Motoring: Undercover charm - Subaru

Road Test; Its looks may not wow, but get behind the plasticky wheel and you will understand why Subaru's Legacy has such a following. By John Simister

This is a mighty hard car to categorise. What does Subaru mean to you? Rally-conquering Impreza Turbos hurtling round corners at impossible speeds? Old, muddy pick-ups chugging through rural, time-warped backwaters? Slightly odd estate cars owned by free-thinkers of fanatical loyalty? Well, the car you see here is none of these.

It's a saloon, but bigger than an Impreza and not overtly designed to annihilate journey times. This does not, however, relegate it to the ranks of the conventional. The Subaru Legacy GX stands apart from the grey porridge of its Japanese rivals (Toyota Avensis, Nissan Primera, Mazda 626) because it has a flat-four engine, four-wheel drive and frameless door windows, like a convertible's. Such attributes, prime Subaru identifiers all, set it apart from European rivals with equal assertiveness.

Clearly, the Legacy is too unconventional to make it as a Mondeo alternative. Maybe, then, we're into expressions of automotive philosophy, a car with which to make a statement. That means Alfa Romeo, BMW, Audi and Saab territory. That's where the Subaru sits. Probably.

Not that you'd think so when you first sit behind the wheel: the cheap, plasticky rim instantly signals downmarket, and the dashboard's nasty imitation-wood finish doesn't help matters. This is not a great-looking interior, aesthetically or in execution. And there's further inappropriate cost-cutting: the horn emits a tinny toot, and the open bonnet is supported not by upmarket gas struts but by a cheap metal prop.

So you have to delve a little further to uncover the Legacy's charms. Subaru is currently top of the J D Power customer satisfaction index, which must count for something. Then there's the price: pounds 17,995. That's a hefty chunk less than you'd pay for those aspirational rivals, except that you need to find another pounds 1,550 for air-conditioning which should be standard. That puts it on a par with the competition.

But they have neither four-wheel drive nor an engine with lungs as large as the Subaru's 2.5 litres. This is the payback for the duff interior, and you feel their attractions as soon as you go for a drive. Here is a lithe, lively car with much of the Impreza Turbo's dynamism, subtly refocused for a more relaxed demeanour.

The flat-four's throb (think VW Beetle) is smoothed-out, but enough remains to remind you that you're driving an unusual engine. Its power delivery borders on the creamy, despite being unusually big for a four- cylinder, and it revs vigorously without ever seeming to be spinning fast.

Why, though, is it a flat-four, when no one else has sold such a thing in Europe since Alfa Romeo ditched the 145's Alfasud-derived engine a couple of years back? Subaru cites the low centre of gravity, and the handling benefits this brings, but the main reason must surely be one of marque identity. And that, in a world of increasing mechanical homogeneity, is a precious asset.

Despite its large cylinder capacity, the Legacy's engine does not pull hard from low revs. The frequency with which you have to change gear comes as a surprise, and it's not the slickest of shifts especially when the gear-box oil is cold.

Other aspects of the transmission help you forgive this failing, however. The four-wheel drive system normally divides the engine's output energy equally between front and rear wheels, but if traction is scarce at the front, more power is diverted rearwards. The opposite also applies, ensuring that the wheels with the most grip handle the most power.

The feeling of tenacity this gives is uncanny. It might be a simple rapid exit from a loose-surfaced driveway, or it might be powering out of a slippery bend with no drama under-tyre, but the Legacy always seems to have more grip than you could ever reasonably need. What it doesn't do, though, is lull you into a treacherous security: it's too, well, transparent for that. The steering is precise and consistent, the cornering line tightens just the right amount when you decelerate, what you feel is what you get.

A keen driver will love this car, though the love might wear thin in slow traffic because the accelerator's initial action is too abrupt. Passengers should be equally keen, because the Subaru sponges up bumps with great efficiency and has a roomy cabin. It moves serenely, too, with - amazingly - almost no wind noise around those frameless windows.

And then there's the way it looks. Past Legacies have been collections of good ideas floating in a sea of visual uncertainty, but this one has a handsome, focused style to go with the under-skin innovation. If it wasn't for that dashboard, I'd be tempted.

Specifications

Model: Subaru Legacy GX

Price: pounds 17,995, plus pounds 1,550 for air-conditioning

Engine: 2,457cc, flat-four cylinders, 16 valves, 156bhp at 5,600rpm

Transmission: five-speed gearbox, four-wheel drive

Performance: 129mph, 0-60 in 8.6sec, 25-30mpg

Alfa 156 2.0 Twin Spark 2.0 pounds 20,199. Still one of the most arresting- looking saloons you can buy. This version is a crisp, sporty drive, too.

Honda Accord 2.0i LS pounds 17,300. The latest-generation Accord wins no prizes for visual innovation, but then no front-wheel drive rival handles better.

Saab 9-3 2.0t S pounds 19,650. The light-pressure turbo makes for effortless pace. This is far from the priciest 9-3, but it's the sweetest drive of the whole range.

Volkswagen Passat 1.8T SE pounds 18,855. The cut-price Audi's success continues; this 1.8T gains its pace from the popular light-pressure turbo idea.

Volvo S40 2.0t pounds 18,295. The handsome S40 promises much, but detail snags have let it down. Stil, this light-pressure turbo version is the best yet.

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