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Suburu shoots for the stars with new Legacy GT

By Marc Stengel

JUNE 7, 1999:  The unexpected chill of late spring in snowy Cascade mountains; the intermittent showers; the glazed surfaces of backcountry highways alternating between asphalt and hard clay: It's hard to imagine any better stage settings for showcasing Subaru's ambitious Legacy GT sports sedan for model year 2000.

The car is ambitious on many counts. Its striking external makeover leaves no doubt that Legacy aims right at the heart of America's image-prissy, Eurocentric taste in touring sedans. Important mechanical alterations, particularly underhood and within the rear suspension, signal Subaru's resolve to exploit its World Rallycar Championship racing credentials--credentials, alas, of which only North America seems unaware in all the world. Perhaps most ambitious of all is Subaru's determination to "diversify" its image by pitching the new Legacy as a citified sophisticate for sporty aficionados, while the down-home Outback wagon and Forester models continue to infiltrate the boot-stompin' Sierra Club crowd.

Subaru debuted its new Legacy GT to the nation's auto writers with operatic fanfare at Seattle's sumptuous Four Seasons Hotel. Arrayed under the lights of the porte cochere, the sedans startled more than one jaded journalist with their conspicuous homage to BMW and Saab. From side and rear, in particular, the new GT accomplishes that ineffable tautness of posture and dash of self-confidence that driving enthusiasts everywhere consider distinctly Teutonic. Subtle body cladding in the form of aerodynamic side panels, front spoiler, and rear valence complement the low-profile tires mounted on racy 16-inch alloy wheels. It's all low 'n' go in a way that's respectful of European tradition without being obsequious. Except for the Japan-esque grille, which looks like an Accord's turned upside-down, the exterior styling of the newest Legacy is surely its most dramatic accomplishment.

This is not to diminish the appeal of the Legacy's performance persona. For model year 2000, Subaru's trademark combination of flat-four "boxer" motor coupled to all-wheel-drive is massaged, rather than radically redesigned. Most notably, last year's twin-cam 2.5-liter motor gives way to Subaru's Phase II design featuring a single-overhead-cam layout--but still retaining four valves per cylinder. Horsepower remains the same at 165, but there's no missing the stunning improvement in midrange torque. This is the "oomph" zone, which even the least enthusiast-minded driver will recognize as the place most driving is done in the real world. Indeed, at just 20-percent throttle (say, 3,000 rpm), Legacy's torque output is up 100 percent; at passing range (30-percent throttle, 4,500 rpm), torque is 50-percent improved.

For those of us who love flyspecking the stat sheets, it's immediately clear that the Legacy is some two cylinders and 30 horses short of its most contentious rivals. But there's another dimension to consider, and this is Subaru's genuinely unique driving feel as a result of its peculiar powertrain. Absent the engineering lecture, suffice it to say that Subaru's steadfast loyalty to horizontally opposed engines and the industry's most compact all-wheel-drive system yields sensations no other car can duplicate. The cross the company has to bear, of course, is that Subaru's special road feel is not everybody's cuppa tea.

Techie enthusiasts exult in the boxer's inherent low center of gravity, which spiffs handling immensely. They ga-ga over the grapefruit-sized all-wheel-drive system, which "Tees" power symmetrically to all four corners at the ideal times and proportions. A significant increase in tire-tread life is but one of the blissful, collateral benefits of Subaru's special all-time, all-wheel-drive philosophy.

Ironically, this very fact symbolizes a typical gripe of the mo'-power-to-ya crowd: There are no tire-smokin' good times with the Legacy. In a winding rally through Washington's Cascade mountains, journalists who favored crisp handling over raw power had much the better time. The trick, as any rallyist knows, is never to give up speed and momentum unnecessarily.

The Legacy's articulate four-wheel independent suspension, with a new multi-link setup at rear, attacks corners with stable predictability; a light tap on the four-wheel disk brakes settles the car, allowing a driver to hew an aggressive "racing" line with constant throttle and razor-sharp gear changes. Flub a corner by your own lack of technique, though, and you're a while pedaling back up to speed. It's literally a driver's game--and it's not one that everybody wants to play. But as Subaru fanatics can well attest, it's a performance philosophy that rewards driver collaboration.

The new interior is rewarding as well. Unabashed splashes of plastic from previous model years seem to have been muted into more conscientious faux versions of woodgrain and leather. Without question, the interior of the upscale GT Limited is comfy and quiet. The leather seats are both supportive for sport and ergonomic for those long three- and four-hour stints on the road. HVAC controls are now circular and idiot-proof; the stacked stereo-CD modules underneath them are handsome and capable.

It's only fitting that Legacy's interactive character should shine so conspicuously for the 2000 model year. After all, this is the car company whose starry-eyed logo represents a history of five small companies coming together to prosper as one. The Legacy line, made entirely in Indiana, represents the backbone of Subaru's North American business. That business recorded its best profits ever in 1998, boasting a 45-percent surge in units sold since '95. Curiously, however, Legacy models themselves, including the quirky Outback sport/utility wagons, slipped in sales last year by 4.6 percent. As symbolized by the lively presence of Legacy project boss Masaru Katsurada and powertrain guru Hideki Ishido at the media intro, Subaru has responded by marshaling all its forces to produce a new GT model meant not only to flatter prevailing U.S. tastes in sport touring sedans, but also to establish a whole new Legacy for this all-wheel-drive pioneer.

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