You Can Only Really Break Your Heart Once

Subaru Legacy: good, practical, reliable, not very expensive, not as popular as they should be. What gives?

1998 Subaru Legacy: source

Although made in Japan by a Japanese company, the Subaru Legacy has experienced moments of popularity around the world (I mean the EU and N USA) now and again: episodic, sporadic. It’s not really unwanted and not massively in demand but appeals to a group of customers unevenly distributed. If only Subaru could imagine a way to increase the car’s popularity by a consistent 20% across the board. That is, make the core customer group 20% larger and increase the casual buyers by 20%.

1998 Subaru Legacy estate: source

In December 1998 Car wrote that “Subaru doesn’t bother with market research and doesn’t assess cars from rival makers, according to Masaru Katsurada, manager of the new Legacy project.” Without wanting to suggest Subaru simply produce the average of all their competitors, perhaps a teeny bit of market research to identify some key parameters might have helped lure some extra punters for their otherwise excellent Subaru Legacy 2.5 estate.

It wasn’t even expensive, with prices starting at a shade over 2K. The car had its USP of a 2.5 litre boxer engine, capable of 126 mph, and sub-9 second nought to sixty. And it even looked good too. Car did consider the Legacy to be expensive, in relative terms as it cost more than the 1.8 litre Passat turbo wagon (Car considered the 1.8 turbo to be equivalent to the 2.5 boxer) and the Volvo V70 Torslanda (which is a better comparison).

While I think the Legacy looks just fine, Car thought it lacked “class”. And that is a term I’ve always loathed anyway. But even if there is a thing called”class”, the very nice Volvo V70 has not one ounce more of it than the Legacy. Both have their charms.

As Eóin said yesterday, subtlety doesn’t often sell. And putting a lot of work into engineering and clothing it in quiet sheet metal is not a recipe for success. And the rear passenger space was cramped too.

Did Subaru really ignore the competition? It is a bold claim to make but also a claim to be slightly embarrassed about when the effect is that on too many fronts the rather good Legacy handed customers reasons not to buy one.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

9 thoughts on “You Can Only Really Break Your Heart Once”

  1. Thank you for another great article. I enjoyed the comparisons. We run both a v70 and a (4th gen) Legacy. Also some older Volvos and an XJ308. So this article is an almost perfect synopsis of the fleet.

    Of them all, the Legacy is the most proficient. It is the choice of the bunch. But it is not the favourite. That honour goes to a 940 Volvo, even though the Volvo is a less good car.

    The Subaru better holds the road, offers more traction and inspires greater confidence in poor road conditions. Featuring low centre of gravity, four wheel drive, and expensive suspension components; the Roo drives as its engineers intended. It’s interior is a masterpiece. It is styled in the tradition of high end audio equipment (Japanese). The dashboard stacks slightly too many switches, and so ventures beyond ergonomic, but it is beautiful to behold. The boxer configuration adds delightful quirk, providing one appreciates engineering. It can be driven fast, though not as convincingly as the Jaguar. It is capacious, though the Volvos can hold more.

    I feel Subaru gives up the most ground in its’ tactile feedback. The steering and brakes feel over servo-ed in present company. The switch gear operates with precision rather than grace. The styling is excellent but evokes less response. What does it stand for? Perhaps I am too ignorant of Japanese culture.

    In summary, your article nails this cars’ main shortcoming. It is a car that in all areas is excellent. But it is hard to find a reason to befriend it.

  2. Subaru is a sales phenomenon in the USA. They have a factory there and your typical Hillary Clinton buyer simply cannot get enough of them.

    Of course, in today’s polarised world, that may mean that your typical Trump supporter is repelled by them, but such is the way of things.

    America seems to have fallen out of love with the bumper sticker (a niche, ultimately irrelevant but often quite witty sub-section of car culture), but my favourite bumper sticker was on the back of a Subaru Legacy wagon:

    ‘You’re not stuck in traffic. You are traffic.’

    1. I’d have thought that Hillary Clinton buyers would own somewhat more upmarket vehicles than Subarus, after all, she isn’t cheap.

  3. Funny, I found my Legacy more engaging and characterful than my current Octavia. It does often seem like that they are determined to tread their own path to the point of idiosyncracy. Since that version of the Legacy (series 4), the styling has, if anything, become less mainstream. Jacomo is right, Subaru has been building greater and greater momentum in the US and the cars are increasingly styled and engineered for that and the home market. Hence, Subaru seems to be happy to let the other markets just take it or leave it. I still look forward to a time when Subaru builds a Legacy, or Impreza for that matter, that I would like to buy, because I really did love that car and still have regrets about not owning it any more.

  4. Thank you, Richard, for bringing the Subaru Legacy to our attention and sharing your (as always) enlightening thoughts about why it was not more successful.

    I have thought about this car quite a bit in recent months, for a variety of reasons.

    I still remember my very first encounter with a Subaru Legacy, some time in the early nineties. I must have been about six years old and I saw a Subaru Legacy (Wagon) during a family summer holiday in Austria. It was the first time I took note of frameless doors on a car, a feature I found distinctive and interesting. My father mentioned to me that all Subarus always had all-wheel drive. I fact I have since always remembered. If these things are so appealing to children, there must be something about it…

    (In the very same spot I also first encountered a Citroen CX, including a demsontration of the hydraulic suspension, which of course I was also mighty impressed with, but that is a different topic…)

    Then for about two decades I didn’t take much note of Subarus. They only recently have jumped back into my perception earlier this year. During my 6.000 km round trip around the Balkans (driving a Y4 Citroen XM) I noticed an unusual density of Subaru Legacies and Outbacks – especially the 3rd and 4th generation. And it has regularly occurred to me, that the more pragmatic relationship many Eastern Europeans tend to have with their cars often yields very good purchase decisions: durable, versatile, adequately powered and under-valued cars will in Europe migrate from West to East. The Subarus tick all these boxes. Additionally I find them exceptionally good looking.

