Resisting the idea that sedans must become interesting

One automaker after another is facing a new reality: Most people prefer SUVs to cars. That’s nothing new to Subaru, whose cars have played second fiddle to its crossovers ever since it turned the midsize Legacy station wagon into the Outback in 1995.

A crossover before the term “crossover” existed — before even “car-based SUVs” had really emerged on the scene — the Outback was a Legacy with some butcher detailing and, soon after its launch, a higher ground clearance. Since then, the Legacy has dwindled from Subaru’s flagship to a minor part of the company’s lineup, while the Outback has become its No. 1 product. Last year, the company sold five times as many Outbacks as Legacys.

Other companies’ buyers stuck with sedans longer. That’s probably because Subarus’ famously standard all-wheel-drive system already attracted the type of buyer who wanted more utility than a sedan. But now, nearly across the board, sedan sales are falling as crossover sales rise.

Some automakers have responded by discontinuing their sedans. Many of the survivors are focusing on what makes sedans stand out from SUVs: low, sleek proportions and a sporty driving experience. The latest iterations of the Honda Accord, Hyundai Sonata, Nissan Altima, and Toyota Camry have all dialed up their style and their performance chops. The idea is that if someone still wants a car today, they really want a car — something beautiful, something fun, something interesting.

The redesigned 2020 Subaru Legacy, meanwhile, isn’t really any of those things. It sticks firmly to the old-school midsize sedan rules: a smooth ride, a big back seat, a fuel-efficient powertrain, and easy outward visibility. And, just like it has for decades, it comes standard with the same all-wheel-drive system that you’d find in a Subaru crossover. There’s little pizzazz to the design, which is nearly indistinguishable visually from the previous-generation 2015-2019 Legacy. The driving experience isn’t zesty like an Accord or like some past Legacy generations. This is a sedan that blends into the background, and Subaru doesn’t use discounted pricing to lure the remaining sedan shoppers. Even the Legacy’s storied all-wheel-drive advantage is dwindling; the Nissan Altima recently introduced an optional AWD system, and the Toyota Camry is following suit this year.

The Legacy is a safe, comfortable, no-nonsense midsize sedan. The new generation is roomier than before, it gets better gas mileage (especially if you opt for the optional new turbocharged four-cylinder, which replaces last year’s thirsty six-cylinder), and it has a bigger infotainment screen on most models. If you think excitement is overrated, you don’t have to count out this Subaru — though we’re going to go over its shortcomings as well. Prices start at $23,645, including the mandatory $900 destination charge.

2020 SUBARU LEGACY - DESIGN AND UTILITY

Exterior

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We mentioned that the 2020 Subaru Legacy doesn’t look very different from the 2019 it replaced. We’ll go a step further:

Even if the Legacy had looked exactly like this back in 2015, few would have considered it adventurous or ahead of its time.
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The sedan’s whitened taillights and swirly alloy wheels feel like a desperate attempt to be noticed, and they strike a discordant note against the otherwise conservative exterior design. Of course, as we noted, plenty of people will say that an inoffensive exterior design is a feature, not a bug. If you still like sedans but don’t want something trying to look like an aggressive sports car, with a low-slung stance and huge grille, maybe the Legacy will feel like a welcome dash of tastefulness.

Length 190.6 Inches Width 72.4 Inches Height 59.1 Inches Wheelbase 108.3 Inches Curb Weight 3,790 LBS
Length 190.6 Inches
Width 72.4 Inches
Height 59.1 Inches
Wheelbase 108.3 Inches
Curb Weight 3,790 LBS

Interior

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The redesigned Legacy’s interior is a more obvious departure from its predecessor’s. That’s because Subaru fits all but the base model with a huge new infotainment screen, a tablet-style 11.6-inch whopper. It dominates the otherwise unremarkable dashboard, which is well-finished but not exactly stylish. Not everyone loves the modern trend toward perching infotainment screens atop the dash — as seen in midsize sedans like the Accord, Altima, and Mazda6 — but it lets dashboards be lower and slimmer than the Legacy’s. Available tan leather dresses up the interior nicely, since it covers both the seats and the dashboard, but it’s available only on the top Touring model; our tested Limited only offers more neutral hues of gray, beige, and black, which comes off as more serviceable than sumptuous.

