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1997 Subaru Legacy 2.5 GT

Has any car platform spawned more variations than the Subaru

Legacy? In that sense, it's the Chrysler K-car of the '90s, and

I mean that as a compliment.

The Legacy was born as a mid-size family sedan and wagon. It

begat the SVX sport-luxury coupe; the compact Impreza, in

two- and four-door sedan and four-door wagon body styles; Outback

versions of both Legacy and Impreza; and, later this year, the

Forester sport-utility vehicle. Most have been available with

front or four-wheel drive.

The latest change rung off this metaphorically flexible

chassis is the Legacy 2.5 GT, which stretches the family in the

sporting, touring car direction, with increased power, handling,

style, equipment and — you guessed it — price.

Visually, the GT differs from lesser Legacys by virtue of a

unique front bumper and spoiler, incorporating additional

cooling vents and multi-reflector fog lights, a geewhiz hood

scoop, and multispoke alloy wheels with aggressive 205/55HR16

tires.

A rear deck spoiler is standard on sedan versions; you may

infer therefrom that the GT is also offered in wagon form, and

you would infer correctly. I'm glad to see at least one carmaker

feels an interest in sporty driving and the need to haul stuff

are not mutually exclusive.

Inside, it's standard uplevel Legacy, with logical controls

and instrumentation. Power locks, mirrors, windows and sunroof

are standard, as are air/con, a decent sound system, and a

manual height-adjustable driver's seat. The only obvious

luxo-touches are woodgrain trim bits surrounding the window

switches. I'm not a huge fan of wood in cars, but these pieces

look a bit lonesome. The decor is otherwise drab, all black and

gray.

The GT's 2.5 litre 16-valve four-cam four-cylinder engine

cleaves to Subaru's traditional horizontally opposed ("flat", or

"boxer") configuration. Officially redesigned for GT, it's

essentially the same engine offered in other Legacy variants

since last year; it will also power Forester.

The relevant numbers: 165 horsepower at 5600 r.p.m., and 162

pound-feet of torque at 4000 r.p.m., both up by single-digit

percentages from Subaru's previous 2.5 boxer.

This engine was previously available only with an automatic;

in light of GT's sporting mandate, a five-speed manual is

standard, the auto optional.

Subaru pours millions into the World Rally Championship, which

it wins with regularity against Toyota, Ford and Mitsubishi, to

which North Americans react with stone-faced indifference.

Still, Subaru attempts a technical tie-in between the four-wheel

drive and long-travel suspension systems used in the rally and

production cars.

A full-time four-wheel drive system is standard on GT, but as

usual with Subaru, the systems differ technically between the

automatic and manual transmissions. The differences are

transparent to the driver. In either case, there are no switches

to push, no levers to tug. Whichever set of wheels needs grip,

gets grip, end of story. Good plan.

The supple suspension aims to provide good ride quality even

on rough roads. Chunky anti-roll bars, specific shock absorbers

and quick power rack-and-pinion steering are designed to offer

nimble handling.

Four-wheel disc brakes with a proper four-channel anti-lock

system (as opposed to the more common, cheaper and less

effective three-channel design) are standard.

Approaching the Legacy GT, you can't help thinking you've seen

it all before. The visual changes work well with the handsome

Legacy shape, but you'll hardly be scratching your head

wondering what it is. The wagon looks particularly nice in

silver.

The seat is a bit flat and unsupportive, given the promised

(and delivered) handling of this car. The interior trim

materials and assembly quality are okay; not spectacular, but

serviceable. Frameless side windows, a feature of Legacy from

the start, must be adjusted tightly so they seal properly at

high speed, yet not so tightly that the doors are hard to close.

It's a near-impossible assignment.

Firing up the engine, you're reminded that 2.5 litres is

pretty much the upper limit for four-cylinder engines. And

that's from me, Mr. There's No Substitute For Cubic Inches.

Subaru's flat-fours have always had a characteristic sound that

some love and others find gravelly; this one is as rough as an

old boot, especially when cold. It doesn't enjoy revving much

beyond 5000 r.p.m., sounding strained as those necessarily large

pistons begrudgingly reverse direction inside their cylinders.

Then again, with plenty of torque on tap, there isn't a great

deal of need to explore the upper reaches of the rev range. The

engine pulls beautifully from very low revs. So does a John

Deere.

I drove two GTs: the first one seemed to have led a hard life,

despite less than 9000 km on the clock. The gearbox was

scratchy, the clutch take-up gritty, the brake pedal a bit

spongy, and the car didn't seem to have the pop the numbers

promised.

The second car, picked up from Stan Maleta's Mississauga

Subaru dealership, was much better, despite 12,000 km on the

odo. The gearbox was effortless and direct, the engine much

spritelier, although scarcely sparkling.

Lateral grip borders on amazing. The 205/55HR16 tires are

hardly Formula One size, but the distribution of cornering and

tractive power to all four wheels really lets you hustle this

car around bends at unseemly speeds. Full throttle in tight

corners generates understeer, but it's not ponderous.

Despite this handling prowess, the ride is truly fine, firm

but supple.

Even on the second car the brake pedal wasn't as firm as I

like — this must be a trait of the car. Still, the binders scrub

off speed adroitly.

The GT iteration of Legacy proves that this automotive family

is equally happy as a cooking family car, a proto-SUV (the

Outback) and a sporty touring car.

Subaru's challenge will be to convince sporty sedan intenders,

who are more likely to consider such as Acura Integra or BMW, to

think of Legacy, although you do get four-wheel drive. Newcomers

to the marque will find $29,995 ($1,000 more for the wagon) a

bit stiff for a car that doesn't look much different from

Legacys costing thousands less. It's the old "most expensive

house in a cheap neighborhood" story.

Legacy GT is also challenged — as is every other sporty sedan

anywhere near this price level — by Audi's brilliant A4. True,

it's perhaps four grand more expensive, but that's not

insurmountable if you're already in this range. And the Audi's

additional refinement will be enough to convince many shoppers

it's worth the premium.

Still, longtime Subaru fans will move up into the Legacy GT

with complete assurance that the well appreciated Subaru

attributes — durability, character — are retained, augmented by

additional dollops of performance and visual appeal.

Freelance journalist Jim Kenzie prepared this report based on

driving experiences with a vehicle provided by the automaker.

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