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Published: 04/26/2004 - by Erin Riches, Deputy Editor
One of the earliest and best alternatives to SUV ownership has lost its edge in recent years. In the late 1990s, the Subaru Outback wagon was the car to own if you lived in a snowy climate (or even if you didn't) and couldn't be sweet-talked by unrefined brutes like the Ford Explorer and Jeep Grand Cherokee. But times have changed. The Explorer and JGC are more refined than they used to be, and the 2004 Outback is surrounded by a population of vehicles that can do most of what it does, while offering more room for growing families Endeavor, Highlander, Murano, Pacifica, Pilot and the list goes on.
Meanwhile, the wagon that spawned the Outback, the Legacy, has been living in the shadow of its armored offspring. Starved for power and features, the '04 Legacy is what you buy if you can't afford one of Volkswagen's expensive Passat 4Motion wagons, and/or won't be caught dead in a Taurus.
Combined Legacy and Outback sales fell by almost 10,000 in 2002, followed by another 5,500 drop-off last year. Although a portion of the decline can be written off to domestic manufacturers' heavy use of incentives since September 2001, it doesn't change the fact that Subaru hasn't given buyers enough reasons to consider its midsize cars amidst an increasingly competitive field. Happily, the company will do just that for the 2005 model year, as the redesigned Legacy and Outback have slimmed down, powered up and slipped into some more stylish threads. Also on the menu are sharper handling, smoother ride quality, higher-quality interior materials, more safety features and, in the case of the Outback, greater off-road capability.
After spending two days with these vehicles, our enthusiasm is high. Everything about the way they look, feel and drive is so much more cohesive and satisfying than before. Yet, we're not without a few doubts. First, Subaru was evidently content with the size of the existing Legacy and Outback (which, like the Mazda 6, must meet the space constraints of Japanese and European markets), so the backseats remain snug in the new models. Further, certain desirable features like stability control and a fold-down rear armrest are still limited to high-line trim levels. Will these shortcomings prove critical in the U.S. market? Probably not, given the quality of the overall package. But there will be those who are willing to give up the style and entertainment potential of these Subarus to get more room and amenities in the backseat.
For the rest of us, there's plenty to like about the '05 Legacy and Outback lineup. Initial judgments about a car usually have to do with exterior styling, and Subaru designers were a little more daring this time around. Most of our staff considered the previous models handsome cars, but their blocky headlights and rounded noses gave off the impression of a trusty hunting dog. For 2005, there's a more hedonistic, feline quality to the sheet metal; headlights are stretched and sculpted, and noses are more angular. All Legacys wear ground effects. And the Legacy sedan no longer appears to be an afterthought to the more popular wagon, as it has a crisply finished tail not unlike that of the first-generation Audi A4, replete with clear-lens taillights.
Outbacks are distinguished not just by their taller stance, but by a more aggressive grille (that resembles a pair of razor blades), raised hood strakes and dark tinted rear glass on the wagon. Additionally, Subaru has decided that buyers are no longer so enthusiastic about the "just in from the woods" aesthetic of the original Outbacks, so look for black-letter tires instead of the rugged white-letter sidewalls and a longer list of monochromatic paint choices. Higher-line Legacys and Outbacks have LED turn signals built into their side mirrors.
If you select a Legacy GT (sedan or wagon) or an Outback 2.5 XT (wagon only), your car will be equipped with a functional hood scoop. There's a very good reason for this: A modified version of the WRX STi's 2.5-liter turbocharged engine has joined the lineup, and engineers needed to assure a ready supply of fresh air for the intercooler. The cylinder block and turbocharger are unique to the Legacy and Outback, while the cylinder heads and crankshaft are shared with the revered STi. Output falls short of the STi's 300-horse rating, but with 250 horsepower and 250 pound-feet of torque, there's no way we're complaining. Besides getting help from the turbocharger, this four-cylinder engine makes use of variable intake valve timing to maximize the flow of power at all speeds.
Subaru diehards know that the company has been building turbocharged Legacys for the Japanese market since the early 1990s, but 2005 marks the first time that the U.S. GT version will pack a serious punch. The company didn't release any 0-to-60-mph performance estimates, but consider this: Both the Legacy and Outback went on a diet during this redesign, losing an average of 100 pounds (while gaining structural rigidity), thanks to increased use of aluminum and high-strength steel. The lightest Legacy GT sedan now weighs just over 200 pounds more than a standard 227-hp Impreza WRX. Said WRX can reach 60 mph in just over 6 seconds, so don't be surprised to find the Legacy GT in this territory as well.
