In truth you could probably drive a Yugo through Big Sur's main artery and have an enjoyable trip. Travel even briefly along the coast-hugging route that is Highway 1 and you'll soon realize why people come from all over the world to drive this stretch of Northern California. Just when you think your eyes have taken in their most picturesque sight ever, you round the next corner only to see one better. It's as if nature is trying to one-up itself at every turn.
A drive here in a great car is only better. Such was the case with the all-new 2015 Subaru Legacy, set to go on sale in early July. It was an unforgettable trip in what has been a forgotten car in the midsize class.
Though the Legacy has its own legacy that stretches back more than a quarter century, even Subaru admits the midsize sedan "had been overlooked" in a segment that includes the Honda Accord, Nissan Altima, and the best-selling car in America, the Toyota Camry. Yet they are also quick to point out the car's loyal owners and that 96 percent of Legacy models sold in the past 10 years are still on the road.
For this preview, Subaru invited auto writers and their spouses to Big Sur to try this all-wheel-drive sedan on the region's roads, which are as twisty as they are picturesque. We requested extra time in the car, so my wife and I could drive an additional leg from Big Sur to Santa Barbara some 200 miles south.
Flying is stressful in and of itself, but I had a more pressing issue: I somehow pulled my back as we were about to leave for the airport. Thankfully I was able to move, albeit like someone twice my age.
Upon finally landing in Monterey and receiving keys to the new Subaru Legacy that we would drive an hour south to Big Sur, I had only one thing in mind: Please let this car have excellent lumbar support. It's funny how what can seem trivial in a car at any other time suddenly takes center stage when you need it most. Thankfully the 2015 Legacy had my back.
For this leg, my wife, Christine, and I were in a top-of-line Subaru Legacy 3.6R, which comes with the 6-cylinder engine and carries a starting price of just over $30,000. Though most everything about the Legacy is new for 2015, the same two engine options remain: this one that makes 256 horsepower or the base 2.5-liter 4-cylinder that outputs 175. Though these power plants carry over, they have been significantly enhanced with new cylinder heads, new pistons, new intake manifold and other features yielding better fuel economy.
In regard to efficiency, the new Subaru's numbers are impressive. Models with the 4-cylinder engine are estimated to get up to 36 mpg, while the 6-cylinder versions are estimated to earn up to 29 mpg. Those numbers represent gains of 4 mpg over the outgoing models. And remember, like every other Subaru (except the rear-drive BRZ sports car), all Legacy models come standard with traction-enhancing all-wheel drive, which requires extra energy to drive all four wheels.
In addition to a more efficient engine, the 2015 Subaru Legacy employs a continuously variable transmission (CVT) across the board. That means no more manual transmissions for 4-cylinder Legacy models, and out goes the 5-speed automatic used in 6-cylinder variants. The previous 4-cylinder model had a CVT option, but it wasn't perfect. It tended to lurch from a stop even if you were easy on the pedal. In stop-and-go traffic or when backing out of a parking space, this trait is especially unsettling.
But there's good news for this all-new, sixth-gen Legacy: the CVT has been reprogrammed and improved. The 2015 Legacy's CVT is now smoother from a start and for the most part does a good job mimicking a traditional automatic. It may not be quite as smooth as the Honda Accord's, but it's still admirable. So far my back and foot were content. After a brief pit-stop in the tiny and idyllic seaside town of Carmel, we arrived at our destination. In the following days we would continue south as we put hundreds more miles on 4- and 6-cylinder versions of the new Subaru Legacy.
Big Sur and Beyond with a Boxer
The next day we headed toward San Simeon in the same 3.6-liter Legacy, then returned to Big Sur in a 2.5-liter version. After a picnic lunch at the scenic William R. Hearst Memorial State Beach, the plan was to tour Hearst Castle just to the north. But with a still-aggravated back, I made driving the priority. That proved the fun choice, anyway. In addition to breathtaking coastal and mountain views, the two-lane, 60-mile stretch from Big Sur to San Simeon is filled with twists and turns.
