I’ve been fighting this for a while, but have given in to myself and written up some fond memories I have of the fourth generation (BL), 2004 to 2009, Subaru Legacy 3.0R Spec B.
Feel free not to read this piece, it’s pure self-indulgence. This is the car that, in many respects, I wish I had never sold, but I did for the love of the idea of owning a big, oleopneumatically suspended Citroen. In fact, I bought two – one after the other – which was stupid in itself, but I was overcome with a childish desire to have what seemed to be, and indeed was, an upgraded and improved version of a car that I already loved. Oh dear, this article is already reading like a therapy session.
The Legacy first caught my eye when I saw one driving through the main street in my town and I thought “that’s nice – and also nice and nichy!”. I noted that it had come from a local, family owned garage which had clearly just taken on a Subaru franchise (until then, it had just sold Citroens). I went and got a brochure, just for browsing. I sat in one (a 2.0R) in the show room and really liked it – very mature, nicely built, E39 5 Series-a-like dashboard, comfy sport seats and a slightly cocooned feel. And then went about my life.
Interestingly (for me at least), I did hold onto an edition of EVO Magazine of that era (073, November 2004) that included a ‘first drive’ of the car. The author, John Barker, made a balanced set of comments, like it “isn’t what you’d call a looker”, tempered with, the “flat-six engine [is] deliciously smooth and free-revving”. It concluded, somewhat diffidently, “The Legacy is a fine car with a dash of character and plenty of standard kit …., but its driving experience doesn’t lodge in the part of the brain labelled ‘must have’.”
Well, something clearly lodged in a part of my brain. Time passed and I had a near miss in my Yaris (see earlier article) which made me realise that I would prefer something more appropriate to 2-3 drives to Bristol and back a week. My wife (what a woman!) suggested that I did not muck about and go for the car I really wanted. I had to pinch myself. I’d never spent anything like as much on a car, and haven’t since either, but I knew exactly what I wanted.
Hence, a Legacy Saloon 3.0R Spec B (I had never dreamed that I could have gone for the top-of-the-range car), in a gorgeous shade of dark blue (‘Regal Blue Pearl’, from memory), became mine after an impatient 6 week wait. I had arranged a short test drive in a less sportified 3.0R, automatic Sports Tourer (estate to those old enough), which was nice, but the Spec B was decidedly more edgy. I remember that my wife was away on the day I collected it, my son was at a party, and so I just had my 3 year-old daughter with me. I strapped her into a car seat in the back, got in, and went for a drive a very long way around to get back home.
Those first impressions were dominated by its H6 engine, which developed 245PS at 6,500 RPM and 297 Nm at 4,200 RPM . It was quite magnificent in a slightly old-fashioned way. It had a sharp throttle response and made a lovely noise that went soared though a range of rumbles, growls and final gruff zing on to its 7,000 rpm red line. It was a bit lacking in low range torque, but made a fantastic lunge for the red-line above 4,500 rpm.
Stir in the fact that it was ambrosia-smooth at every level and I hope it is clear that exploiting it was addictive. The gear-change had a predominantly mechanical feel, a little notchy and unsophisticated, then, but in keeping with the robust feel of the whole car (for example, one could hear the LSD working at lower speeds). The ride was firm, but well damped (it had Bilstein inverted struts at the front and dampers for the multi-link set up at the rear) such that, in spite of my rather loutish abuse of the throttle and exaggerated approach to corners, my daughter quickly fell asleep in the rear that March afternoon.
I have always admired the styling of the car – inside and out. I think it ranks alongside the Yaris in terms of being well resolved, but I prefer its elegance and restraint and, hence, rank it as the ‘best’ styled car that I have owned. I think this impression is helped by the meticulously executed tight panel gaps general level of finish on the car, which was exceptional.
The exterior can be accused of being rather generic (B5 Audi A4 at the back, BMW E60 5-series at the front (especially on the facelifted model), and any-old-Audi down the flanks), but that would be unnecessarily lazy and dismissive as a description. Those flanks are quite sheer and have minimal feature-lines, the most notable being a thin, body coloured rubbing strip just less than half way up the door panels. A couple of inches below the window-line is a gentle fold that starts at the top, rearward edge of the headlamp cluster (this was made more obvious on the facelifted car), goes back along the doors, rear wing and then becomes more bold as it kicks up over the rear lamps and forms a lip that carries over the rear edge of the boot and then round the other side.