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The big new screen also compromises the Legacy’s function-focused mission.

Too many functions are absorbed into the touchscreen, especially when it comes to the climate controls. It takes multiple taps at different parts of the screen to adjust the seat heaters — a staple for Subaru’s many cold-weather owners. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone integration are standard. Some critics have complained that they only use a portion of the large screen, but we’d argue that’s actually a good thing, because it means you can access the car’s built-in functions without abandoning your Google Maps directions or your audiobook.

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As far as utility, the Legacy has spent much of its life on the smaller side of the midsize sedan class, but the 2020 model year brings some extra rear legroom. If you buy it as a family car, you’re less likely to outgrow it even as your little boy grows into a high school basketball star. The trunk remains on the small side for the class, though, at 15.1 cubic feet. Drivers should have little trouble getting comfortable behind the wheel of the Legacy, and its conservative design helps with outward visibility. You don’t sit low in the Legacy, since it doesn’t really try to evoke a sports sedan like the Accord or Mazda6 do; that means the Subaru is easier to climb in and out of. The seats themselves are unobjectionable, but the Altima’s and Camry’s seem cushier.

Subaru Legacy Interior Specifications
Front Rear
Headroom 37.3 Inches 37.2 Inches
Shoulder Room 58.1 Inches 57.4 Inches
Hip Room 55.5 Inches 54.8 Inches
Leg Room 42.8 Inches 39.5 Inches

2020 SUBARU LEGACY - HOW IT DRIVES

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The biggest news for the 2020 Legacy is its new 2.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, which replaces last year’s big 3.6-liter horizontally opposed six-cylinder on upper trim levels.

Shared with the Outback as well as the larger Subaru Ascent eight-passenger crossover, this engine makes 260 horsepower and 277 lb-ft of torque. Based on a quick test in an Outback (which is a similar size and weight to the Legacy), this engine provides zippy, smooth, quiet acceleration in Subaru’s midsize cars, if not in the big Ascent.

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Our tested Legacy didn’t have that engine. Instead, it has a 2.5-liter naturally aspirated four-cylinder it shares with the smaller Subaru Forester crossover. It makes 182 hp and 176 lb-ft of torque, which is passable but not great for a midsize sedan. A sensitive gas pedal makes the Legacy feel eager off the line, but you quickly find you’re getting more noise than getup.

It used to be that you needed this base engine to get halfway-decent gas mileage in the Legacy. Last year, the 2.5-liter scored an EPA-estimated 29 mpg in mixed driving while the 3.6-liter managed just 23 mpg. But the new turbo pulls off 27 mpg — impressive for any powerful midsize sedan, much less one with all-wheel-drive. Tweaks to the 2.5-liter, meanwhile, bump it to 30 mpg overall (27 mpg city/35 mpg highway). That’s tied with the Nissan Altima with its optional AWD, and the AWD Camry will be similar. But if you’re just interested in a comfortable, safe sedan without specifically needing AWD, the best competitors use less fuel. And uber-savers can opt for gas-electric hybrid versions of the Accord and Camry; the only hybrid Subaru is the Crosstrek subcompact crossover.

The Legacy’s stop-start system works unobtrusively to avoid burning gas unnecessarily while you’d be idling, and Subaru includes a fun estimate of how much fuel it saves you.

In total, during a weeklong, 400-mile test, the system automatically shut the car off for about 19 minutes, saving 0.13 gallons of gasoline — or about 33 cents’ worth. Still, the car kept those idling emissions out of the Baltimore air, and caused no trouble while doing so. Overall, we averaged about 31 mpg in mixed driving, just above the EPA estimate.

