New Legacy conceals Subaru's secret punch

Starting at $26,800

If forced to choose from the myriad mid-size sedans available, you could just about die of boredom doing the research. That is, until you come across the 2015 Subaru Legacy. Some things, such as a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine and standard touchscreen, put the car in line with so many others on the market. But then you come across nuggets such as the standard all-wheel drive, corner braking, or the unique EyeSight driver safety system.

Yes, the 2015 Subaru Legacy competes with the herd of largely uninteresting middle-class commuter cars , but then it goes and adds some uniquely Subaru elements.

Subaru gave its Legacy mid-size sedan a major redesign for the 2015 model year. During a press event, Subaru product manager Peter Tenn told me that the previous generation of the Legacy did not have the looks to compete with the likes of the Toyota Camry , Ford Fusion , or Honda Accord . The new styling is intended to put the Legacy in direct competition with the stalwarts of the segment.

Rather than the swoopiness of the Hyundai Sonata , Subaru went for a bulkier look with the new Legacy. The roofline rises high, allowing for large windows all around and good visibility. Tenn called out the coupe-like rake at the rear of the cab, dropping the roof towards the trunk lid, but I have seen more gradual slopes on a single track mountain bike trail.

The roof and sides of the Legacy present a modern and conventional sedan.

2015 Subaru Legacy

Subaru's redesigned Legacy leans toward the conservative styling of succesful cars in the segment.

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The trapezoidal grille, a recent styling cue adopted by Subaru, sits vertical, giving the Legacy its muscular appearance. Sheet metal separates grille and headlight casings, which incorporate the new bracket running lights Subaru has also shown off in the WRX .

H power

Under the hood sits either a 2.5-liter flat four-cylinder engine, an H-4 in Subaru terminology, or a 3.6-liter flat six-cylinder engine. Although displacement of these engines is roughly similar to what you find in the mid-size sedan competition, no other company in this segment configures engines quite the same as Subaru. The benefit is that all the weight of the engine block stays at the level of the crankcase, laying flat across the front of the car, rather than a typical V-6 or inline four-cylinder engine where the cylinders point upward.

The flat design of the Legacy's engine may sound like a pain during maintenance, but not so much in this era of 100,000-mile tune-ups.

2015 Subaru Legacy

Subaru's four-cylinder engine has laterally opposed cylinders on either side of the crankcase.

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Always looking for innovation, I was disappointed to see these initial engine specs, as they seem to carry over from the previous model. However, I was assured by Tenn that Subaru had refined the Legacy's engine with new cylinder heads and intake manifolds. This new running gear didn't make much of a difference in output, as the 2.5-liter four-cylinder makes 175 horsepower and 174 pound-feet of torque, a gain of 2 horsepower over the previous generation. The available 3.6-liter six-cylinder engine's output remains the same at 256 horsepower and 247 pound-feet of torque.

Fuel economy, however, is up for both engines. The 2.5-liter Legacy boasts EPA numbers of 26 mpg city and 36 mpg highway, while the 3.6-liter engine comes in at 20 mpg city and 28 mpg highway. Part of the credit for this fuel economy is due to the Legacy's continuously variable transmission (CVT), the only transmission available in the car.

I spent a day driving both engines of the Legacy up and down California's Highway 1. Predictably, the six-cylinder moved with an easy power, responding well to my accelerator input, while the four-cylinder struggled just a little, requiring more throttle for passing maneuvers and hill climbs.

In both cars, the CVT led to smooth, even acceleration, giving the Legacy an easy, no-fuss driving character that buyers look for in a mid-size sedan.

That drivetrain character, when combined with a comfortably tuned suspension and electric power steering with a medium amount of heft made driving the Legacy a little boring. In this regard, though, I did not consider "boring" a negative quality, as I could enjoy the beautiful coastal scenery while cruising down the highway.

2015 Subaru Legacy

The Legacy felt well-suited for a drive down Highway 1.

Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Stepping into it a little more for the twisty bits, I found the suspension was prone to a bit of sway but the grip felt solid. On these dry roads I was not tasking the standard all-wheel-drive much, so could not make a determination of how much it helped the handling. However, I was able to feel a bit of what Subaru refers to as Active Torque Vectoring, a system also deployed on the new WRX, which applies braking power to the inside front wheel in a turn.

This corner braking tech did not give the Legacy quite the agility of the WRX, but it let me take tight turns at speed, maintaining the car's stability.

Two eyes

Handing over some of the driving burden to electronics, I turned on the Legacy's adaptive cruise control. Setting the speed, the car did an excellent job of following traffic ahead, even around very tight turns where Subaru does not recommend using the system.

2015 Subaru Legacy

New styling elements, such as bracket-shaped running lights, complement the front of the Legacy.

Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Adaptive cruise control, pre-collision braking, and lane departure warning in the Legacy all rely on Subaru's EyeSight system, which uses two forward-facing cameras to identify objects ahead and interpret their speed and relative position. For the 2015 Legacy, Subaru has improved EyeSight, fitting it with smaller cameras that offer 40 percent more range and wider viewing angle.

The EyeSight system can, according to Subaru, identify brake lights ahead. When the Legacy is operating under its cruise control system and the system detects brake lights, it will cease accelerating, so it will be more ready to apply the brakes if traffic ahead is actually slowing.

In the dashboard of the Legacy I was happy to see a 7-inch touchscreen showing six large icons for features such as navigation, phone, stereo, and apps. Rather than use some complicated user interface, this system was refreshing in its simplicity. All the icons were the same size and large enough that it would be easy to memorize their positions and use them without looking at the LCD. For lesser trim Legacys, Subaru makes a 6.2-inch touchscreen standard for operating the stereo and hands-free phone system.

During this press event, I did not have the time to dig particularly deep into this system, but I liked what I saw. The touchscreen response time was good, and the information was laid out plainly and logically.

2015 Subaru Legacy

This uncomplicated menu screen is the entry point for the Legacy's cabin electronics.

Wayne Cunningham/CNET

For audio sources, Subaru includes satellite radio, Bluetooth streaming, two USB ports for iOS devices and USB drives, and some app support. Subaru has previously offered Aha and Pandora, but even more intriguing was a button for MirrorLink. This system lets the touchscreen run apps such as navigation on a connected smartphone. Many Sony and Nokia phones support MirrorLink, as does the Samsung Gallaxy S III.

The two cars I drove came with the available Harman Kardon speaker system, which offers 11 speakers, and what Subaru refers to as a 576-Watt equivalent amp. That "equivalent" figure comes from the fact that the Legacy's upgraded audio system uses Harman Kardon GreenEdge technology, which is designed to use less power while maintaining powerful sound.

Mid-size search

Anyone shopping for a mid-size sedan will face an overwhelming list of choices, and Subaru is likely not a brand that will first come to mind in this segment. However, the refinement and modern cabin tech of the 2015 Legacy makes this sedan worth a look.

I would like to see Subaru push its engine tech a bit, such as coming up with a hybrid version of the Legacy or replacing the 3.6-liter six-cylinder engine with a turbocharged four-cylinder, but the driving character with the existing drivetrains was very good.

More interesting to me is the standard all-wheel drive and the corner braking system, which should give the Legacy an edge over the competition.

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