Both a five-speed manual transmission and a new five-speed automatic transmission are available with the turbocharged engine. The manual gearbox carries over from previous Legacys and Outbacks, but it benefits from improved shift linkage, a double-cone synchronizer on first gear and a dual-mass flywheel. The five-speed automatic is a serious upgrade from the four-speed units Subaru usually offers. It features both regular and sport modes, along with a manual-shift mode that allows drivers to change gears via steering wheel buttons.
A naturally aspirated 2.5-liter four-cylinder returns as the base engine for both the Legacy and Outback lines. Output has not improved by much; horsepower maxes out at 168 (163 in PZEV-mandated states like California) while torque holds steady at 166 lb-ft. The aforementioned five-speed manual gearbox (less the dual-mass flywheel) is once again available. Last year's four-speed automatic transmission also returns. Slow downshifts have always been our chief complaint about this automatic, but Subaru reports that engineers fiddled with the gearing in order to raise the maximum speed for kickdowns to first and second gear. Additionally, this automatic includes the manual-shift mode offered on the previous-generation Legacy GT and the Baja. Unfortunately, there were no base Legacys or Outbacks for us to try, but given that these cars weigh less than last year's models, you can expect at least passable performance.
The other engine choice is a 3.0-liter horizontally opposed six-cylinder engine also known as the "H6." This H6 has the same architecture as the previous version, but the two share no major parts. Besides being lighter than its predecessor, the new engine is much more powerful, thanks to the use of variable intake valve timing and lift. Horsepower comes in at 250, while torque maxes out at 219 lb-ft. As the H6 is intended for a more relaxed buyer than the 2.5-liter turbo, you can only get it in the Outback sedan or wagon and only with the five-speed automatic transmission.
Although the continued absence of six-cylinder power in the Legacy might seem like a blow, rest assured that you won't miss the H6. Oh, it's a fine engine and all, but the turbo four is our favorite of the two and in the lightweight Legacy, it responds with the heart and refinement of a much larger steed. Turbo lag off the line is basically nonexistent, allowing the driver to tap into the engine's deep power band almost immediately. Acceleration is quick at any speed: Although it's fun to take it up to redline in manual-shift Legacys, you don't need to push that hard to enjoy yourself during your day-to-day travels. Power delivery rivals six-cylinder engines for smoothness, and the engine is quiet at high cruising speeds.
Turbo lag was more noticeable in the heavier Outback 2.5 XT, but it doesn't take long to adjust to it. Once the turbocharger spools up, the potency returns and the armored wagon accelerates with much the same fervor as the lighter Legacy. If maximum smoothness is what you require, though, you can't go wrong with the 3.0-liter H6. Unlike the previous H6 power plant (which didn't come alive until about 4,000 rpm), this one has a well balanced power band with plenty of juice available right off the line. Regardless of whether you go with the turbo or the H6 in your Outback, you'll be pleased to know that both engines are unphased by higher-altitude driving, in this case the Lake Tahoe area (elevation: about 6,250 feet).
When it was time to swap gears, we were partial to the manual transmission available on turbo models. The shifter moves smoothly between the gates, and the pedals are nicely spaced for heel-and-toe downshifting. The clutch, meanwhile, is light enough for easy weekday use yet fast-acting enough for more spirited driving on the weekend. Subaru incorporated several hours of track time into the Legacy portion of the event, and we couldn't get enough of this gearbox in that setting.
For those who prefer an automatic transmission and/or plan to get the Outback with the H6, the new five-speed unit should mostly satisfy. Downshifts didn't always come as quickly as we wanted them in either the Legacy or the Outback, but switching from normal "D" to sport mode solved that problem. We also liked the steering wheel shift buttons in the turbo models, which allow you to manually drop a gear or two for a passing maneuver in both the normal and sport modes.
All-wheel drive remains a staple of the 2005 Legacy and Outback lineup. Although Subaru's marketing campaign will highlight the cars' "Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive," the AWD systems themselves are much the same as before. Manual-shift cars use a simple but effective mechanical system with a viscous-coupling center differential that maintains a 50/50 power split in ideal conditions, transferring power when slippage occurs. Models with the base 2.5-liter engine and an automatic transmission get Active All-Wheel Drive, an electronic AWD system that monitors wheel speed differences and throttle position to anticipate slippage before it occurs. In ideal conditions, the system sends 90 percent of the engine's torque to the front wheels.
Automatic-equipped turbo- and H6-equipped models upgrade to a more advanced electronically controlled system called Variable Torque Distribution (VTD) that gives greater priority to handling, operating off a 45/55 front/rear power split. The VTD system is the only one that's compatible with Subaru's VDC stability control system, an important safety feature that the company reserves for its top-line 3.0 R VDC Limited Outback wagon. This year the system has been revised so that it kicks in more subtly, so as not to diminish the enthusiasm of the spirited driver. We feel that stability control should be available on all turbo and H6 models (at least as an option) and suggested as much to Subaru's product planners.
