In February I found myself looking for a new car. I was rear-ended, totaling my Mazda 3 (Hatchback! 2.5L! HID lights! So sad...). It's funny how getting in an accident causes you to see accidents coming from everywhere.
As a result, I wasn't willing to make any safety compromises during my new car search. Safety is roughly correlated with size, so I targeted a mid-size sedan or small SUV. I also required four or five stars on all the government tests and good or acceptable on all the IIHS tests. Preferably the car would be an IIHS Top Safety Pick, which includes the newish technology of Automatic Emergency Braking (AEB). I decided to make that a requirement, which quickly cut down my options.
I ultimately chose the Subaru Legacy, and I'll comment on the competition below. After a thousand miles I've found mostly positives with a few negatives. Still, none of the other options stand out as better.
The Subaru Legacy is above all a sensible choice. It is a practical mid-size sedan with literally the highest possible safety scores. It comes with all-wheel drive but also achieves respectable fuel mileage (at least according to government testing). And after testing most of the competition, I think the Legacy offers some driving enjoyment as well.
I find the Legacy's exterior style to be sharp, though perhaps erring on the conservative side. Those who know me might see why that was a good match. Inside, I've always liked Subaru's aesthetic, a sort of no-nonsense quality. All the materials that will be regularly touched are great, but some of the less prominent pieces are cheap. A few mold lines show. However, I prefer it to the competition. The materials are no worse than, say, an Accord, and the design is open, intuitive, and simple.
The one flaw in the interior is the driver's seat comfort, at least for me at 6' 2”. It's slowly breaking in and will probably feel great, but right now the lumbar is too strong and the back rest too flat. I'm either leaning way back and getting lower back pain or sitting up too straight and hunched over; I can't seem to find a middle ground. But, seats are very dependent on the person, so just be sure to spend some quality time in one if you are considering buying.
Features versus price is a strong point for the Legacy. At the 2.5i Premium trim level, Subaru charges less than other mid-level trim competitors and offers most of what would be nice to have. You get a 10-way (don't ask me to find all 10) power adjustable driver's seat, leather wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, heated (cloth!) seats, auto headlights, a big touch screen radio, bluetooth, 60/40 split folding rear seat, and other stuff. The feature set is more than enough, though I do miss key-fob-in-my-pocket entry and start.
I've generally thought of myself as a driving enthusiast, but with the only evidence being decades of Car and Driver (C&D) subscriptions (and a couple rental-car Nurburgring laps). Each of my last three cars (2003 Acura RSX, 2010 VW Golf TDI, 2014 Mazda 3) was one of their 10 Best, until the Legacy. They hate the Legacy, and so for me, this is a cognitive grey zone. I think the Legacy has a lot to offer in the handling department, but C&D find it to be woefully lacking compared to an Accord or Mazda 6. Those two cars are certainly tauter and more immediately responsive. My Mazda 3 was the more athletic sibling to the Mazda 6, and it sure turned in faster than the Legacy. My RSX had steering that was more eager to express what it was feeling than a contestant on The Bachelor. But those are high-strung, front drive cars. They communicate a lack of steadiness in corners, with their immediate turn-in matched by an immediate willingness to run wide. The Legacy certainly turns in with less pizzazz, but mid corner it shows some bite and a willingness to rotate. All with a completely unruffled demeanor. I recently hustled it down a winding road from a local ski area, and it was quite a bit of fun. On the same road my Mazda 3 was likely faster with less effort, but pushing it to 7/10's or 8/10's (and that's being generous for my driving skill) didn't feel as reliable. That could be because of the Legacy's party trick, Active Torque Vectoring, which works in concert with the all-wheel drive and can brake the inside front wheel when you’re on the throttle to help rotate the car while turning. Or maybe I'm just a noob and don't know good dynamics. Regardless, for me the Legacy can be enjoyable, and it certainly rides better than an Accord or Mazda 6.
The Subaru's one significant dynamic downside is that it’s slow. It has very similar acceleration times to my TDI Golf, but without the advantage of ridiculous torque. An engine and transmission tuned for fuel economy combined with all wheel drive will do that. Thankfully the engine sounds pretty good when being wrung out, because you have to do that a lot. The sound from the flat-four is a smooth low-pitch growl. This isn't what many auto journalists want I guess, and the flat-four is often insulted as being “agricultural.” I grew up on a farm, so maybe I have positive associations with agricultural equipment. The transmission is a CVT, which makes it an abomination to most reviewers. For small throttle requests it is uninspiring, causing the car to putt-putt around at low RPMs. However, the Legacy's CVT is programmed to act like a stepped transmission when any significant acceleration is requested, and it does it pretty well. It can't match any real performance transmission, but it is more willing to “downshift” under medium throttle than my Mazda 3 was.
