Subaru's flagship Legacy sedan shines brighter, but rivals not completely in shadow

Do buyers of executive sedans care about how the cylinders in a car's engine are arranged? Or how power from the engine is transmitted to the wheels (and which wheels)? Or even the layout of the entire drivetrain?

Probably not. Because if they did, the Subaru Legacy would have been the bestselling executive sedan of all time, ahead of popular choices such as the Toyota Camry, Nissan Teana, Mazda6, Mercedes-Benz E-class, BMW 5-series and Honda Accord.

The Legacy, you see, is an engineer's dream car.

Its "boxer" engine - where pistons parallel to the tarmac move in opposite directions - is laid out longitudinally so that the engine's crankshaft, transmission, transfer case, driveshaft and rear differential form a straight, uninterrupted line that goes right down the middle of the chassis.

The symmetry and efficiency of this design allows for a low centre of gravity, balance and no loss from awkward twists and turns as power flows from the engine to all four wheels.

Subaru - named after a group of stars - has been doing this since the 1970s and it is still the only manufacturer that sticks religiously to the configuration.

But it is hard to get noticed when rivals either wear flashier badges, possess limo-like roominess or offer a platter of stylish design, luxurious trim and high equipment level.

The latest Legacy, however, makes a creditable case for itself. The car is actually quite handsome, which in itself is a monumental achievement for a brand that has always emphasised substance over form.

It offers a decent suite of amenities, with features you have come to expect of an executive model. There is keyless access and ignition, electronic parking brake, cruise control, dual-zone climate control, a touchscreen infotainment monitor and a multi-function steering wheel replete with drive mode selection and paddle shifters.

While it is still not the roomiest in its class, the Legacy has slightly more cabin space than before, with seats that are more supportive and more comfortable. Its 506-litre boot compares well against luggage space offered by its rivals.

The level of fit and finish is no longer drab or austere (even if it is just short of polished), with a choice of materials and cockpit design bent on conveying sportiness rather than pure aesthetics.

As before, the Legacy has got what it takes to back up its form. At the wheel, it offers the poise, surefootedness and driveability of a car above its station.

Even though it is nowhere as punchy as its turbocharged predecessor, it has ample low-end shove to keep most drivers happy in city traffic. Its continuously variable transmission sees to seamless transfer of power, with pre- programmed "gears" effectively masking the unpleasant whine that CVTs are known for.

When the pace picks up - and it picks up rather briskly - the sturdiness and fine balance of the Subaru's drivetrain shines through.

You can navigate the contours of the bitumen with a lot more confidence than in most other cars. In the Legacy, unwelcome shifting of weight does not lurk in your consciousness at all.

To start with, it is surprisingly lightweight for its size and all-wheel- drive hardware, tipping the scales at under 1.6 tonnes. Its throttle and steering are both deliciously responsive and progressive, thus fostering a man- machine connection that makes a car seem a tad faster, a tad smoother - because it is a whole lot more dependable and predictable.

While past Legacys tended to be a tad rough around the edges, the latest model is adequately refined. In terms of quality of ride and handling, it is a tinge biased towards the latter, even if the car is by no means unforgiving.

All in all, Subaru has clearly addressed the shortcomings that made the Legacy less appealing to the masses (in short, non-engineers). But it should have retained its turbocharged engine to make its stars shine even more brightly.

christan@sph.com.sg