It’s restrained and subtle, as is much about the styling (of the pre-facelift model in particular) and provides a little tension to the surfacing, pulling the car tautly together. I have noticed that Jaguar uses a similar feature on the XE and new XF, but the top of the fold is much more indented to create a ledge – I have also noted on a number of such examples that the effect can be ruined on those cars by poor panel fit, particular of the boot-lid. I’d also say that the DLO of the new XF seems inspired by the BL generation Legacy – and the clean look of the latter was enhanced by the frameless side windows, a feature sadly lost with subsequent generations.
That fourth generation Legacy looks quite narrow (as indeed it was, some 65mm narrower than a Mazda3 Fastback). This is not helped when viewed from the rear by a ‘barrelling’ of the rear wings and the depth and shape of the rear-lamps, something the facelifted car tried to sort, albeit that was not a total success (I do not like the bright-work on the bottom edge of those as it looks unresolved and out of place).
Overall, 18” wheels (BMW-esque) aside, the car has a stealthy look with no spoilers, splitters or sill extensions to attract attention to itself, and that suited me just fine. This was all the more remarkable given Subaru’s better known “loud and proud” WRX/ STi look; I had occasion when people asked where my car was because they were obviously expecting me to have arrived in a bright blue, gold wheeled and bespoilered Impreza, not the discrete and well-tailored vehicle in front of them.
As I wrote earlier, the Legacy is also rather nice inside, if a bit darkly monotone. In Spec B trim, it came equipped as standard with many features that I had never before experienced. Hence, supportive, electric-multi-adjustable, leather trimmed and heated seats, dual-zone automatic air-conditioned, a screen for the rather spidery-graphic’d satnav (which I found was very easy to use, taking full UK post-codes, and never got me lost), an electric sunroof, a 6-stack CD and cassette player that sounded pretty good, all-round electric windows and a lot more besides. The upper bulk of the dashboard is formed in expensive-looking soft and slightly squidgy to the touch, slush-moulded plastic. It gently angles the satnav screen, air-vents and centre console towards the driver.
The centre console is finished in a good quality, brushed-stainless steel effect (better than it sounds). The pedals on the Spec B have drilled stainless steel plates, the drilled holes being filled with little black rubber stipples for added grip, which is helpful when the shoes used to work them are soled in smooth, often worn leather. The instruments are described as electro-luminescent – the dark panel comes to life, with the tachometer and speedometer performing a little arc around and back again on turning the ignition key – and looks Lexus like and expensive. Overall, I found it always made a very pleasant and entertaining environment for my all-too regular lopes to Bristol and back again.
The Spec B was a very entertaining drive, with excellent grip and traction as one would expect from permanent AWD with a LSD, with well controlled roll and balanced handling. The quick, direct steering suffered from being too light and, as such, never fully inspired the level of cornering confidence everything else about the car deserved. This was an area where the facelifted car was clearly superior and helped to make it an even nicer car to drive. The ride was a bit too stiff for the likes of, say, my wife. This, together with a fair dose of road and engine noise (although I never minded the latter as it was a nice background burble) made the car seem a bit busy on rougher road surfaces and around town. On the motorway, though, the Subaru felt indomitable, secure, planted and everything for which I could have hoped.
For a car that some thought, at first glance, looked quite bland, the Subaru had great character and felt like it was very robustly engineered. On the quiet, it was a bit of a beast, a little rough around the edges and, for me, that gave it an edge over the millions of A4s, 3-Series and C-Classes that covered (and still do) every highway. Just after I bought the car, Alfa launched its 159, which came in a V6 AWD version. It’s a lovely looking car, more voluptuous and bold looking than the Legacy. However, I found the interior disappointing, to drive it felt heavy and a bit leaden, and it cost a significant £8k more than I paid for my Spec B even without satnav. That said, I can’t say that I was not just a little rueful – the 159 still stands out as a very handsome saloon, the Mk4 Legacy is (unfairly) ignored and almost forgotten.
