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First Drive: 2015 Subaru Legacy [Review]

Can Subaru finally crack the midsize sedan code? We investigate.

To say that Subaru is facing an uphill battle in the mid-size sedan segment would be an understatement.

Best-known for its rugged lineup of all-wheel drive crossovers and wagons, most buyers gloss over the Subaru brand when weighing their next sedan purchase. As a result, the Legacy has been relegated to the back of the line in the fiercely-competitive mid-size sedan segment, with buyers opting for the best-selling Toyota Camry by a margin of nearly 10-to-1.

Although admittedly not gunning for the Camry's top position, Subaru is confident that its all-new 2015 Legacy is good enough to steal away sales from some of its top competitors. Curious to see if it really has the chops to compete against the heavy-weights of the mid-size segment, we hopped a plane to California's central coast to put the 2015 Legacy through its paces.

Stepping outAlthough not as stunning as the Legacy Concept, the design of the 2015 Legacy is a huge leap forward compared to the outgoing model.

Subaru has replaced the bat-like front end of the 2014 Legacy with a new design that employs a prominent hexagonal grille and better integrated headlights. The 2015 Legacy stays the course with halogen headlamps (HIDs on 3.6L models), but there are at least LED accents.

Whereas the Legacy Concept was billed as a full-on four-door coupe, Subaru has downplayed that styling angle for the production Legacy, describing the sedan's roofline as only "coupe-like.” While not as aesthetically pleasing, rear seat passengers will appreciate the extra headroom afforded by that decision.

The rear of the Legacy - which features a short decklid and LED taillights - is somewhat derivative, with elements from Toyota and Acura's design studios poking through.

Slip inside the Legacy, however, and there is no mistaking it for anything other than a Subaru. The Legacy's center stack has been totally revamped for 2015, but it manages to retain the chunky proportions of the outgoing model.

Sitting atop that familiar center stack is an all-new infotainment system consisting of a 6.2-inch touchscreen on base cars and an upgraded 7-inch unit on high-spec Premium models. The base unit includes features like a high-definition rearview camera (which is one the sharpest we've ever seen), Bluetooth connectivity, an app suite and a USB port. Subaru's upgraded infotainment throws in satellite radio and multi-touch gesture control. Thankfully, both units include an actual volume knob for the radio.

During our day with the Legacy we had just one gripe with its new infotainment system - the unit is designed to look like a tablet, so its shiny glass covering can make it difficult to read the screen in direct sunlight. Other than that, it's a treat to use.

In addition to a larger touchscreen, the Legacy's Premium trim also bundles in a voice control system. Although a little slow to act, we found the system to be totally obedient and even capable of complex tasks, such as lowering just the temperature on the driver's side.

Those that choose the old fashioned way of changing the temperature won't be disappointed - the knobs used in the Legacy are covered in soft-touch rubber and have a high-quality feel that is typically reserved for European luxury cars. The luxury touches don't stop there, though, as soft-touch materials and convincing fake wood accents are used throughout the Legacy's cabin.

The Legacy's front buckets provide plenty of comfort and support and, unlike most sedans in this segment, offer bolsters that are capable of keeping you firmly planted in your seat during spirited driving. Rear seat room is good, but that aforementioned "coupe-like” roofline does impede on headroom for passengers over six-feet.

The Legacy uses a simple twin-pod gauge cluster, but we found the blue speedometer on our Premium tester to be difficult to read at times. Luckily a center-mounted LCD screen can be used as a redundant speed monitor, although it should be noted that it defaults to a direction display when the navigation system is being used.

Driving impressionsMore than just skin deep, the Legacy's revamp includes a new platform that is lighter and stiffer than before. The Legacy's all-wheel drive system has also been updated to include torque-vectoring technology from the high-performance WRX STI; Limited models get Subaru's latest Stablex damping system.

As a result of those improvements, the Legacy morphs from just another mid-sizer into a bonafide sports sedan.

The Legacy corners remarkably flat, with torque-vectoring helping to hustle the sedan through even the sharpest of hair-pins. In fact, we couldn't help but think how much the the Legacy's handling reminded us of the STI we recently tested as we barreled down California's scenic Highway 1.

