Subaru do something unusual, not just in Japanese automotive culture, but in the contemporary monolithic motor industry environment in general - they build cars with idiosyncrasies. They make sharp- handling, alert and very smooth cars that get their results by unconventional means, and at pounds 15,249 they're better equipped than most of their classmates for the money. But at first these qualities are not apparent. The design of the new Subaru Legacy, for instance, initially suggests a Ford Mondeo as reinterpreted by Proton: a slight visual naffness in the wheel-trims, the body curves, the mid-line trim, the windows.
Strictly speaking, the Legacy belongs in the already overcrowded Mondeo league, but it has plenty of points in its favour to push it ahead of the pack. The company has made substantial improvements to this year's Legacy range, with major modifications to the engines, running gear and brakes. Among its unconventional attributes, the Legacy uses a flat-four engine: its pistons, in other words, operate in a plane parallel to the road, rather than up and down. Though not widely used (the VW Beetle was the most famous road-going exponent, though it was hardly quiet) it's a design that keeps the centre of gravity and the level of engine vibration low, and the extreme quietness of the Legacy bears Subaru's conviction out. The company has also improved the plumbing that gets the gas in and out, with power and fuel economy both benefiting. The car is spacious for its class, strong but light, handles well and rides well. It features permanent four-wheel drive to assist its bad- weather grip, has electric windows and central locking throughout the range and anti-lock brakes on all but the most basic model.
Subarus are acquired tastes, but once acquired customers tend to stick around, according to the company's figures. This is a car that has made a distinctive mark in a sales sector it's very hard impress. There's a three-year or 60,000 mile warranty, six-year anti-corrosion guarantee and three years free membership of Subaru's road rescue scheme, too.
GOING PLACES: Very smooth and capable flat-four, all-alloy engine, giving 0-60mph in approx 10 secs. Quiet, vibration-free progression from low revs, pulling power very substantial over wide rev-range - driving thus unfussy and untiring. Gearshift not inspiring, four-wheel transmission standard.
STAYING ALIVE: Lightened but stiffened bodywork, with substantial improvements to suspension mountings, sills, frontal area and roof. Very surefooted on demanding roads, visibility good, anti-lock brakes and twin air-bags standard on all but basic 2.0 GL model. Low level of body-roll, ride quite taut. Adjustable seatbelts.
CREATURE COMFORTS: Power-steering on all models, tilt-adjustable steering wheel and height-adjustable driver's seat. Reasonably spacious interior and storage, 60/40 split fold-down rear seat.
BANGS PER BUCK: Very good equipment specs, even on the basic models: anti-theft immobiliser, driver/passenger airbags and ABS brakes on all but 2.0 GL, electric windows, mirrors and remote central locking, six-speaker stereo, air-conditioning optional. Fuel economy not bad, approx 23 miles per gallon in town, 30 mpg at motorway speeds, good warranty and road-rescue provisions. pounds 15,249.
STAR QUALITY: Good engineering, refined, reliable, untiring to drive. Value for money.
TURKEY QUOTIENT: Unappealing interior and trim, body styling an odd mixture.
AND ON MY RIGHT: Vauxhall Cavalier 2.0i GLS ( pounds 13,640): an old faithful, hard to fault for practical motoring, but humdrum and uninvolving to drive, specs not as comprehensive; Toyota Carina E 2.0 GLi ( pounds 14,048): nicer-looking, but very bland, and only the costlier models are comparable on extras; Ford Mondeo 2.0Si ( pounds 15,885): noisier engine, slightly better handling and driving feel, but has to be at this price level before the equipment is comparable.
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