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Regular Wheels readers may remember the saga of Walter Braeckow, who owned a broken Volkswagen Vanagon.
Powered by an early version of VW’s water-cooled boxer engine, it had long since given up the ghost, gushing coolant like Niagara Falls.
Walter had heard that a flat-four engine out of a 1990-94 Subaru Legacy made a fetching replacement.
Unfortunately, it also happened to be the engine of choice for ultralight plane builders.
As Walter explained this to us, he kept an eye cocked skyward, seemingly waiting for a homemade flyer to plummet to the ground.
Such is the appeal of the quirky, lovable Subaru, Japan’s answer to, well, a question nobody recalls asking.
Technological innovation has long been Subaru’s hallmark. It introduced Japan’s first front-wheel-drive car in 1965 and the world’s first four-wheel-drive passenger car in 1972.
Its devotion to the horizontally opposed (“boxer”) engine â€” prized for its low centre of gravity, inherent second-order balance and longitudinal orientation â€” is legendary.
So is Subaru’s build quality.
There are, however, some sober warnings about late-model Subarus that may make used-car shoppers think twice about joining the club.
Subaru’s Legacy line of four-door sedans and wagons was redesigned for 1995, wearing fresh sheet metal on a wheelbase 5 cm longer than the outgoing models. They were offered in either front- or all-wheel drive.
All models were powered by a 135-hp, 2.2-litre, four-cylinder boxer engine, hooked up to either a standard five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission.
Sporting rugged-looking plastic cladding and a slightly raised suspension, the Outback wagon was introduced in 1996. A blend of station wagon and sport utility vehicle, it wasn’t the world’s first “crossover” â€” though it was far more successful than the short-lived AMC Eagle.
The Outback received a new 155-hp, 2.5-litre version of the boxer engine, which spread to other models and was later boosted to 165 hp.
In 1997 Subaru made a bold branding statement by announcing all of its North American products would now be all-wheel drive exclusively.
The Legacy was handsomely redesigned for 2000. Stylists stretched the body 15 cm on a wheelbase three cm longer than before. A new multi-link rear suspension added to the car’s already poised handling.
The Legacy was trying hard to be a mid-size car, but not everybody agreed.
“I dread taking any drive over about one hour as I start getting cramps in my legs and bum from this very uncomfortable car,” reader Hugh Goodwillie wrote. While comfort is subjective, we found complaints about the Legacy’s firm seats and cramped interior.
The popular Outback wagon, which made up two-thirds of sales, became a separate model line using the same basic Legacy platform. Outback sedans were also offered for the first time.
All models retained the 2.5-litre boxer motor as standard, having dropped the 2.2-litre version out of the increasingly porky Legacy.
Significantly, engineers switched from dual-overhead cams to a single cam (while retaining 16 valves) and tweaked the motor to produce more torque at lower engine speeds. Horsepower remained 165.
Responding to bleats that the four-cylinder boxer was barely adequate for such a heavy AWD car, Subaru introduced its H6 3.0-litre, six-cylinder boxer, good for 212 hp and 210 lb.-ft. of torque.
For 2003, all Legacies and Outbacks received revised suspensions and styling, while GM’s OnStar communications system became available (GM briefly owned a chunk of Subaru).
An all-new Legacy was introduced for 2005.
ON THE ROAD
Thanks to the boxer engine’s architecture, Subaru could fit equal-length driveshafts to minimize torque steer.
The result is a remarkably composed and stable car at speed. Even if you should accidentally put two wheels onto a gravel shoulder, the AWD system redistributes torque seamlessly and you can steer out of trouble easily.
Beyond its all-wheel drive talent, however, the Legacy is a milquetoast automobile. With the 2.5-litre four and a manual transmission, highway speed comes up in 8.8 seconds (add about a second for the automatic version).
“The performance of the four wheezing mice just doesn’t cut it,” read one acerbic blogger.
The expensive 3.0-litre six is no quicker â€” although it is tied to the standard four-speed automatic.
The Legacy takes 56 metres to stop from a speed of 112 km/h (the class average) and can generate 0.80 g of grip on a skid pad (ditto).
Fuel economy was reportedly less than stellar. Then again, 11 L/100 km isn’t bad for a car that has to lug around weighty AWD hardware.
WHAT OWNERS REPORTED
No question, there are many happy Legacy and Outback owners around.
They value the cars for their impeccable road manners in every type of weather and the added safety and mobility that implies.
For an all-wheel drive vehicle, the Legacy’s operating costs are reasonable.
But while owners of previous generations of Legacy models largely confirmed the car’s sterling reputation, we found evidence that the 2000-2004 models weren’t always flawless.
Three expensive problems were mentioned in online discussions: gasket leaks in the 2.5-litre boxer engine, automatic transmission failures and â€” just so the manual-transmission drivers don’t feel left out â€” clutch “chatter” and short-lived clutches in general.
Other complaints included cheap radiators, faulty knock sensors and paint prone to chipping.
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