Among solid commuter cars such as the Toyota Camry and the Honda Accord, few offer the performance characteristics of the 2008 Subaru Legacy. We tested the top-of-the-line R Limited version, which comes with a 3.0-liter engine. Along with the car's all-wheel-drive system, paddle shifters, and transmission mode settings, the Legacy proved fun in the hills, while perfectly comfortable in traffic.
The Legacy 3.0 R Limited features interesting roadholding and powertrain technologies. Its cabin tech options are only average at best. Our test car had a good navigation system and a six-disc changer. Subaru offers Sirius and XM satellite radio, but the implementation isn't great. Bluetooth cell phone integration isn't available.
Test the tech: GPS rally
One feature we like about the 2008 Subaru Legacy's navigation system is its ability to store multiple waypoints, letting you set up complex routes with a lot of stops. With this feature, you can plan an entire road trip and enter it into the navigation system before leaving home. For our tech test, we started out at CNET headquarters in San Francisco and entered four waypoints, taking us south of the city, over to the coast, then back to the office. For each waypoint, the navigation system offered an estimate of how long it would take to get there, and we tried to match that time as closely as possible.
We entered four addresses into the navigation system to define our GPS rally route.
Our first waypoint was 19 miles away, in South San Francisco, and we panicked a little when the navigation system only gave us 14 minutes to get there. We lost time waiting at stoplights on city streets, getting minutes behind schedule, but once we hit the freeway we gunned the Legacy, passing slower traffic easily as we made up the minutes. When the navigation system told us to exit the freeway, we were feeling good, with plenty of excess minutes. We got slowed down by some large trucks, but arrived at our first waypoint one minute under time.
The next stop was 22 miles away, and the car said we could do it in 24 minutes. Realizing that surface streets were our biggest threat, we jumped on the gas, trying to pick the right lanes to get the best time, and hoping the stoplights would be good to us. Once back on the highway, we were able to settle into a good cruising speed, making up time when necessary. This particular waypoint was just off the highway, making it easy to pull in at exactly the estimated time. We were feeling good.
But then we had to head over to the coast, along a route that would take us along the perpetually trafficked Highway 92. Our destination in Moss Beach was 22 miles away, for which the navigation system gave us a generous 39 minutes. Again we set out, trying to get an early lead on the highway. As we pulled onto the mountainous and twisting Highway 92, we were amazed to see no big trucks; the only traffic obstruction was a reasonably fast VW bus. As we closed in on Moss Beach, we found we had made up too much time and were scheduled to come in fully 10 minutes early. Not good. In a minor stroke of luck, the navigation system sent us down the wrong road, as its maps weren't up-to-date for our destination. We had to backtrack a bit and choose another road, which unfortunately only ate up one extra minute. We arrived at this waypoint nine minutes under our estimated time.
Then we set off for our final destination and realized that the car wanted us to get all the way back to downtown San Francisco from Moss Beach in only 24 minutes, and the distance was 24 miles. We shot onto Highway 1, going up the coast as quickly as possible, knowing that the Legacy could get through this very winding road at speed, but also anticipating plenty of slow tourists on the road taking in the scenery. With traffic, we could only manage around 40 mph for the first portion of this road and lost significant time. We tried to make up for it as we got onto a multilane highway, but taking the exit into San Francisco we realized we couldn't fully make up the time. We knew of a less-trafficked route to our office, but held to the route guidance, which actually tried to send us down a nonexistent road. As we rolled up to our office, we saw that we were nine minutes over. Although we got nailed on our last two waypoints, our overall rally was fairly good. Taking all times and waypoints into consideration, we were only one minute under.
In the cabin
At least with the Limited version of the 2008 Legacy, Subaru does a very good job with the cabin materials and fit. We can't vouch for other models in the lineup, but the interior of the Legacy Limited was very comfortable. Most of the stack and steering wheel buttons fit smoothly into a metal-look facing. The navigation system uses a touch-screen LCD mounted at the top of the stack, with a row of buttons along its base. In fact, the stack is a bit display-happy, with separate monochrome screens for the climate and audio systems, topped off by the navigation LCD.
Virtual gauges show average and immediate fuel economy, and acceleration.
During our GPS rally, we found the navigation system's route guidance to be good, getting us accurately through some complex highway interchanges, exits, and on-ramps. It did have some erroneous street information, but as navigation systems rely on just a couple of companies for maps, we would expect the same from other systems. This navigation system presented convenient options for entering addresses, such as by freeway entrance or phone number. It also had a standard database of businesses, including gas stations, ATMs, and restaurants.
The navigation system included a few other useful functions for vehicle information. The LCD can display a set of virtual gauges, showing average and immediate fuel economy. Another gauge shows acceleration, and there are other tools such as maintenance history and a calculator.