But Subaru recognizes that most Legacys will live out their days on the roads of the real world, which often include pot holes, traffic jams and crowded parking lots.

To that end, Subaru designed the Legacy's suspension as a dual-threat, cable of both carving up a canyon road and also sopping up any road imperfections you might come across. No jumping or jarring here, the Legacy simply wafts over cracks and pits.

It should also be mentioned that the Legacy's cabin is whisper-quiet at highway speeds.

Check the Legacy's $1,195 EyeSight option and dealing with congestion becomes a whole lot easier. Relying on stereo cameras mounted high on the windshield, Subaru's Gen-3 EyeSight system handles most of the Legacy's advanced safety systems, including lane departure warning and adaptive cruise control with full stop. And because EyeSight uses cameras rather than radar for its adaptive cruise control, the system can recognize brake lights on the vehicle ahead.

Testing EyeSight's capabilities requires a leap of faith, but we found it to perform as advertised. We never experienced EyeSight losing, um, eye sight of the car ahead, and the system faithfully brought us to a stop when we inevitably ran into California's infamous traffic. Tap the gas after traffic moves along and the system automatically brings the car back up to speed.

The EyeSight package also comes with Subaru's new Rear Cross Traffic Alert. Similar to other systems on the market, Subaru's system uses sensors in the back of the vehicle to alert the driver to any vehicles that may be approaching from the sides. However, unlike other systems, the Legacy's rear sensors are mounted high, which should help cut down on repair costs in the event of a minor fender bender.

Blind Spot Detection is also available for the Legacy, but that feature should be rarely used given the sedan's excellent visibility.

Engine roomThe Achilles heel of the Legacy is undoubtedly its powertrains, which is a shame given its excellent chassis.

Base models come with a 2.5L Boxer four rated at 175 horsepower and 174 lb-ft of torque. A 3.6L Boxer six with 256 horsepower and 247 lb-ft of torque is also available. Both mills come hooked to a CVT that is capable of acting like a conventional six-speed via steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters.

The 2.5 is slow off the line and sometimes has trouble keeping up with traffic and steeper hills. Subaru's performance figures back up our seat-of-the-pants evaluation - the automaker says a Legacy 2.5i requires a leisurely 9.1 seconds to accelerate from 0-60, with the 1/4-mile taking a lengthy 17.1 seconds.

The 3.6 definitely improves things, but still left us wanting for more. Grunt off the line isn't great, but the six-cylinder is plenty strong for passing maneuvers. Subaru says six-cylinder versions of the Legacy can hit 60 from a standstill in 7.2 seconds and cross the 1/4-mile stripe in 15.6 seconds.

The up-side of that somewhat poky performance is excellent fuel economy, at least in four-cylinder guise. Despite its standard four-wheel drive configuration, the Legacy 2.5i is rated at 26mpg in the city and 36mpg on the highway, netting a combined rating of 30mpg. The 3.6L is a bit of a swiller in comparison, drinking regular grade to the tune of 20/29/22mpg city/highway/combined.

Call us crazy, but we think the Legacy is screaming for the 2.0L turbo-four used in the Forester XT. Boasting 250 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque, the turbo would liven up the Legacy's performance and undoubtedly return better fuel economy than the optional flat-six. Sadly, Subaru says it has no plans to update the Legacy's powertrains any time soon.

Leftlane's bottom lineSubaru may have a rocky uphill climb ahead in the mid-size sedan segment, but the all-wheel drive Legacy is certainly up to the task.

Boasting improved looks, a quiet and refined interior, and a sublime suspension, the Legacy is at or near the top of its class in many regards. Weak powertrains are the Legacy's only real black marks, but most customers probably won't mind trading all-out performance for fewer stops at the pump.

2015 Subaru Legacy 2.5i base price, $22,490.2015 Subaru Legacy 2.5i Premium base price $24,2902015 Subaru Legacy 2.5i Limited base price $27,2902015 Subaru Legacy 3.6R Limited base price $30,390

Photos by Drew Johnson.

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