The Legacy and Outback have always been known for their fine handling, but for 2005, Subaru wanted them to behave less like workaday family cars and more like sporty entry-luxury cars, meaning excellent ride quality combined with sharp reflexes. The examples set by cars like the Acura TSX, Audi A4, Mazda 6 and Volkswagen Passat surely did not go unnoticed. Increasing the Outback's off-road capability was also a consideration, as the company wants to give traditional SUV intenders more reason to put their money on a Subaru. Ground clearance is up to 8.7 inches on the 2.5 XT model and 8.4 inches on all other Outbacks previously, the tallest Outback stood just 7.9 inches off the ground.
Up front, the engine is mounted lower in the chassis than before (giving the cars a lower center of gravity), while the track has been widened one inch front and rear. Both changes promote more stable handling and, according to Subaru, cancel out any negative effects of raising the Outback's suspension. Additionally, the caster angle has increased to 6mm (from 3mm) to give both cars quicker turn-in response. In back, the multilink suspension now attaches to a new hydroformed subframe that provides greater rigidity than the old design. A stiffer mounting system gives the steering more precision and road feedback than the old design. Outbacks pick up a quicker 16.5-to-1 steering ratio (compared to 19 to 1 in years past), while Legacy GT models get an even sharper 15-to-1 ratio.
Given the increased emphasis on handling, it should come as no surprise that all turbo and H6 models wear 17-inch wheels and tires. The Legacy GT models get a lower-profile 215/45R17 set of all-season Bridgestone Potenzas, while Outbacks have a slightly wider set with taller sidewalls (225/55R17). Base Legacys and Outbacks wear 16-inch wheels and tires, with the same rules in play regarding tire size. Four-wheel antilock disc brakes are standard across the board (fully ventilated on Legacy GT models), and starting this year, Electronic Brakeforce Distribution (EBD) is included. Engineers also installed a new brake booster to give the pedal a firmer, more progressive feel.
We could keep throwing numbers and technical information your way, but we suspect you'd rather know how these cars perform in the real world. We spent half a day each with the Legacy and Outback and came away delighted. The Legacy GT offers a superb blend of ride comfort and handling acuity. We felt that we could have cruised the open highway all day without feeling fatigue. At the same time, the car was so entertaining in the corners and on the racetrack that the Subaru staff practically had to drag us away from it at the end of the day. It's easily as much fun as a TSX or Mazda 6, and with the confidence of all four wheels putting power to the pavement, we began to wonder why someone would spend more on an A4.
The Outback rode just as smoothly, and although its added girth was apparent when transitioning between corners, it handled well for a wagon with a raised suspension and felt more nimble than its predecessor. Actually, it's not entirely accurate to call it a "wagon," as Subaru is seeking an SUV classification for it this year. Take an Outback off-road and such a reclassification doesn't seem so far-fetched, as the vehicle can scamper up a rutted hillside with more gusto than just about any crossover SUV we've driven.
Although we've mainly talked about the driving experience thus far, some of the biggest improvements are in the cabin. Style and luxury were never within the previous Legacy's grasp. The Outback was more convincing, but compared to some Japanese and European competitors, its furnishings had the look of a hasty assemblage rather than a coordinated ensemble. But no apologies need be made for the new cockpits, which are some of the best-looking designs in this price range. They don't break any new ground in styling, but one can't help but like the symmetrical dash design, convincing faux aluminum trim and the three-spoke Momo steering wheel found in the turbo and H6 models. Opting for an H6 model also gets you matte-finish wood grain trim on the console besides looking surprisingly good for the fake stuff, it matches the real mahogany trim on the steering wheel. The gauges are attractive and easy to read; turbo models get red-and-white electroluminescent illumination.
Materials quality is excellent. The dash and door tops have an upscale grain and feel soft to the touch. The leather upholstery strikes just the right balance between softness and durability. The pillars, headliner and visors are covered in woven fabric that would do any Passat proud. Hard plastics are fewer in number than before, and the surfaces you do encounter are smooth and low in gloss. After going over several preproduction Legacys and Outbacks, we were impressed by both the quality of the materials and fit and finish. We wouldn't mind a few more liners in various storage areas, but as it is, you could still buy a Subaru and feel like you got a VW.
