared by around 55kg from the previous generation Legacy through the use of aluminium parts and high-tensile steel panels, while body rigidity was up 15%. The chassis underwent extensive tinkering, to create better front end grip and a sharper turn-in with the braking system also being made more effective.
If you've got the self assurance not to need to impress people with a premium German badge, the Legacy offers you a lot more car for your money and, in most instances, it'll be more reliable to boot. We'd opt for a 2.0-litre estate and wait for the 3.0-litre car to shed a little more of its value before taking the plunge.
Subaru Legacy (2003 - 2009) review by ANDY ENRIGHT