    Especially the fourth generation Legacy and Outback I find very pleasing to look at. Plain surfaces and good proportions, paired with details (especially the lights) that exude the same spirit as an E60 BMW – while being more subtle and understated. I also like the two tone paint job, the sporty note of the wheel designs. All this paired with a 3.0 litre 6 cylinder boxer engine and a manual transmission is something of a hidden gem of the second hand car fleet. Except for supposed high fuel consumption, I can only see one other flaw: Extreme scarcity. I have had a search alert on this specification – and most of the time there as many as 0 examples on sale in all of Europe.

    Just as it was gradually wandering to the back of mind again I was struck by Subaru once more. During a business trip to San Francisco about a month ago, I started seeing Subarus absolutely everywhere! In the light of the above comments this might be unsurprising – it’s just that “you’re the traffic”-demography that likes both: Subarus and San Francisco. Perceived Subaru market share in the bay area is incredibly high, especially in the city of San Francisco itself. (I could only find registration data at state level, where Subaru still fared much higher than expected, but not as high as it appears to be in San Francisco itself) This is not exclusive to a specific model and a specific year. There were Subarus of all ages and types. It seemed like there was not a view to be had without at least one Subaru in the frame. Again, the 4th gen Legacy and Outback stood out to me as the prettiest by far. I like the Impreza of that time too. The newer models don’t strike as being in any way visually interesting, unfortunately.

    A last point: I also always had the impression Subaru was an engineering lead company without much regard for marketing and market research. However, as a friend has brought to my attention, some time around the late nineties Subaru appears to have conducted a market study in the US yielding a very surprising result: The brand appeared to be especially popular within the LGBT community. Subaru very cleverly used this to their advantage and started a beautifully ambiguous advertising campaign in which everybody could see what they wanted to see. Since I still can’t seem to figure out how to post pictures, here is a link:

  5. Goodness knows what Legacy this article is about, ’90s, early oughts, middle oughts, or the perambulating trundlers they’ve made since 2011.

    The B4 models from 2005 to 2009 are different in character and looks from the earlier ones. And definitely from the awkward later ones. They’re about the only truly attractive cars Subaru has ever made. Those ones earlier than the B4 and the accompanying Impreza had the same chassis – I’ve looked at enough of them up on lifts. I bought a Legacy rear anti-roll bar and it bolted right on the Impreza, lessening its oversteer markedly. I had a ’99 Impreza 2.2l for over nine years and 155,000 km and it cost almost nothing in repairs -less than $1000. I deliberately bought the automatic. The manual gearchange was horrid, detestable in fact, and with it and the almost identical Legacy I test drove, for some strange reason the engine sounded like a bag of bolts in a square tin box. Unrefined. The automatic was far better in that regard and avoided the agricultural manual gearchange, reminiscent of the tractors of my youth. I pride myself on shifting smoothly, but the one-two on Subarus has always had my measure. My Impreza used to make me chortle as I drove it – silly as it might sound to say it, it was a happy little beast and good in snow.

    In early 2008 I purchased a B4 Legacy turbo , the GT, made in the USA. Still drive it. I’ve test driven over 20 cars since 2012 and my retirement, and always come away disappointed and happy to hop back in it. It is of course an automatic for the reasons stated above. I love the darn thing. It looks good, it has great all-around visibility, it goes like stink, it’s quiet, handles surefootedly, has proper hydraulic power steering, is wonderful in snow and is interwoven into my psyche since I’ve never owned a car longer. It is a faithful servant now getting long in the tooth considering our awful winter weather and road salt that sometimes is ladled on so thickly you mistake salt for snow. So, yes, it’s getting quite rusty around the gills. No different from any other make in that regard. There aren’t a lot of any 2008’s left roaming around these parts.

    In 2011, Subaru began the long rise from obscurity and interesting cars to major sales volume in the US. Sales have tripled to almost 700,000 per year, and have never receded. 2011 also saw a changed engine and chassis – the Legacy/Outback was completely redesigned and became a big bag of air with strange styling and underdamped suspension. The interior was cheapened. I’ve driven all three revisions since then, and interesting to an enthusiast they are not. The CVT automatic saps all interest. They are giant Noddy cars. Of course, the general public doesn’t agree with me about the current range of Subarus, and they are indeed very popular. The doggie set adores them. The latest 2018 Impreza I had for a week, and I’d sum it up as dreadful – no sense of the straight ahead on motorways making it tiring to drive, no oomph, just a car. The mighty have fallen, and with a distinct thud. But the company is highly profitable.

    With its current sales success in North America, Subaru is unlikely to return to making interesting offbeat vehicles. They make almost half their total volume of vehicles in the US these days – only the Forester (and WRX/STI) come from Japan. Souless appliances. You’re not missing much in Europe by not buying them. They’re embarassingly off the mark these days in my view. A Mazda3 is so much better than the Impreza, it’s hard to believe except by driving one after the other and realizing the truth. Same with a Mazda6 over a Legacy.

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