The stereo display doesn't show song titles, just file names, from MP3 CDs.
The only other significant cabin tech feature is the audio system, which puts 100 watts out through six speakers. We found the audio quality about average, with good separation and surprisingly decent bass, and enhanced with processing called SRS WOW, designed to produce a surround-sound effect. But the sound lost a lot of clarity in the high ranges, while bass-heavy tracks produced very irritating speaker hum.
There is a six-disc changer mounted in the stack that can play MP3 CDs. We found it easy enough to go through folders with buttons on the stack, but the stereo display would only show file and folder names, not the more informative ID3 track information for artist, album, or song title. There is an auxiliary input mounted in the center console, complete with a convenient pass-through for an MP3 player patch cord. You can choose XM or Sirius satellite radio with the Legacy, but we noticed the satellite antenna mounted to the inside of the windshield, similar to if you bought an aftermarket kit and mounted it yourself. We would like to see better integration with satellite radio, with a roof-mounted antenna.
Under the hood
The 2008 Subaru Legacy 3.0 R Limited gets more interesting with its powertrain and platform tech. As a Subaru, it gets the company's Symmetric All-wheel-drive system, which in this implementation biases torque to the rear wheels, although adjusts the distribution depending on driving conditions through the use of a center differential and electronic transfer clutch.
Subaru mounts the paddle shifters on the column, making them useful even with the wheel turned.
This car is the only version of the Legacy to get a 3-liter six-cylinder engine, in the horizontally opposed design favored by Subaru. The engine produces 245 horsepower and 215 foot-pounds of torque. Other Legacy models use a 2.5-liter horizontally opposed four cylinder, with the base model producing 170 horsepower and 170 foot-pounds of torque. The GT and spec.B models add an intercooled turbocharger to put out 243 horsepower and 241 foot-pounds of torque, offering potentially better performance than the 3-liter version. We found the 3-liter Legacy sprightly, offering good, but not overwhelming, acceleration. During our time with the car, we saw an average of 21.6 mpg, a fairly good number falling in the EPA-rated range of 17 mpg for city and 24 mpg for on highway. The Legacy's emissions rating isn't spectacular, earning the minimum LEVII rating from California's Air Resources Board.
During our review period with the Legacy, we had pretty consistent rain, so we took the car on a run up toward Mount Hamilton, near San Jose, Calif. This road runs up a hillside, gaining elevation as it twists and winds, before dropping back down into a valley. We used this drive to test the car's various transmission settings. A knob on the center console lets you choose between Intelligent, Sport, and Sport Sharp modes. We initially bypassed Sport, going straight for Sport Sharp, but over all we're not terribly impressed. As we attacked turns, we hit the gas, but had to await an appreciable moment for the car to kick down a gear. Also, the transmission wouldn't make aggressive downshifts during braking in any mode.
This dial lets you set different performance characteristics for the transmission, though we preferred to shift manually.
We got our best performance by putting the shifter into manual gear selection mode and using the column-mounted paddle shifters. These paddle shifters are much better than those found on most cars, as the column-mounting means you always know which one shifts up and which shifts down. With wheel-mounted paddles, like on most cars, up and down gets confused if you have the wheel cranked over. We had a lot of fun using the paddles to downshift before turns, or get some speed on the straightaways. The transmission also gave us a lot of gear range to work with; for example, for the really twisty parts we could keep it in second, which worked for low-speed approaches to hairpin turns while letting us wind it up to 50 mph with the tachometer hitting 6,000 rpm.
The Legacy's handling, aided by the all-wheel-drive system, also stood out on our mountain drive. We had rain-slick roads but the Legacy exhibited good grip and follow-through around the corners. We were able to tackle hard corners at speed while getting minimal slip under these conditions. The car exhibited very little understeer, as well, generally going where we pointed it. In the past, we've noticed on trips to the Lake Tahoe ski area that most of the locals drive Subarus, and the Legacy let us see why.
The 2008 Subaru Legacy 3.0 R Limited comes well-equipped, with navigation, paddle shifters, and the six disc-changer, for $31,295. Our test car added an auto-dimming mirror for $304 and XM satellite radio for $456, making the total, along with the $645 destination charge, $32,700. The Legacy 2.5 GT, with a base price of $28,295, represents another interesting choice due to the added torque from its turbocharged four-cylinder engine.
As a tech car, the Legacy shines for its performance technology, but is merely average in the cabin. We really like the driving experience, whether taking this car on slippery roads or commuting in traffic, and would feel comfortable getting into light off-road conditions. There are few cars that offer this combination of well-mannered road performance with nimble handling. But the cabin leaves us wanting for, at the very least, a better-sounding stereo with more source options.