Safe and Secure
Safety is perhaps the strongest selling point of the Subaru Legacy. In the intro I mentioned that it had the highest possible crash test scores. I was not being figurative. In NHTSA testing the Legacy received 5/5 stars in every individual test they conducted. From the IIHS, the Legacy gets Good crash ratings (the top) and a Superior AEB crash avoidance rating (the top). In the two IIHS tests, Eyesight (the Subaru AEB system) avoided any impact. Eyesight is available on all but the lowest trim, making it very affordable to add (unlike most competitors, the Accord being the exception). Braking also appears to be a strong point, with Consumer Reports indicating shorter braking distances than most (all?) other midsize sedans. One downside in safety testing appears to be the headlights. IIHS published results about a month after I purchased, giving the Legacy's headlights the lowest rating (very few sedans got good marks without pricey upgrades). I've found the headlights to be acceptable, though not great.
Yes, I am now officially middle-age.
Getting older, with a family now in tow everywhere, means I make choices differently. Like buying a slow, safe mid-size car. When I was younger I bought cars that were more fun and less practical, even if I never let the animal spirits go wild with a Porsche or Lotus. But now safety and budget override, and the Legacy wins there. If all else were equal, would I have bought a Mazda 6 with it's tighter handling? Probably, as an encore to my sorely missed Mazda 3 and to relieve the C&D induced cognitive dissonance I now suffer from. But really, there's no good reason not to enjoy the Legacy.
Bits and pieces
The Legacy seemed quieter than the Accord and doesn't depend on faux engine muzak. I've had no problem with jerky starts from rest, a common reviewer complaint on 2015s. In the first thousand miles, fuel mileage has been a disappointing 26 – 27 mpg, slightly lower than I would expect with a Camry and much lower than I would expect with an Accord. Yes, our family now has a FWD SUV and an AWD sedan. The bluetooth integration has a few bugs, in particular it restarts bluetooth music after a call even if the music was paused. The styling has bits of old SAAB 95 in the headlights and old Honda Civic in the taillights. Subaru's Indiana assembly was a plus, though the Accord is assembled in Ohio and has a higher percentage of American parts.
What competition did I consider? I've never been enticed by Hyundai/Kia. I'd consider them if they presented something unique, but in my case they don't. Similarly, the Chrysler 200 was also an option, but without the V6 ($$$) I just wasn't interested. The new Malibu wasn't safety rated in time. Applying my criteria left these in need of test drives:
New: Honda Accord, Honda CR-V, Mazda 6, Subaru Legacy, Subaru Forester, Subaru Outback, Toyota Camry, Toyota Rav4.
Used: Volvo S60.
Here's the minimum price for new 2016 options with AEB:
- Honda Accord: $24,480
- Subaru Legacy: $25,835
- Subaru Forester: $27,940
- Subaru Outback: $29,940
- Chrysler 200: $31,550
- Toyota Camry: $31,560
- Honda CR-V: $32,095
- Hyundai Sonata: $33,035
- Toyota Rav4: $33,180
- Mazda Mazda6: $33,495
- Hyundai Tucson: $33,535
- Kia Optima: $35,440
The S60 would have been around $24k with 30k miles, if I could find one with all the right options. The difficulty of that, along with the questionable local Volvo dealer (for service), forced me to nix that option.
Subaru and Honda offer AEB on most trims of their midsize cars (Legacy and Accord). Subaru has offered it for years and is on the second generation of their technology, while this is Honda’s first year to offer it (though Acura has offered what I assume is the same system for some time). Subaru's SUVs are also reasonably priced with Eyesight, but we already have a small SUV in our home. I don't need that capability, and moving to an SUV invariably causes handling and gas mileage to suffer relative to the car version of the same platform. Also I hated the programming of the Forester's CVT. So the Forester and Outback were out.
Ultimately for me it came down to a Subaru Legacy, Honda Accord, or Mazda 6. The Mazda was a stretch because getting AEB required that I go with the top trim level and then add on a Technology Package, pushing the price way over $30k. However, I loved my Mazda 3, so it was tempting. Honda had the cheapest option, an Accord LX, but I decided that was too spartan for me (some features I missed: adequately adjustable driver’s seat, decent stereo, blind spot monitoring). My option then became the EX trim, at $28,215. The Accord was a good option, and I test drove it a couple times. But I preferred the Legacy's interior (more room and a more pleasant design) and price, so I finally went with a Subaru Legacy 2.5i Premium with the Eyesight package.