The Legacy was quite expensive to own. Fuel economy never bettered 33 MPG, and around town would drop to 23 MPG. Just after I bought the car, the government introduced its emissions related road tax scheme, almost tripling the annual fee at a stroke. Servicing and parts seemed a bit pricey. That said, it was 100% reliable and nothing went wrong on it. The fact that it was a left-field, ‘dirty’ saloon that no one else seemed to want (the car never sold well in the UK) meant that it quickly became obvious to me that hefty depreciation was going to be certain. The costs were within my means, though, and did not spoil my enjoyment of it, nor prevent my becoming a big advocate of Spec B.
After about 75,000 miles in less than three years, I became intrigued as to what, one day, might replace this car. I became determined that AWD was a must, and I felt addicted to 6 cylinders. I got quite into the idea of the Skoda Superb in such a specification (with umbrellas hidden in the rear doors!), but was more interested to see what a next generation Legacy would be like. This was further fuelled by the introduction of the EE flat-4 diesel and talk of a 6 cylinder version of this being in development. These thoughts gained an irrational momentum in my mind and I thus preconditioned myself to replacing the car with a more up to date car. Stupid boy!
Unfortunately, when pictures and details of the next-gen car emerged, much as I tried, I could not imagine buying one – it was clunky and lumpen. Then it was announced that only the Sports Tourer and Outback would be imported to the UK, and there would be fewer, not more, engine choices; I was disappointed.
Hence, when I got a call out of the blue from the dealer who had sold the then current car to me, offering a delivery mileage, facelifted Spec B in a (slightly dull) mid (‘Newport’) blue at an enormous discount due to Subaru wanting to clear out unwanted existing-but-about-to-become-outmoded model stock, I was interested. As I wrote earlier, I shouldn’t have been. There were desirable improvements – such as meatier steering, a thing called SI Drive (which adjusted the throttle response through three modes (the latter of which should have been called ‘manic’)), Xenon headlamps with washers, together with some trim and equipment upgrades – but it was fundamentally the same car.
The facelift made the car look more up to date at the time by adding emphasis at the front and fussiness at the rear, but on reflection now, I prefer the look of the original car. Also, for some reason, the front seats had a flattened base (I think they did it because wider occupants found the originals felt a little narrow and a tight fit) which proved less comfortable over longer routes. I guess I thought that it was a relatively low-cost way of extending my time in a Legacy, given the way I was piling in the miles. I bought it, trading-in the now heavily depreciated Regal Blue car.
I did enjoy the ‘new’ car a lot. It was quieter on a long run and the handling and steering were palpably improved, but I did not end up getting the full value out of it as a new job meant that, having put on 33k miles in 18 months, the need for long-distance driving stopped and the second Spec-B sat idle for long periods. I got a hankering for something different, wanted a oleopneumatic Citroen (a desire that so nearly resulted in buying a 1970 DS Special, but I bottled it), and the rest is history.
And so ends this paean to the generally unsung BL generation Legacy. I think that car reflected a zenith in Subaru’s history – the Forester of the time was also a favourite of mine and lost its way with subsequent generations. It has left me with a deep fondness for the brand, one that lingers and nourishes hope that I’ll return to Subaru one day, in spite of a constant stream of clumsily styled, ill-conceived and over-priced models since then. Of course, I’m being more than a little unfair to Subaru and FHI its parent. The ‘ill-conceived’ element can largely be attributed to Subaru’s understandable prioritisation of the US market, in which it has made substantial gains over recent years.
Subaru is a small, largely independent maker and has to prioritise investments and make, perhaps, more hard decisions about compromises than most. When the BM Legacy was launched, someone recorded and placed on YouTube the presentation made by the head of the US business, and it outlined how the BL version had been ‘improved-upon’ in a number of areas in reaction to client feedback. Those changes, largely packaging oriented, imposed changes that, Subaru claimed, made it harder to design something so neat as the previous car. The ‘over-priced’ bit as been driven, in the main, by the strength of the Yen.
…There I go, making excuses for Subaru in the same way that I have got used to doing with respect to Citroen; for different reasons, both marques have a significant place in my motoring heart.