Subaru Legacy

Subaru's design team have created a monster. What were they thinking of?

Here is the new Subaru Legacy, flying the flag once again for Subaru's faith in a flat-four engine and four-wheel drive. Look at it, and straight away you can see it's got problems. It is longer, wider, taller, bigger in every way than the old one, although the old one was plenty big enough for nearly every purpose. Now has become just inconveniently bulky. Like estate cars wearing Mondeo or Insignia badges, the Legacy now needs to be berthed rather than merely parked.

And it is, frankly, ugly. Yes, aesthetics are partly subjective, but slab sides, overblown wheel arches and a generic nose design – whose droopy sculpting and smiley front grille could have come from any lesser-known manufacturer – do not make for a handsome car. It's true that handsome cars are harder to make nowadays, given the strictures of safety standards. But with the Legacy it seems the designers just could not remember what it was they were designing. And no one stood back and said: "That looks wrong."

Harsh words? Maybe. The tragedy is that the Legacy does have a positive design legacy. The outgoing version was the first of the breed to be a genuinely good-looking car, a machine which might tempt buyers away from an Audi on aesthetic as well as technical grounds.

So why has Subaru killed the goose? Maybe the US market still needs hefty cars, and Subaru is big in the US. But the trend over here and in Japan is, or should be, to make cars smaller and lighter for obvious environmental reasons. Subaru, as a company with a strong innovative streak, should be in the vanguard of this thinking. That's a key reason why people buy Subarus: to be different.

The new Legacy, priced from £23,295, is made in both saloon and estate-car forms, the latter once again available also as a toughed-up Outback version. But we won't get the saloon in the UK because past four-door Legacies have sold dismally here. So it's estate only, all models with the four-wheel drive and flat-four engines (a configuration nowadays unique to Subaru) on which the brand is based. That other Subaru nicety, frameless doors, has however passed into history. Cost is why; it's cheaper to make a conventional window frame than to fit seals sophisticated enough to keep wind noise low when a frame is absent.

This latest Legacy comes with a choice of two engines, a 2.5-litre petrol unit with 167bhp and a continuously-variable automatic transmission called Lineartronic, and a 2.0-litre turbo-diesel with 150bhp but considerably more torque than the petrol unit.

The diesel is unquestionably the one to have, with punchier performance, much better fuel economy and a more interesting soundtrack. That said, the petrol version's CVT transmission is better than some other similar systems because it doesn't allow the engine speed to soar the second you squeeze the accelerator. It also has six manually controlled "steps" should you wish to assume control yourself.

Inside, you're surrounded by curves and sweeps and silvery plastic, all accurately made and neatly assembled but somehow lacking the restraint sensed in the previous Legacy. The seating is very comfortable, and the rear seats' backrests flip forward automatically when you pull a handle in the boot. The resulting load-floor slopes uphill, unfortunately.

The centre console lacks any form of handbrake, but there's an electric button on the lower right side of the dashboard where it's hardly in a prime zone of ergonomic convenience. You have to pull it to release the brake; unlike some, it doesn't release automatically. I cursed this system in an uphill traffic crawl, railing against being deprived of the accurate control that a regular handbrake lever gives, until I discovered the "hill holder", a device which stops the Subaru rolling back. I should have known; nowadays quite widespread, the hill holder was a Subaru invention.

As for other driving qualities, the suspension lacks the suppleness once typical of a Legacy, the steering is numb, the roadholding is secure, the experience is underwhelming. This is an unusual car, which is welcome in a world of conformity, but it should be so much more than that.

The Rivals

Audi A4 Avant 2.0 TDI 170 quattro SE: £27,930.

The only other four-wheel drive diesel estate in the UK has more power, style and drives beautifully. It's how the Legacy should be.

Citroën C5 Estate 2.0 HDI 140 Exclusive: £22,595.

Another car-maker famous for doing things differently. This C5 looks and feels good, oozes serenity, and is fine value.

Saab 9-3 Sportwagon 1.9 TiD 150 Vector Sport: £25,152.

Saabs are more Scandinavian clean design than technofest. Good car, too often overlooked.