If the Toyota Camry is the Coca-Cola of Japanese cars, then the Honda Accord can only be thought of as Pepsi.
Together they own the marketplace for mid-sized sedans. Camry trying to please everyone and your mom with a blanket of bland perfection, while Accord chases the ‘new generation’ with its cooler, sporty image.
There are others, such as the Nissan Altima, but like RC Cola, they mostly split the difference between the two without being as good as either. People buy them to be different, and often go out of their way to tell you how much they love them, because they don’t.
For those who want a true alternative there is only one, the Subaru Legacy.
Think of it as 7-UP. “The Uncola” of cars.
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In contrast to the front-wheel drive competition, the Legacy comes standard with all-wheel drive and has engines that lie down flat for a lower center of gravity. Its wet weather performance appeals to drivers who live in snowy places like New Hampshire and Vermont where people do things differently because they have to, not because they want to.
It’s a niche in the industry that Subaru has been happy to call its own, but it’s a very small one. Toyota sells as many cars in a month as Subaru does all year.
Like any outsider (or corporation) Subaru secretly longs to be loved by all, so they’ve come out with a model of the Legacy that’s still left-of-center, but edges closer to the mainstream.
The Legacy 3.0R Limited is the new top-of-the-line and comes with a six-cylinder engine instead of the turbocharged four that powers the next up 2.5GT Limited. Oddly, both engines have nearly the same horsepower and deliver almost identical gas mileage, begging the question:
Typically, carmakers offer six-cylinders as more refined alternatives to hyperactive turbos, and all of Subaru’s competitors are available with powerful V6s. Their biggest appeal is the immediate power, or torque they provide the when you hit the gas, delivering their thrust in a more relaxed fashion than a high-revving turbo.
Oddly, the 3.0R plays the roll of the turbo here, producing significantly less torque at higher RPMs than the engine in the 2.5GT does. Step hard on the gas to merge into traffic and not much happens. No shove in the back, no sense of momentum until you are well on your way.
Once it’s up to speed things get better, and its fun to downshift the automatic transmission just to hear the sound of the flat six, even if you’re not in a hurry. With a naturally better balance than the more common “V” design, the Legacy’s engine is sewing machine smooth, and plays one of the most original tunes in the automotive world.
With shift paddles behind the steering wheel it’s easy to conduct the sextet of pistons, and a system called SI-Drive allows you adjust the throttle to a setting called ‘Sport #’ as in the musical ‘sharp,’ which gives it quicker response when you want to drive with a bit of allegro.
Like a feather trigger on a gun, SI-Drive doesn’t make the car any more powerful, just more eager to shoot out of the blocks. Leave it in something called ‘Intelligent’ mode and the gas pedal takes on a mellower demeanor, suggesting smart people are also slow. It does help lead you to better gas mileage than a lead foot will, but at 17mpg city/24mpg highway the Legacy scores low for the class. You can probably chalk that up to the added weight and mechanical complexity of the all-wheel drive, but since that’s the main attraction, it should be worth the premium at the pump.
With dark clouds literally on the horizon, I took the Legacy on a storm chasing excursion to see how well it would do on slippery roads. Fortuitously the precipitation was scattered, which led me to make numerous U-Turns and navigate many exit ramps and jug handles.
I’m loathe to admit it, because old adages are the verbal equivalent of a dog doing his thing on your leg, but whoever said ‘it’s not the destination that’s important, but the journey’, may have been on to something.
While many cars with all-wheel drive actually act like front drivers until things get messy, Subaru’s system sends power to all four wheels all the time. Throwing the Legacy into one too many turns at high speeds whenever I spotted a suspect cloud in the other direction, I found that it exhibits none of the understeer, or ‘push’ that you normally get in a front-wheel drive car being driven at its limits.
In fact, on dry roads it’s more likely to slide the rear end around when you drive it hard, but it mostly stays neutral and is easy to keep under control when you reach the edge. Camrys don’t drive like this, and neither do Accords. It’s not to say the Legacy is any faster than them, it isn’t, but sweatpants fit differently than shorts, and both have their advantages when you’re out for a run.
The Legacy falls into the shorts category, as is a good bit smaller than the others. There’s plenty of legroom up front, and the 8-way power seats are comfortable on long drives, but the car feels narrow and there’s not much room in back. Putting the driver’s seat in a comfortable position for my 6’1” frame effectively turned it into a three-seater. If you’re tall and want to give more than two of your friends a ride, prepare to get up close and personal with the dashboard.
If you do, you’ll find it to be simple, to a fault. There’s nothing wrong with it. The controls are easy to use, and it looks nice enough. But you get the sense that Subaru didn’t push their interior designers to hard this time around. I’ll be kind and call it nondescript, but dated is more accurate.
Unfortunately, this also describes the navigation system that comes standard in the 3.0 R. It works as well as any, and is easy to use, but the map graphics bring to mind an Apple II computer. Not long ago I could care less if my nav system looked like it was drawn in pencil, as long as it worked, but after getting my directions from screens with realism that could give Bob Ross a run for his money, I’m starting to expect it.
On this trip, it really didn’t matter, since my destination was on the move too. I eventually intercepted a couple of squalls and can report that the Legacy 3.0 R will handle a wintry mix just fine. On sleet-covered roads in sub-freezing temperatures, it never missed a step, and I was doing my best to trip it up. The 3.0 R maintains Subaru’s foul-weather legacy, but at what cost?
For $31,295 the 3.0 R is loaded with just about everything but satellite radio. The 2.5 GT has a base price that’s about $3,000 less, but you’d have to spend more than that to get one with the same level of equipment as the 3.0 R, including the navigation system. The 3.0 R also comes standard with sporty Bilstein shocks that are not available in the 2.5 GT Limited.
The differences between the two may prove to be too small to matter to most buyers, but it’s good to have choices.
7-UP comes in cherry flavor these days too.
2008 Subaru Legacy 3.0 R Limited
Base Price: $31,295
As Tested: $32,700
Engine: 3.0L Flat-6
Power: 245hp, 215 lb-ft torque
Drivetrain: All-wheel drive w/5-speed automatic transmission
What do you think of the Legacy 3.0 R Limited?
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Gary Gastelu is FoxNews.com's Automotive Editor.