2014 Subaru Legacy Redefines the Brand

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The interior of the 2014 Legacy 2.5i Limited in ‘Warm Ivory.’ Even with EyeSight and the full complement of optional comfort and convenience features, it’s hard to boost the price of a 2.5i to 30 grand. Subaru

Having lived in New England nearly all my life (so far, as Mainers say), and being ancient enough to remember the very first one, the 360, I’ve always pigeonholed Subarus as small, hardy, not-expensive people’s cars.

For an entire generation of Yankees who couldn’t afford Saabs or Volvos and had been scared away from Detroit, Subarus became the transportation of choice.

This was pretty much nailed down when it was decided, in 1972, that all Subies would be all-wheel-drive all the time. In an era when the only 4×4 options were pickup trucks and Jeeps, this was a bolt from the blue.

The AMC Eagle and the Audi quattro didn’t show up till 1980, and by then Subaru had a lock on the AWD-car niche and was on its way to cult status, at least in the snow belt. Over the decades, Subarus have gotten bigger, more comfortable and more powerful, but not more expensive (adjusted for inflation), and AWD has gone mainstream, but the image of Subaru as robust mountain goat remains.

The 2014 Legacy 2.5i Sport has had me pondering all this, and it dawned on me that the brand’s halo needs adjusting. The core virtues—utility, thrift, un-kill-ability, fuel efficiency and, above all, AWD—are still there, but it’s time to add safety to Subaru’s bottom line.

Like other cars of their day, the 360 and other early Subies were hardly “safe” by modern standards. But that was then. This Legacy earned the maximum five stars in all three of the feds’ destruction tests—frontal crash, side crash and rollover—for driver and passengers, front and rear seats. And a 2014 Legacy with Subaru’s available EyeSight auto-braking system was one of just two cars to earn top scores in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s new Front Crash Prevention test. (The other was a Subaru too, the Outback, also with EyeSight.)

Automotive safety comes in two basic flavors: active and passive. The first helps keep us out of trouble; the second helps save us when it’s too late to get out of trouble. Active safety features include strong brakes, responsive steering, agile handling and, above all, good grip—as in all-wheel drive. On the passive side, EyeSight is just the latest in a long list of hidden goodies baked into Subarus that are just waiting to protect us from ourselves, other drivers, the elements or plain old bad luck.

Many safety features, from seat belts to anti-lock brakes and air bags to crush zones, are mandated by law for all cars. In addition, though, most carmakers now offer extra safety features—for extra dollars. And of course cars also can be made bigger and stouter. But is it right that someone who can afford a $50,000 car be twice as safe as someone who can only manage the payments on a $25,000 car?

This is what’s behind my re-positioning Subaru from mere four-wheeler to all-weather safety sled. For as little as $19,000 (for an Impreza hatchback) or $21,000 for a Legacy sedan, we can have a vehicle with the single most important and effective extra safety feature of them all, namely the added traction and control of all-wheel drive. It’s not just for getting to the ski area.

There are a dozen family sedans in the middle of our market. All are front-wheel-drive—except for the AWD Legacy. Only one competitor even offers this as an option, and an AWD Ford Fusion starts at 33 grand.

At Subaru, that kind of money will buy a loaded, top-of-the-line 6-cylinder, 256-horsepower Legacy 3.6R with EyeSight, which includes adaptive cruise control and lane-departure alert alongside highly accurate, binocular-view road scanning and pre-collision braking. For the money, is there a safer and more capable car?

Our more modest 2.5i Sport has the Legacy’s standard 173HP Four and a Lineartronic CVT, Subaru’s excellent continuously variable automatic transmission, plus some upgrades—bigger wheels, a power moonroof, fog lamps and a backup camera. For its sticker price of $26,418, we do not get EyeSight, but we do have that all-important all-wheel drive. Which—considering how the weather has been behaving recently—is becoming useful as far south as New Orleans.

—Silvio Calabi