It was here we really had the chance to put both versions of the car to the test and weigh the differences. While the two are 2 cylinders and 81 horsepower apart, they both have the same horizontally opposed, or boxer engine construction. (It's called a "boxer" engine because with the pistons moving sideways in and out instead of up and down, they resemble a boxer's fists.) Beyond just sounding cool, this is actually relevant, and is as much a part of Subaru's identity as all-wheel drive. In addition to less vibration thanks to its horizontal positioning, this arrangement allows the engine to sit lower in the car. This low center of gravity equates to better handling and a more "planted" feel.
Amid the hundreds of twists and turns on Highway 1, the 2015 Legacy indeed felt well-connected to the road. And though the road was dry, we still appreciated the all-wheel-drive system's grip and the new Active Torque Vectoring, a feature used in Subaru's WRX and WRX STi performance models that has found its way into Subaru's midsize sedan to make cornering smoother.
If I had one nit, it's that the Legacy's steering felt a tad soft amid hard cornering. In around-town and highway driving, it's fine, but amid the twisty and hilly roads where we tested, it would have been nice to at least artificially firm up the car's steering feel. For the record, my wife liked the way the steering felt, so it's safe to say this trait is subjective.
Then there's the power equation. For most people and for most of the time, the efficient 4-cylinder will be plenty. With an improved 0-60 mph time of 8.8 seconds, the 2015 Legacy 2.5 has acceptable acceleration and never felt tired in hilly terrain. But here's something else to know if you drive Highway 1: There are many slow moving vehicles. With picturesque views and narrow, twisting roads, this is understandable. But between caravans of motorhomes and dozens of looky-loos apparently unaware of drivers behind them, this most beautiful of roads can be aggravating if you're in the slightest hurry. In these situations we appreciated the extra grunt of the Legacy 3.6. In the 6-cylinder Subaru, passing slower cars was a breeze, and power was immediate. Zero to 60 mph in this model happens in 6.9 seconds, plenty quick for most.
Here's another aspect where the Subaru Legacy had much room to improve: infotainment. Subaru's vehicles in general have lagged in terms of their navigation/audio/tech functionality. With the 2015 Legacy, Subaru says the new equipment is a "first step" in rectifying that.
After using the system over a couple of days, it feels more like two steps forward. Even a base 2.5i Legacy with its $22,490 price boasts a high-resolution 6.2-inch touch-screen display, while all other models have an upgraded 7-inch system with multi-touch gesture control, similar to a tablet. While the system still lacks some iPhone app integration and doesn't have CarPlay ("We're talking to Apple," a Subaru rep says), the Legacy's new infotainment system works surprisingly well. Most of all, it's easy to use, whether you're pairing a phone, playing music wirelessly over Bluetooth, or zooming in and out of the optional navigation system.
Also commendable is its voice control feature. No, it's not perfect -- it tried to play Tom Petty when I asked it to find Top Hits on satellite radio, but after I learned the way it liked to be talked to (no dirty jokes here, please), the system was happy to oblige. Just a few years ago it may have seemed like science fiction to tell your car to adjust the driver's temperature to 72 degrees, but now it's a reality, and it works in the new Legacy.
The Legacy also comes with a USB input, or in the case of our Premium model, two of them. This is super helpful for both playing audio or charging phones. The only nit is that the ports are buried in the lower console, making for an awkward reach when plugging in or unplugging.
The Subaru's tech amenities proved helpful and entertaining as we left Big Sur and its narrow stretches of Highway 1 for Morro Bay and then Santa Barbara. It was at these points south, where Highway 1 met the wider 101, where we experienced the 2015 Legacy as a daily driver vs. a corner carver. And here it was yet more adept than before. The Legacy's nav system kept us on route, the audio streaming made sure we were entertained, and the heated seats helped my back.
After hundreds of miles, my wife and I came to appreciate the Legacy for its attributes large and small. We're only a family of three -- including the dog -- but my wife is already picturing herself in this vehicle. With its revamp for 2015, that should also be the case for many others in the market for a family sedan. The Legacy has always earned accolades for its sophisticated all-wheel-drive system, but now it's hardly a one-trick pony -- it's a real contender among midsize sedans.
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