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Beyond the engine, the Legacy is unobjectionable to drive, if thoroughly non-sporting. The steering feels natural enough, if not quick, precise, or communicative. The car goes approximately where it’s pointed and doesn’t slam hard over bumps. The experience recalls the previous-generation Hyundai Sonata — light-feeling and vague, less buttoned-down and substantial than the Accord or even the Camry — though that Hyundai might have felt more eager. To be sure, we’re not calling the Legacy a bad car to drive exactly, just not one that’s either fun or posh. Many competitors manage to feel both, for similar or less money.

All of the above talks about how the car performs on pavement. In wintry weather, Subaru’s symmetrical all-wheel-drive system is famously capable. Testing the Legacy in a mild Mid-Atlantic November, we didn’t deal with the white stuff. This Subaru may give certain customers much-needed capability and peace of mind in challenging conditions.

Subaru Legacy Powertrain Specifications
Subaru Legacy 2.5-liter Subaru Legacy 2.4-Liter Turbo
Engine 2.5-Liter Flat-Four 2.4-Liter Turbo Flat-Four
Transmission CVT CVT
Horsepower 182 @ 5,800 RPM 260 @ 5,600 RPM
Torque 176 LB-FT @ 4,400 RPM 277 LB-FT @ 2,000 RPM
Driveline AWD AWD
Fuel Economy 27/35/30 24/32/27

2020 SUBARU LEGACY - PRICING

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At its base price of $23,645 including destination charge, the 2020 Subaru Legacy looks like a great deal even compared to front-drive midsize sedans. For comparison, the 2020 Nissan Altima starts at $25,025 with front-wheel-drive and $1,350 more with all-wheel-drive. The Legacy is also decently equipped, coming standard with Subaru’s EyeSight driver-assistance suite — adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking, and a lane-departure warning with automatic steering corrections — plus Android Auto and Apple CarPlay smartphone integration. However, plastic wheel covers and black side mirrors scream “I bought the base model.”

More notably, during a recent check of Subaru inventory in the D.C. area, nearly every base Legacy’s price was inflated by hundreds of dollars in add-ons, like a $365 auto-dimming mirror, $172 splash guards, a $101 cargo tray, and a $108 rear bumper applique. (The $350 alloy wheels are an uncommonly good price for that upgrade, though.) Subaru isn’t the only automaker to nickel-and-dime its customers, but it’s perhaps the worst offender; if you don’t special-order your vehicle or get lucky with dealer inventory, you can see the Legacy’s price advantage evaporate.

The next-up Legacy model is the Premium ($25,895), which adds the big touchscreen, standard alloy wheels, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, a power driver’s seat, heated front seats, two more USB ports (for a total of four), and body-colored exterior mirrors. The Sport ($27,845) is mostly a dressed-up appearance package with similar equipment to the Premium. We tested the Limited, which brings leather upholstery, a power passenger seat, heated rear seats, blind-spot monitoring (optional on the Premium and Sport), and a premium sound system, at $30,645. Our test car also included a navigation system, moonroof, heated steering wheel, and driver-attention monitor, pushing the price up to $32,690.

Subaru Legacy Pricing
MSRP
Subaru Legacy $22,745.00
Subaru Legacy Premium $24,995.00
Subaru Legacy Sport $26,945.00
Subaru Legacy Limited $29,745.00
Subaru Legacy Limited XT $34,195.00
Subaru Legacy Touring XT $35,895.00

For turbo power, you need the Limited XT ($35,095) or Touring XT ($36,795). As much as we do like the 2.4-liter turbo engine, that’s pretty steep. The Honda Accord, Mazda6, Nissan Altima, and Toyota Camry offer similar or greater performance for as little as $32,315, $30,620, $30,675, or $32,125, respectively, since they don’t force you to get a fully optioned model if you want to go faster. (You can’t get the AWD Altima or Camry with the bigger engine, though.) What’s more, the Accord, Altima, and Camry — and the Honda and Mazda in particular — feel more like luxury cars than the Legacy, which helps to better justify such a high price tag.

