It’s been said too many times to mention, but mention it yet again I must – the German “Big 3” compact executives (Audi A4, BMW 3 Series and Mercedes-Benz C-Class) have always been at the forefront of style, technical innovation and brand bragging rights in their class.
What these three have never been is particularly spacious – cue the fifth-generation Subaru Legacy. I got to take the 2,0i manual for a spin, the base model in the range.
Wider, longer and taller than its predecessor – including an 80mm longer wheelbase – it is a substantial chunk of metal and certainly looks that way when you walk up to it.
Large headlamps, a bigger and shinier grill design as well as a sizeable front spoiler add up to an imposing, if not particularly attractive, façade. Certainly, some of the previous Legacy’s elegance has been lost.
The side profile does little more than to demonstrate that the 16-inch alloy wheels (the pricier 2,5iS gets 18-inchers) look woefully puny.
The rear has shades of Lexus GS about it and again, lacks some distinction and class. In general – oversized, blocky wing mirrors also taken into account – this Legacy isn’t horrible, just a bit, well, bland.
But back to the topic of space. The interior benefits from the increased dimensions to offer stretch-out space for all. Certainly, my 1,67 metre frame meant that the usual “sit-behind-self” test turned into a “sit-and-virtually-lay-down-and-chill” test – rear legroom has increased by 99 mm and is exceptional.
The interior is a neat, solid design that doesn’t really excite – but then again, neither does it disappoint too much in any one area.
Generous smatterings of titanium-look trim look a bit cheap (read un-Audi like) and could be prone to scratching but nevertheless brighten up the dark environment. This, as well as air vents that are rather sticky in operation, are the only quality blots worth mentioning.
The Legacy excels with its standard specification list, again trumping the German trio and matching or bettering the similarly priced Mazda6 and Honda Accord.
Highlights include full leather upholstery, 10-way electrically adjustable driver’s seat with lumbar support, dual-zone automatic air-conditioning (as well as rear ventilation outlets), a Premium audio system, cruise control and an electric sunroof.
Major and minor controls are all clear and painless to fathom with the gearlever especially natural-feeling in its placement. The gauges are sporty and backlit in an icy white hue that is repeated on the in-dash displays for the climate control, audio system and multifunction read out.
The usual selection of cup holders, stowage areas (with practical, grippy surfaces) and a reasonably sized glove compartment round off a comfortable, family-friendly interior.
Fire up the 110 kW/196 Nm, 2,0-litre DOHC motor – with revised cylinder heads and inlet camshaft timing to improve fuel efficiency and drivability – and one has to check the tachometer (once it has joined the speedo and other dials in their customary Subaru swoosh) to make sure it’s running.
Mechanical refinement, then, is a strong attribute and this continues once on the move.
While the motor doesn’t do much below 3000 r/min, it nevertheless punches nicely if you keep the revs up and always remains composed and smooth.
Subaru claims a class-average 0-100km/h time of 9,5 seconds, just enough to ensure that the 2,0i Legacy is still an enjoyable drive, the new 6-speed, lightweight gearbox also impressing with its precise shift quality.
The electrically assisted steering is effortlessly light for easy maneuverability of the big Scooby at parking speeds and proves responsive and satisfying through the bends.
Just before opening the sizeable 476 litre boot, you’ll notice the “symmetrical AWD” insignia affixed to the rear of the Legacy, a subtle reminder of Subaru’s acclaimed AWD expertise. Indeed, grip levels are as impressive as ever.
But befitting its family-orientated presentation and following on from the Legacy’s successful infiltration of the American market, it is cruising comfort that is especially good.
An increase in anti-roll bar diameter enhances roll rigidity, ensuring that the shock absorbers operate in the most effective segment of their travel. The result is improved ride quality.
It can’t have been easy for the previously primarily extrovert Subaru to chase improved sales figures by producing vehicles like the Legacy. The payoff for a loss of some charisma, however, is more refined, well-rounded vehicles.
This Legacy is a modern family saloon with some old-school attributes: plenty of space, a smooth drive, economical (claimed 9,1l/100 km), safe (5-star EuroNCAP crash safety rating) and with enough creature comforts to keep the driver and passengers comfortable.
Although unlikely to lure brand snobs away from the big 3, the bigger Subaru Legacy 2,0i at just under R300 000 offers superior value for money when one takes into account its standard specification.
Outside of the Germans, the Legacy is not short of tough competition in the form of Honda’s quality Accord, Mazda’s well-priced 6 and Volkwagen’s comfortable Passat.
With little to separate these four in terms of outright ability, the Subaru’s all wheel-drive system and the exclusivity afforded by relatively low sales could just be enough to sway buyers in the market for this type of car.