Theme: Japan – Subaru Legacy Saloon (BL), 3.0R Spec B

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.

Subaru Legacy Spec.B - Image:betterparts
Subaru Legacy Spec.B – Image: betterparts

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.

Image:rotate.ua
Image:rotate.ua

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.

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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.

Image:betterparts
Image:betterparts

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.

Author: S.V. Robinson

Life long interest in cars and the industry

24 thoughts on “Theme: Japan – Subaru Legacy Saloon (BL), 3.0R Spec B”

  1. Terrific car. It left a Legacy that subsequent editions did not live up to – in particular, the delicious low scuttle, generous glazing and, of course, the frameless doors. It also has exotic and precise engineering. Legacy has now morphed into Outback, a kind of rationalist’s SUV for snow belt America which makes complete sense in context but is less exciting for the rest of us.

  2. There was a time when various Citroen lovers were looking at Subaru as being the new holders of the flame of quirky innovation. It seems you went the other way, SV.

    As I mentioned in an earlier piece on grey imports, for a while I had a fixation on a second generation (4 cylinder) Legacy GT/B Touring. I’m a sucker for a bonnet scoop. At the time I ended up buying my S6 Audi, thoughts of a Lecacy resurfaced, I couldn’t find one near enough to look at before I was told by a fellow tall person with a bad back that the seats weren’t great. Whether true or not, that diverted me.

    This is the first substantial mention of Subaru in this month’s Theme, which surprises me. They are a hard company to fathom and there is much that we could write about them. I suspect that this month’s theme will return again sometime.

  3. Great article, thanks! All I can do is agree with what seems to be the prevailing opinion here: the greatest of all Legacy generations. I could feel tempted as well, there are still a lot of them around here, as in that time, Subaru was still selling very strong in alpine regions. It would have to be an estate, though, saloons are not for me. And hard to find, too. The estate share of this car in Switzerland must have been far above 99%.

    1. I agree, it was, and I always felt that it donated the basics to the later car. It was less polished and, perhaps, had its own particular naive appeal.

    2. Somewhere between naive and crude, that’s my impression. But quite simple in style and more beautiful than the two following generations. Of course it was a very important car for Subaru, as it was the first (and successful) real attempt to venture into the D-segment. In Switzerland, it became immediately popular.
      The estate(s) – there was a flat roof and an elevated roof version – looked more refined than the saloon. The latter showed some unresolved edges around the C-pillar window and rather ungainly rear lights. Even more than in other Legacy generations, the saloon looked to me like an afterthought after the estate was designed.

  4. Interesting! The 3.0R spec B is one of the very few interesting cars that have made it to this remote corner of the world (Chile). I stupidly failed to buy one new back in the day, out of sheer ignorance of it’s exellence, and i have not managed to find a good manual spec B in the used market. I do fondly remember driving a friend’s one up to the andean mountains Portillo Pass from Santiago to Mendoza in neighboring Argentina, the lusty naturally aspirated flat six, slick gearbox and well sorted AWD chassis left a lasting impression, as well as a big frustration of not having secured one of my own. Great fun, practical, discrete yet elegant, even affordable! Anyways, i’ll go check the used car classified, maybe i’ll find a nice one this time….

    1. Hi, thanks for the comment. It was my first experience of a six speed gearbox, another first with this car. Honestly, the Spec B was unlike anything I had ever owned – sophisticated, powerful, stupidly well equipped. I had never thought my self capable of being that indulgent with my passion for cars, but once bitten, I became seduced by this particular apple.

    2. Roberto, I know that Chile is one of the (few) countries where Subaru is a mainstream brand – Switzerland is the other one that comes to mind, as the Impreza XV became a best-seller there after the VW dieselgate.

      saludos desde Brasil!

    3. I am sorry to take so long to respond to this. You mention the experience of driving a Subaru on the Portillo Pass from Santiago to Mendoza. From where I am sitting that sounds like an incredible journey. Am I overdoing it when I say I am thinking of a winding and gravelly road with sheer drops? Or is it metalled with crash barriers? Either way, I really was taken with that trip and in that car. Switzerland and Austria are natural homes for Subarus due to the snow and winding mountain roads. Chile goes even better as I imagine that there is an even wider variety of road surfaces. It would make a really good drive story, now I think about it. Thanks for putting the idea into my head.
      You´d think Ireland would be a good place for Subarus what with the rotten roads, mountains and rain. They are very much a minority interest – the buying public is too devoted to autobahnstrormers than mountain climbers. They are very silly, mostly. If I lived in Ireland, I would have either a Subaru or a Rover.

    1. Thank you. Yes, I was caught out by the rise in road tax – I should have paid more attention. That said, once I’d accepted and conditioned myself to it, it made taking on the same with the C6 an easy sacrifice to my bank account.

  5. Great article SV, The Legacy is a popular car in NZ and as you say, the BL generation probably represents ‘Peak Legacy’, certainly in terms of appearance. I can see the appeal of the 3.0R but the turbocharged GT Spec B wagon would be my pick of the range.

    1. I have to say I agree with Mark. I like the idea of the flat 6, but that competes with the flat 4’s competition legacy (small L). But in the end, it just comes down to the bonnet scoop – I’m that superficial.

  6. Design by… Peter Stevens (also know for the McLaren F1, Lotus Esprit ‘facelift’, MG Rover). Probably the most ‘European’ Subaru ever.

