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Second-Hand: Subaru Legacy

Subaru, long considered a source of cult cars in the same vein as VW and Porsche (coincidentally, also builders of horizontally opposed four and six-cylinder engines)

  • 4x4 off-road safari. Egypt. Sinai desert

One of our favourite interviews last year was Walter Braeckow, the man with the broken Vanagon. His Volkswagen was powered by an early version of the wasser-boxer water-cooled engine which, like Niagara Falls, cascaded coolant at an awesome rate.

Braeckow learned from other VW owners that a flat-four from a 1990-94 Subaru Legacy was the ultimate replacement engine for his van. One problem, though: spare Subaru engines are snapped up by ultra-light plane builders.

As he explained this, Braeckow seemed to keep one eye on the horizon, as if waiting for a homemade flyer to fold up and fall from the sky.

Subaru, long considered a source of cult cars in the same vein as VW and Porsche (coincidentally, also builders of horizontally opposed four and six-cylinder engines), finally

broke into the mainstream when it introduced the Legacy in 1990.

By all accounts, it was a faithful tracing of the Honda Accord template.

Prior to its arrival, Subaru was known for its unorthodox answers to transportation questions nobody asked.

As one of five divisions of Fuji Heavy Industries, Subaru has been the benefactor of technology transfers from the conglomerate’s other products, including aircraft, heavy trucks, buses and Robin-brand industrial machines.

Subaru’s anti-lock brakes, for example, were derived from airplane landing gear.

Subaru did not produce its first passenger car until 1958. But it learned quickly. The firm was the first Japanese automaker to unveil a front-wheel drive car (1965) and the first in the world

to build a four-wheel drive passenger car (1972).

Its Electronic Continuously Variable Transmission (ECVT) and refined four-wheel drive systems continue to instill envy among engineers from Dearborn to Stuttgart.

Suffice it to say Subaru is no dinky car builder. And the Legacy was the culmination of everything it had learned about engineering and consumer tastes.

CONFIGURATION

The Legacy was introduced as, and remains, a spacious four-door sedan and station wagon. Either could be ordered with front-wheel or four-wheel drive initially, but as the decade

progressed, the frontdrive models were phased out.

The cars were re-skinned in 1995, but continued to suffer from the ubiquitous worn-soapbar look afflicting most Japanese sedans. Relief came in the form of the Outback version, which

provided additional ground clearance and some body cladding, projecting a rugged, let’s-go-to-the-Roots-warehouse look.

To be accurate, Subaru equips its cars with all-wheel drive systems that provide at least some power to all four wheels continuously (it cannot be switched off). Manual-transmission

models use a conventional centre differential and a viscous coupling that keep front and rear axle-speed differences within a limited range.

Automatic models employ a more sophisticated “active” system with a multi-plate clutch and a vigilant computer. On dry roads, 90 per cent of the power is sent to the front wheels, but thanks to constant electronic monitoring of each wheel’s rotation, the system can redirect up to 50 per cent of the power to the rear wheels at the first sign of tire slip.

ON AND OFF THE ROAD

True to their, er, legacy, the first-generation models (1990-94) were powered by a 2.2 L all-aluminum four-cylinder boxer engine. Outfitted with four valves per pot, it put out a reasonable 130 hp and 137 lb.ft. of torque.

It hauled a Legacy AWD to 100 km in about 10 seconds, average for its class.

Subsequent derivatives saw the horsepower climb to 135 and, after a displacement augmentation to 2.5 L, 155 hp and eventually 165 hp. But as the power increased, so did the car’s

weight. Net result: acceleration has never been better than adequate. A turbo-charged variant was offered briefly.

The horizontally opposed engine architecture provides some neat advantages, including: a low centre of gravity, good second-order balance (allowing a large-displacement four cylinder to reciprocate smoothly without balance shafts) and longitudinal orientation to accommodate all that AWD hardware.

The steering is accurate and well-balanced; equal-length drive-shafts minimize torque steer (a transverse layout uses an out-rigger bearing to simulate this). And the ride is compliant

and stable at speed.

The all-wheel drive system inspires confidence: dip two wheels into a gravel shoulder at 100 km/h and steer out of it without any theatrics.

Brake performance is better than average. Subaru also offers a Hill Holder feature on its stickshift models, which activates the brakes automatically when the clutch pedal is depressed

while stopped on an incline.

OWNERS SPEAK

You’d think a car with so much whiz-bang technology would be expensive to maintain. Not so, says a clutch (sorry) of owners who submitted their comments.

“This car is bullet-proof. Other than the struts and some wear-related items, the car is original: engine, turbo, tranny, exhaust, A/C, etc. I can’t recommend these cars enough,” wrote

Steve Jeffrey.

His 1991 Legacy Turbo has 381,000 km on it with the original stainless-steel muffler still attached.

Gerry White had his second-hand Outback hoisted in the air to study the dirty bits before he purchased it. He was impressed with the way everything was neatly tucked away, the routing of

the brake lines inside the body, and the use of moulded nylon shields to protect wiring harnesses.

Buyers who were wary of all-wheel drive now adore the margin of safety it affords. “Friends who own other makes of four-wheel drive keep their vehicles in single-axle mode almost all the

time because gas consumption becomes excessive,” wrote Marven Bowman. “But in an emergency the driver would have no time to shift.”

For the record, Bowman reported getting fuel consumption between 10 and 11 L per 100 km around town in his Legacy AWD. He also pointed out that after seven decades of driving — from a

Model T to a Chrysler Concorde — his Subaru is the first vehicle he has not had to return to the dealer for warranty work.

Indeed, outstanding reliability was cited by every owner.

Not that there weren’t a few gripes: the high cost of parts and service (even if they’re rarely needed); truculent dealers; corroded brake rotors; faculty engine control computers; and a

drab interior.

But with all the overwhelmingly positive testimonies, it’s hard not to conclude with a sweeping statement.

It is this: for the money, Subaru may well make the best cars in the world.

After all, if you were building an airplane, would you bet your fate on anything less?

WE NEED YOUR FEEDBACK:

We would like to know about your ownership experience with the following models. Please note the deadline dates.

* Chrysler Neon, by Dec. 16

* BMW 3 Series, by Jan. 20

Send your letters and comments to Second-hand, c/o Wheels section, Toronto Star, One Yonge St., Toronto M5E 1E6. Fax 416-865-3996. Email: toljagic@idirect.com

Mark Toljagic, a freelance Toronto writer, contributes Second-hand once a month.

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