While strapping into the driver seat, we were disappointed to find that the steering wheel did not offer telescoping adjustment an oversight in a 2005 vehicle. Fortunately, that omission did not prevent us from getting comfortable and staying comfortable for hours. The seats are well shaped and offer an optimum blend of soft cushioning and firm support. Turbo models offer additional shoulder bolstering, which we appreciated in fast turns. Even the head restraints were comfy, and this year they offer dynamic whiplash protection. Notably, the front-passenger seat does not offer height adjustment (even in high-line models), but both front occupants will enjoy the five-setting seat heaters.
Dual-zone automatic climate control is available this year, but Subaru has no plans to offer a high-power audio system on par with the competition in this price range. The top-line Outback gets a seven-speaker system with a subwoofer and MP3 compatibility, but other Outbacks and Legacys make do with a mundane six-speaker setup. We were told, however, that a navigation system will be available starting in the 2006 model year.
We weren't surprised to find the accommodations tight in the backseat. There is only a 0.8-inch increase in wheelbase length for 2005 not enough to open up any extra legroom. The seat itself is well designed and capable of providing excellent back and thigh support for two passengers. Asking three passengers to sit back here would only be humane on short trips.
Sedans offer 11.4 cubic feet of cargo space and a ski pass-through. Although the trunk opening is wide (and the hinges sheathed in plastic), we'd encourage anyone with serious hauling needs to go with the wagon, which provides 33.5 cubic feet of capacity behind its rear seats. Most models come with Subaru's signature double sunroof, which drops capacity to 32.1 cubes. Expanding the load area is a lot easier than before, as the 60/40-split rear seats fold down in one step (no need to flip up the seat bottom) and form a perfectly flat load floor. Maximum capacity measures 66.2 cubic feet, or 61.7 with the double sunroof.
The trim level structure has gotten a little more complicated this year, but as in the past, all models come with plenty of equipment. Subaru will sell Legacy sedans and wagons in 2.5i and 2.5 GT models with a Limited Package available on both. Outback wagons come in 2.5i, 2.5 XT, 3.0 R L.L. Bean and 3.0 R VDC Limited. Limited Packages are available on 2.5i and 2.5 XT models. The oddball Outback sedan is available in a single 3.0 R trim.
True to their name, 2.5i models come with the base 2.5-liter engine and offer such standard equipment as 16-inch alloy wheels; body-color door handles and moldings; side-impact airbags for front occupants; full-length side curtain airbags; air conditioning; a CD player; cruise control; power windows, locks and mirrors; a trip computer; tweed upholstery; keyless entry (with an alarm system); and, on wagons only, a cargo cover. In addition, the Outback 2.5i also gets a rear limited-slip differential and a power driver seat. Opt for the Limited package and you'll get leather upholstery, heated seats and mirrors, a wiper de-icer, an in-dash CD changer, dual-zone automatic climate control and dual moonroofs (the sedan gets a single large moonroof); the Legacy also picks up larger front brakes and a power driver seat with this package.
Upgrade to the 2.5 GT or 2.5 XT and you get the turbocharged 2.5-liter engine, along with 17-inch wheels, more powerful brakes, sport seats, a Momo steering wheel and electroluminescent gauges. You'll need to order the Limited Package to get leather upholstery and a moonroof. The 3.0 models come with the H6 engine and a full load of luxury amenities. All come with a tire pressure monitoring system, steering wheel audio controls and mahogany trim; the wagon models have a fold-down rear armrest. The L.L. Bean model offers perforated leather upholstery, while the VDC wagon is your ticket to stability control and the top-line sound system.
Obviously, we're annoyed to see that Subaru is again stockpiling desirable features at the top of the Outback line, evidently not even considering that hotshot Legacy GT drivers might want stability control or a decent sound system. However, the fact that we even care about the Legacy says a lot about the success of the 2005 redesign. The Legacy and the Outback may still look alike, but they now have distinct personalities. With a tightened-up chassis, turbocharged engine and a slick cockpit, the Legacy GT is a serious driver's car and, likely, one of the fastest vehicles in Subaru's lineup. Don't buy a TSX or Mazda 6 without trying one. Meanwhile, the Outback is a wagon with no equal when it comes to off-road capability and, with an upgraded engine lineup and sharpened reflexes, it's fun to drive even when the weather isn't terrible. A small backseat will keep it from competing with larger-capacity SUVs, but for the family of four looking for stylish transportation for all seasons, it could be a perfect fit.
Both cars will arrive at Subaru dealers in late May 2004. Pricing for the base Legacy ranges from the low to mid 20s, depending on the equipment you select. You can get into a turbocharged GT for as little as $26,000, though leather-lined GT wagons will break the $30,000 mark. The Outback line starts out in the mid 20s. Expect to pay around $30,000 for a turbocharged XT model and $32,000 to $33,000 for a six-cylinder wagon.
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