Subaru Legacy

At last, the design catches up with quality

Model: Subaru Legacy 2.0;
Price: £16,500 approx. On sale November;
Engine: 1,997cc, flat-four cylinders, 16 valves, 140bhp at 5,600rpm;
Transmission: Five-speed gearbox, four-wheel drive;
Performance and economy: not yet quoted.

Subaru is a company populated by left hands and right hands seemingly unaware of what the other is up to. Here is a car maker ploughing its own proud furrow which it plants with flat-four engines, frameless door windows and four-wheel drive to make an intriguing if unconventional cocktail. An effective one, too, judging by the number of wins scored by Subaru in the World Rally series over the years.

Subaru should have been a sort of Japanese Audi with attitude, but kept missing the point. The styling has been almost there: a fussy line here, an opportunity for visual integration passed by there. And the interiors have been unimaginative, unappealing surfaces moulded into shapes by designers whose hearts were elsewhere. Were it not for the glory reflected by the Impreza rally cars, whose roadgoing cousins have achieved near-cult status, Subaru's admirable attributes would be ignored.

But salvation is at hand. Subaru, encouraged by its part-shareholder of recent arrival, General Motors, has started a new, cohesive approach. Designers from different departments now talk to each other, and they have good things to say. Subaru even has a new advanced design chief, Andreas Zapatinas, of Alfa Romeo.

The Legacy Subaru has had done to it all the things we have wished could have been done to Subarus. The surfaces are soft to the touch, the dashboard looks sleek and inviting, the storage compartments (door pockets excepted) have rubber or felt liners, the carpet, boot included, is of high quality.

The stereo system is properly built in, and aluminium trim accents add a hi-tech touch. Fake wood is confined to the accessory catalogue in Japan, and we must hope the British importer resists the temptation to smear it all over UK cars. This is a cabin of Audi-like quality, but with a confident style. Same goes for the outside. The shape is broadly similar to that of the previous model, but there is a flow and tension that had been missing. The bumper-to-body join lines are discreet and in line with the side rubbing strake, and the wheelarches are gently flared instead of being bounded by thick swages. The shoulder line is a ridge instead of a crease, the roof pillars are slimmer and the wheels fill the arches more completely. There is more.

The front corners are more chamfered, the headlights cut into the bumper, flanking a lower front grille. At the back, the old full-width red strip (early-90s Japan) has gone, and neat trapezoidal tail lamps take its place. And, in a clear reference to the perceived German ideal, the door mirrors have the indicator repeaters built into their lower surfaces.

This Subaru is a new car. Although a little bigger and more spacious, it weighs less, and the engine has been greatly revised. One change is to the exhaust manifolds, which improved the pulling power but slightly smothered the flat-four beat, a Subaru aural trademark.

Here lies a contentious bone. In Japan, you can have a Legacy Turbo which has a big air-scoop on the bonnet and 280bhp. But it has yet to be certified for European emissions and Subaru's resources have concentrated on the base-model engine the German market wanted first. Our Turbo arrives in two years, with a two-camshaft 2.0 and 140bhp, a 2.5-litre version with 165bhp and a glamorous 3.0-litre flat-six (think Porsche 911) with 250bhp. I tried the Turbo and a four-camshaft, 190bhp Legacy on the Mount Fuji race circuit. The Turbo is rapid, has much less of a delay in accelerator response than past turbocharged Subarus, and that four-wheel drive makes it easy to drive quickly and confidently.

Our 3.0 will have the quicker-acting steering and firm ride, to make it more performance car than boulevardier. I also tried the 190bhp 2.0, which has a more supple ride and lighter, slower steering. I suspect that our Euro-spec 2.0 and 2.5 will be smooth, refined and civilised.

Subaru's new Legacy is impressive and individual in equal measure. Saab is chasing the same ideal, but without the unique engineering motifs. It is ironic that Saab's new, US-only 9-2 hatchback is, in fact, a rebodied Subaru Impreza.

THE RIVALS

Alfa 156 2.0 JTS Turismo: £17,900
The most sensuously good-looking saloon on sale has a frugal but fizzy direct-injection engine and a sporty attitude. Just facelifted with a deeper front grille.

Audi A4 2.0: £19,175
Premium-brand, premium-price: this cheapest 2.0-litre A4 is no fireball but is handsome and beautifully built. But it appears poor value in this company.

Saab 9-3 1.8t Linear: £18,495
Built on a Vectra platform, but Saab's rear suspension and turbo engine make the new 9-3 a sharp, responsive drive. Design remains uniquely Saab, and engine is really a 2.0.

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