We know what you're thinking. You're thinking you're either delusional, or you just saw this car here a few months ago. Well, yes and no. What you witnessed in March of this year was our pitting of a Mazdaspeed 6 against a 2006 Subaru Legacy 2.5 GT spec.B in a battle for dominance among force-fed, four-pawed, affordable sport sedans. Illuminating your spectacles here, however, are the 2007 Legacy 2.5 GT Limited and spec.B. You'll have to squint to see the differences.
To refresh your memory, 2006 was the first year the U.S. received the range-topping spec.B, which was essentially a loaded Legacy 2.5 GT fitted with Bilstein dampers, special interior trimmings and a nameplate indicating it is one of 500 spec.B models. It didn't win our comparison test, but redeemed itself partially with strong acceleration and a stealthy countenance. Although 2007 brings only modest changes to the Legacy 2.5 GT brothers, it would be premature to chalk them up entirely to déjà vu.
All in the family
After driving the 2007 Legacy 2.5 GT Limited and spec.B models back-to-back through the gorgeous hills near Montreal, a few things become immediately evident. The spec.B's Bilsteins, 1-inch-larger wheels, and stiffer-sidewall summer tires better communicate the road surface and more effectively limit body roll in transitional movements, with very little compromise to ride quality. In comparison to the more buttoned-down composure of the spec.B, the Limited's body motions are exaggerated and steering response is dulled. It's not quite floaty, but noticeably more vague.
Neither car inspires the maniacal speed cravings of Subaru's own WRX STI or Mitsubishi's Lancer Evolution, partly because the Legacy lacks the bedrock chassis stiffness of those flyers. Over pavement cracks, quivers of protest through the Legacy's chassis suggest to the driver that it would prefer the intensity level be dialed back a few notches.
Brakes carry over unchanged from last year, with both models carrying twin-piston calipers and 12.3-inch rotors up front and single-piston calipers on 11.3-inch rotors out back. Pedal effort of these binders was reassuringly firm, though our driving stint precluded evaluation of fade resistance.
On the freeway the spec.B is also the more relaxed freeway cruiser of the two, turning fewer revs at speed courtesy of tires with a larger rolling diameter, a taller final-drive ratio (now 3.9 instead of 4.11) and a new six-speed transmission. This reworked version of the WRX STI's gearbox is standard equipment in spec.B models, and is much slicker than the five-speed (now found only in Limiteds), as if the six-speeder's guts were dipped in vegetable shortening. It's very probable the taller gearing in spec.B models will help fuel economy, though EPA testing hasn't been concluded yet.
Spec.B models received the brunt of the attention this year, also receiving a new Torsen rear differential. For the first time, the 2007 spec.B becomes a regular production model. Let's recap: The Limited, which was never really limited, remains so, and although last year's non-Limited version was limited, it isn't anymore.
My finger is on the button
Also new for 2007 is a drive-mode feature called SI-DRIVE in Subaru-speak (not to be confused with BMW's infernal iDrive). Standard on all Legacy 2.5 GT models, SI-DRIVE manifests itself as a console knob with which the driver can select from one of three pre-programmed engine maps — called Intelligent, Sport and Sport Sharp modes. Each mode is intended to impart a different driving character through alterations of throttle response and boost levels of the 2.5-liter turbo flat-four engine (and revisions to the shift strategy of autobox-equipped Limited models).
Fiddling with the SI-DRIVE knob during our driving stint confirmed a noticeable difference in drivability among the three modes. Intelligent mode, which Subaru reckons will improve real-world fuel economy by about 10 percent, took the legs out from under the car when squirting around in traffic.
We figure any fuel savings garnered in Intelligent mode will be the result of simply taking fewer chances in traffic — the reduced boost and too-soft throttle response make it more likely to be caught with its pants down. Alas, fuel economy in steady-state driving (as on a freeway) is unaffected since SI-DRIVE only enters the picture when the driver rolls into the throttle to stir the boxer engine.
Commendably smooth, one mill powers all 2.5 GT variants, generating 243 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 241 pound-feet of torque at 3,600 rpm with a characteristic muted chuffle. Don't fret over the apparent drop in power and torque compared to 2006 models — it is an illusion caused by revisions to the SAE's testing protocol. In reality the engine is identical to last year's 250-hp rating. The full helping of power and torque are available in Sport and Sport Sharp modes, while Intelligent mode knocks about 20 percent off those values.
To be frank, SI-DRIVE appears to be the answer to a question no one asked. Sport Sharp mode is all that's really needed — with solid midrange torque, passing power is a flex of the ankle away, and it's never too abrupt or jumpy. Too bad, then, that of the three modes Sport Sharp is the only one that cannot be selected as the default upon startup. We predict that drivers will play with SI-DRIVE for a day or two, then pick one mode and stick with it. It won't be Intelligent mode.
Short of eight-tracks and reel-to-reels, the 2.5 GT variants will play virtually any music medium in your library — they all come standard with an MP3- and WMA-ready six-CD changer, an auxiliary jack for MP3 players or iPods and XM Satellite Radio capability. It's the Leatherman of car audio. A new 60/40-split-folding rear seat retains a center pass-through for more versatility and, exclusive to spec.B models, new blue Alcantara surfaces cover the seats and door panels. This synthetic suede looks and feels great, and the overall impression in the cabin is one of content and competence, if not full-frontal luxury.
It's getting hot in here
Subaru's WRX and STI models enjoy a very narrow niche, whereas the Legacy plays in a crowded room — the Audi A4 2.0T quattro, BMW 325xi, and Mazdaspeed 6 all offer all-wheel drive while the Acura TL, Cadillac CTS and Lexus IS 250 act as peripheral competition.
The Legacy 2.5 GT spec.B ranks right near the front in sheer thrust, and is comprehensively equipped. It's a compelling package, but considering that the 2006 spec.B's base price was five bucks shy of $34 grand without destination charges, pricing of the 2007 spec.B will be critical. On top of that, we suspect that the drivetrain upgrades for 2007 won't come for free. Keep your spectacles turned to these pixels.