    1. I had not read/ heard before that he was responsible for this car. I do recall that he was “brought in” to tidy up the original iteration of the second generation Impreza (the rather charming round, ‘bug’-eyed one); it was more acceptable commercially, but created a more cluttered and busy looking facia. The final iteration of the Impreza is, I think, often referred to as having the ‘hawk-eye’ headlamp treatment which is not unlike that of the BL Legacy, but I was not aware that Stevens was also responsible for this. Separately, I read somewhere (I forget now, but it was an article on the subject along the lines of “whatever has happened to Subaru’s ability to design a decent looking car”) speculation that, somehow, Porsche had performed some role in finalising the BL’s styling, hence the smooth and rather Germanic look and feel. I’ve tried to research this further, but got nowhere. There do seem to be artifacts evidencing Subaru sharing engineering solutions from Porsche, which would not be too surprising given they are both advocates of the ‘boxer’ engine configuration, also once oft deployed by Citroen (one can only dream of what the DS would have been like with the originally conceived H6 engine ….)

    2. I remember hearing whispers about Porsche involvement somewhere too, but that might just be an old hack’s tale. I know that Porsche were involved in a special edition for the BL Legacy, which is a good way of fouling up internet research on the topic.

    3. In my later years, I have developed various mechanisms to overcome my aching disappointment with Citroen. As regards the H6 engine for the DS, it was to have been mounted ahead of the transmission like the Legacy. However, the technology back then means that it wouldn’t have been a lightweight, and even a flat engine would have been quite high with ancillaries.

      So this means that the front proportions of the car would have been very different and it is possible to conjecture that the flat 6 DS would have been a short lived oddity that both looked and understeered like a pig. Well, that’s what I want to believe.

  7. Excellent article about my favourite car maker; after the downward spiral of Saab I switched my affection to Subaru. I think both marques have a similarly unorthodox approach to car design and I suspect appeal to a similar demographic. I am referring to “real” Saabs here, not the GM based ones.

    If there is a disappointment about Subaru I think it is that their model line up is (understandably) heavily biased towards the American market; the current Outback is too bulky, the Forester less distinctive than it used to be and the Levorg overstyled and all models attract hefty road tax. I drove my son’s Mk2 2006 Forester last week and was reminded that it was definitely “peak” Forester. My 2012 car is much bigger without noticeable increase in interior space. I was going to say that a more European approach to design would be welcome but I am not sure what that means when I look at Mercedes or the ever larger models from Ford. Yes, Subarus still have many virtues.

  8. SV, nice article. I, too, think the BL generation was the zenith of the Legacy, even though I’m fond of the previous ones. then it became a slightly odd Camry in disguise: framed windows, bland interior, an design that is bulky and fat, and so on.

    as for the “darkly monotone” interior of the BL, have you ever tried the version with tan leather? the difference is night and day, the tan interior is hands down the one to have.

    1. Hi, yes I have seen pictures of cars with the tan leather, but it did not come in Spec B form, so there was no option. I like tan as a rule and wish I’d found a C6 in Alezan trim, as it creates a much warmer and mellow environment.

  9. I quite understand the indulgence of the author for this car. It has now been almost exactly eight years since I bought my equivalent Canadian model. It has the four cylinder turbocharged 243 bhp engine since the six was never offered and I like my little hood scoop that nobody ever notices, particularly in my Newport Blue Pearl colour.

    With two large silencers, it never emits the characteristic Subaru burble, and the engine is incredibly smooth – my millionaire friend with his Lexuses drove it and merely assumed it had a six. Properly silenced, when goosed this engine never sounds like that prototypical inline four throb, which has so disappointed me in my recent test drives of the new Mercedes C Class and BMW 328i. It rushes up to 6600 rpm with a willingness of a yesteryear engine rather than these new neutered plateaued torque-in-the-midband engines. I am quite besotted with the Old Beast and its clever blend of smoothish ride, quiet and decent handling.

    Perhaps because I can afford to do so, I have for almost four years sought out a replacement, only to have my hopes dashed each and every time I’ve tried others. The leather seats seem hard, but in 50 years of driving, this is the only car I’ve had that does not cause me acute left shoulder-to-neck pain after a mere hour of motorway driving. It does seem to have a penchant for wheel bearings and various suspension bushes, but I recently had to replace the battery not because it failed, but merely because at minus 20C it did seem to be getting a bit lethargic at energizing the starter motor. The AWD is of course a boon in winter driving here as well – one can indulge in rather spectacular manoeuvres due to its predictability.

    Although I’m getting on, I freely admit to caning the Old Beast virtually every day, and those long years of familiarity with its character allow me to exploit its handling enveope pretty thoroughly, so that I’ve never had any trouble polishing off adolescents in sporty cars who simply have no idea how to get round sharp bends properly.

    When driven gently, it happily potters around at 1400 rpm in suburban traffic, and since new its highway mileage on trips always comes out to 7.8l/100km, or 36 mpg Imperial, but lifetime average is about 21 – winter kills economy.

    Subsequent Legacies, of which there have been two, are a joke compared to this car, being merely big bubbles of air and their looks are well, Subaru-ish. By the time I got to third gear in my maiden trip in the BRZ, I knew it was a rubbish joke, and the new WRX is only fair but also noisy. The STI, rotten interior though very nice and eager but noisy and boy racerish with the ride of a farm tractor. VW GTI and Audi A3 2.0T, not bad but soul-less.

    So bereft of mod cons like cross-traffic alert, lane minders, backup cameras, radar cruise, nav ( I refused the Subaru nightmare and use a tablet and Google when necessary), I have a mere car that fits like an old shoe, looks demure but goes like the wind when it needs to. Perhaps I should mention that my pal with his new Mustang GT V8 was highly annoyed that my car seemed to corner with less lean than his growly beast.

    Best car I’ve ever owned, and destined I think to be driven by me until it drops unless one of these new robotized electric power steering transportation modules shows some sign of true life and soul. One of the very good but unknown sleeper cars, I think.

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