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Car Review: 2005 Subaru Legacy 2.5 GT Limited Wagon

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Maybe it was the change in advertising campaigns. When Subaru used Australian actor Paul Hogan for the Outback program - ``Outback'' being the Australian term for wilderness - Subarus were cheekily irreverent, and poked fun at large SUVs. Now Subaru's ad spokesman is bicycle racer and Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong, and the newest Subarus are fast, seriously fast.

Case in point: the 2005 Subaru Legacy. Little in it but the name has been left unchanged. The revised chassis structure makes more use of lightweight aluminum and high-strength steel, and is stiffer as a result. Wheelbase and track have increased, to improve ride and handling and interior space. The engine is mounted lower, decreasing the center of gravity and further improving handling. Both the front and rear suspensions have been redesigned, resulting in improved handling and greater comfort. Most noticeably, the styling is all-new, still identifiably Subaru but crisper and better-defined. And interior appointment levels are higher than ever before in a Subaru. With the new Legacy, Subaru has the premium European sport-luxury brands in its sights.

The 2005 Legacy lineup consists of naturally-aspirated 2.5i and turbocharged 2.5 GT models, in both standard and better-appointed Limited models. Sedan and wagon body styles are offered for both models and trim levels. As with all Subarus, all models feature full-time all-wheel drive. I've been driving a new top-of-the line Legacy 2.5 GT Limited wagon for the past week. With ferocious acceleration, tenacious grip, and upscale interior appointments, it's a wonderful car that can make even commuting pleasurable. It's a fine example of turbocharging at its best. Think of it as a what a WRX grows up to be. It has all of the joyous power and handling of a WRX, with comfort and refinement that are nowhere in the WRX hardcore performance fanatic spec.

PS: Outback fans, don't worry. Since the Outback is based on the Legacy, it gets most of the same new improvements, including turbo power. But that's another story for another day.

APPEARANCE: The shape is identifiably Subaru wagon, but the lines are chiseled and honed. The 2005 Legacy wagon looks like it's been working out at the gym. Even though it is fractionally larger in most dimensions, it looks leaner and more athletic, with angular fender lines cut into the hood and a strong shoulder line. It's not the over-the-top racer look of the WRX STi, or even the rally look of the regular WRX. Call it healthily muscular, not muscle-bound. Like Lance Armstrong, its strength is understated. Angles replace curves in the chrome-trimmed grille, and complexly-shaped multi-element headlights add a contemporary look. Performance is hinted at by the ``splitter'' shape of the lower front bumper fascia and the functional hood scoop of the GT models. Unlike Legacys of a few years ago, when the scoop's ``function'' was to look sporty, this one feeds the intercooler. The roofline gently arches in an aerodynamic shape, and large, angular taillights and twin chromed exhausts grace the rear.

COMFORT: Nothing announces Subaru's intent to take on established luxury-performance brands as much as the Legacy GT Limited's interior. It is a definite step above any recent Subaru in design and execution. Power-adjustable leather-trimmed seats provide the driver and front passenger with very good comfort and support. Like potential European competitors, wood trim is eschewed for small amounts of subdued plastic, and the instruments and controls are placed for ease of visibility and use. The electroluminescent gauges are easily visible in any lighting conditions, even in the shade while wearing sunglasses. The pedals are positioned well for heel-and-toe driving. Upscale features including dual-zone automatic climate control, multi-position front seat heaters, a moonroof, remote keyless entry, and more are standard equipment. The rear seat comfortably holds two adults; a third can fit, snugly, in the center if necessary. The rear seat fold 60/40. Folded, there is enough length inside to store a bicycle without removing the front wheel. Lance will be happy.

SAFETY: Subaru feels that there is more to safety than merely occupant protection. Its ``Active Driving/Active Safety'' concept encompasses passive aspects, such as the ``Ring-Shaped Reinforcement Frame'' consisting of a strong central passenger section and front and rear crush zones, dual-stage front , side, and side-curtain air bags, and active safety aspects including all-wheel drive traction, predictable handling, and good brakes with design elements such as the best possible visibility and reduced distraction.

ROADABILITY: As mentioned, the fourth-generation Legacy's unibody structure has greater rigidity than that of its predecessors. Use of aluminum in the hood and the wagon's tailgate lowers weight a little, and, as importantly, helps centralize mass for better cornering ability. All of the MacPherson front suspension components, and most of the multilink rear, have been redesigned, resulting in improved ride comfort and excellent cornering manners. Road manners are also helped by full-time all-wheel drive. Manual-transmission Subarus like my test car use a system with a mechanical system with a viscous-coupling locking center differential to distribute torque 50/50 between the front and rear axles. Wheel slip at either end will send torque to the opposite set of wheels; side-to-side torque distribution is helped at the rear by a viscous limited-slip differential. GT models get slightly quicker steering for better response. Handling is delightfully neutral, with none of the massive understeer (``push'') commonly exhibited by front-wheel cars. Powerful four-wheel antilock ventilated disc brakes stop securely.

PERFORMANCE: The new Legacy GT's looks promise more muscular performance, and they're not lying. Although the reinforced chassis and all-wheel drive hardware result in a fairly heavy car, at nearly 3,500 lbs., the GT's turbocharged and intercooled twincam 2.5-liter 16-valve boxer four-cylinder engine makes light of that weight with 250 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 250 lb-ft of torque at 3,600 rpm. The ``Active Valve Control System'' (AVCS) variable valve timing scheme ensures optimum performance, with improved fuel economy and reduced exhaust emissions. Turbo lag is minor, with only a slight hesitation right off the line, and not much different in that respect from the performance of a highly-tuned naturally-aspirated engine. But unlike a non-turbo engine with 100 horsepower per liter, the Legacy GT's force-fed powerplant has great amounts of torque instantly available at any engine speed over 2500 rpm. It doesn't have to be revved to redline for great power, making it easier to get the most out of the car's considerable abilities, whether in traffic or on an uncrowded curvy back road.

CONCLUSIONS: The new Subaru Legacy GT combines space and utility with serious power and first-class handling, and adds interior refinement.

2005 Subaru Legacy 2.5 GT Limited Wagon Base Price $ 29,695 Price As Tested $ 30,270 Engine Type dual overhead cam 16-valve turbocharged and intercooled horizontally-opposed 4-cylinder with variable valve timing Engine Size 2.5 liters / 150 cu. in. Horsepower 250 @ 6,000 rpm Torque (lb-ft) 250 @ 3,600 rpm Transmission five-speed manual Wheelbase / Length 105.1 in. / 188.7 in. Curb Weight 3,435 lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower 13.7 Fuel Capacity 16.9 gal. Fuel Requirement 91 octane unleaded premium gasoline Tires P215/45 ZR17 Bridgestone Potenza RE92 Brakes, front/rear vented disc / vented disc, antilock standard Suspension, front/rear independent MacPherson strut / independent multilink Drivetrain front engine, all-wheel drive PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 19 / 25 / 20 0 to 60 mph est. 6.0 sec OPTIONS AND CHARGES Destination charge $ 575