Note, too, that based on transaction-price data, Subaru dealers are less likely to give you a big discount off the MSRP than most makers of midsize sedans. If price is a major consideration drawing you to the Legacy, consider using a tool like the Edmunds True Market Value or requesting some dealer price quotes; the difference could be thousands of dollars. On the plus side, Subarus do tend to hold their value well.

2020 SUBARU LEGACY KEY COMPETITORS

2020 Nissan Altima

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The Nissan Altima is the other leading midsize sedan that’s already widely available with all-wheel-drive. It’s more aggressively styled than the Legacy, and it’s more fun to drive without sacrificing comfort. And value seekers can skip the all-wheel-drive for lower prices and better gas mileage. Like other competitors, though, the Altima won’t easily match the Legacy’s history of all-wheel-drive strength for drivers who’ll face tough conditions.

Check out our full review of the 2020 Nissan Altima!

2020 Toyota Camry

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The Toyota Camry, like the Altima, is another leading midsize sedan that’s comfortable yet also more fun to drive than the Legacy. And an optional all-wheel-drive system is coming this year. The Camry has slightly more restrained styling than the Altima, while still being more contemporary than the Legacy. Its clearest differences from the Altima are its available hybrid and V6 powertrains.

Read up on the 2020 Toyota Camry!

2020 Honda Accord

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The Honda Accord is often lumped in as interchangeable with the Camry, but the modern Accord is more of a sports sedan — it’s not only firmer-riding and more fun to drive, but it also delivers a more luxurious interior and more polarizing styling. It’s a Legacy competitor in the sense that it’s one of the best-selling midsize sedans, but it’s less similar than the Camry and Accord. It epitomizes what a sedan can be, far from the Legacy’s approach of just being like any other vehicle but with four doors and a trunk. Unlike the Altima, Camry, and Legacy, all-wheel-drive isn’t available on the Accord, and it tends to cost a little more.

Learn all the is to know about the 2020 Honda Accord!

2020 Subaru Outback

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The Subaru Outback is a natural competitor to the Legacy within Subaru’s own lineup, and as we mentioned, it’s clobbering the Legacy on the sales charts. The Outback shares its driving experience, its engines, and its interior with the Legacy, along with many of its styling details. But its conservative design seems less inherently dull than the Legacy’s, likely because the Outback is more unusual since we just don’t have many station wagons in the U.S. And its extra cargo capacity and ground clearance make it far more useful than the Legacy. Normal arguments for sedans are that they’re more stylish, better-driving, and more fuel-efficient than crossovers, and those advantages don’t really apply between the Legacy and the Outback. That said, the Outback costs about $4,000 more than a comparable Legacy model, meaning that buyers who don’t care about extra cargo room or ground clearance can appreciate those savings — without having to give up all-wheel-drive.

Read our in-depth review of the 2020 Subaru Outback!

2020 SUBARU LEGACY IN A NUTSHELL

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Boring isn’t inherently bad. Many vehicles command loyal followings without delivering exciting styling or sporty driving dynamics. But nor does being boring excuse the Legacy’s legitimate shortcomings against today’s more stylish, better-driving midsize sedans. There are some truly amazing cars in this class today, and the Legacy is not one of them. Plus, once you’ve haggled a nice discount on a competing model, this Subaru is also more expensive than some of the fancier-feeling models.

That said, when you know all-wheel-drive is a priority, the Legacy’s price point becomes easier to justify. And Subaru’s experience with all-wheel-drive technology inspires great peace of mind. What’s more, the redesigned 2020 Subaru Legacy is roomier, safer, and more fuel-efficient than in the past. If you want to trade your old Legacy for a new one, you’ll almost certainly see a great improvement — ergonomic foibles aside. We’d just urge you to broaden your search to the competition and see how much farther they’ve come.

Brady Holt
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