Motoring: Impressive legacy

Subaru's latest is a class act at a competitive price. By Roger Bell

Subaru is not the force it should be in Britain. But for quota restraints on Japanese imports, it would sell more cars. Quota restraints? Here, still, in a free market? They linger on, at least until the year 2000, as a remnant of the (failed) government policy to attempt to protect Rover in the Seventies.

Without restrictions, Subaru says it could import 2.0-litre versions of the new third-generation Legacy, as well as the 2.5 tested here. "Subaru's quota is not big enough to accommodate all the new derivatives," says Ed Swatman, Subaru UK's managing director. That's why the old US-sourced 2.0 Legacy, now badged Classic, is still being sold. "Quota restrictions prevent us from offering the latest technology," laments Swatman, who describes the quota system, by-passed by grey imports that may not satisfy European Type Approval standards, as "anti-competitive, unfair and unjust".

Although its sales may be artificially suppressed, Subaru is riding high, not least because of the cult status afforded to the brilliant rally-bred Impreza Turbo, the thinking man's performance car (for which there's a seven-month waiting list). However, Subaru's reputation was founded on tough, practical cars like the Legacy estate.

Although its lines echo those of the old model, the skin is all new. Subaru's two specialities - all-wheel drive and a Porsche-like "boxer" engine - serve the new Legacy well. Performance is well up to scratch, although noise from the engine, which is characteristically throbby at low revs, intrudes when pressing on. The manual gearbox has an excellent shift, the smooth-changing automatic, a Merc-like selector.

While not a serious off-roader, the Legacy can reach parts that ordinary cars can't, thanks to terrific traction and low-range crawler gears (manual only). Extra ground clearance is provided by the butch, tall-tyred Outback derivative without compromising handling - good enough to satisfy fast, fastidious drivers, despite having slightly mushy steering. In a comprehensive belt-and-braces approach to safety, all-wheel drive is augmented by traction control on the uprange automatic models, making wheelspin and skidding virtually impossible to induce.

Inside, Subaru stick with a more conventional approach, preferring to impress with quality materials rather than high-tech design innovation. With condiderable comfort, too, judging by the smooth ride and supportive seats.

New space-saving rear suspension and a lengthened wheelbase give even more room than pricier German rivals like the Audi A6 Avant and BMW 5- series Touring, which the Subaru handsomely undercuts. If you can't afford a comparable Audi Quattro, the Subaru won't disappoint you as a cheaper, worthy substitute.

Make and model: Subaru Legacy estate, from pounds 20,800 on the road.

Engine: 2457cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, 154bhp at 5600rpm.

Transmission: five-speed manual gearbox, high and low range (or four-speed auto without low range), all-wheel drive.

Performance: max speed 126mph, 0-60mph in 8.9sec.

Rivals

Audi A6 1.8T Avant, pounds 24,641. Not the biggest estate for the money, but one of the best and most attractive.

BMW 5201 Touring, pounds 26,330. Lovely car, silly money - even for the cheapest. Six-pot engine more refined than roomier Subaru's "four". No 4x4.

Mercedes-Benz E200 estate, pounds 27,845. Cheapest E has four-cylinder engine, indifferent performance. Cheapest `six' is pounds 5,000 more. Daft price. No 4x4.

Volvo T70 2.5t AWD, pounds 28,555. Bigger, roomier, faster than the Legacy - and much pricier, too. VW Passat Synchro, pounds 25,085. All-wheel drive Passat is Legacy estate's closet rival. More expensive, but V6 engine powerful and refined.

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