- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 2, 2006

For some time, Subaru has been on a track to reinvent itself as a purveyor of high-performance sports sedans, in addition to its garage full of sturdy all-wheel-drive vehicles, most of which are suited to more mundane purposes.

It started with the WRX and WRX STi rally-oriented machines, which were based on the compact Subaru Impreza. They made an indelible impression on the young tuner crowd, among others.

In 2006, the midsize Legacy got a boost into the sports-sedan category with the introduction of the limited-edition 2.5GT spec.B model. Though it kept the GT’s powertrain, the spec.B added stiffer suspension system tuning and 18-inch wheels with fatter performance tires.

Now, for 2007, Subaru — as TV chef Emeril Lagasse would say — kicks the spec.B up another notch with the addition of SI-Drive computerized engine control, a new rear differential and a six-speed manual gearbox in place of last year’s five-speed.

The SI-Drive, which is available on all turbo Legacy and Outback models, is the sort of gee-whiz, technological performance enhancement expected from German manufacturers such as BMW, Audi and Mercedes-Benz.

Nevertheless, it is not surprising coming from Japan’s Subaru because Subaru has been working to mold itself somewhat in the image of BMW.

The company actually carries on the legacy of two other German manufacturers: Porsche and Volkswagen. Every Subaru comes equipped with a horizontally opposed engine, in which the cylinders lie flat, feet to feet, on both sides of the crankshaft, instead of leaning on an angle or standing up as in conventional V-type or in-line engines.

Horizontally opposed engines — also called boxer or flat engines — were a fixture for four decades on the original Volkswagen Beetle, which was designed by the famed Dr. Ferdinand Porsche. VW no longer uses them, but they still power the Porsche 911, Boxster and Cayman.

Unlike Porsche, which also uses standard-configuration engines in its Cayenne SUVs, Su-baru uses boxer engines exclusively, with four or six cylinders, along with turbocharging. And unlike other manufacturers, all of its cars come with all-wheel drive. At BMW, all-wheel drive is an extra-cost option.

Whether the spec.B Legacy would satisfy a BMW aficionado is an open question, but there’s no doubt that it is a high-performance sports sedan.

The four-cylinder boxer engine displaces just 2.5 liters. But with the turbo boost, it puts out 243 horsepower with 241 foot-pounds of torque at 3,600 rpm. To help get that power to the pavement, the new spec.B comes with traction and stability control, as well as a new, quicker-acting rear differential.

In addition, the driver can choose to vary the engine’s performance characteristics with the SI-Drive. There are three settings: “intelligent,” “sport” and “sport sharp,” controlled by a knob on the console with a lighted readout nestled in the instruments.

Truth be told, it takes a keen sense of the subtleties of engine and drivetrain performance to distinguish among the three modes. A professional race driver likely would appreciate the differences, but the average motorist would be hard-pressed to tell one from another with the manual transmission.

The differences likely are more apparent with an automatic transmission because the SI-Drive modifies the shift points in the different settings. But the spec.B is available only with the six-speed manual gearbox.

Clutch action is light and progressive, and the six-speed’s shift linkage, though slightly clunky, is easy enough to manipulate either rapidly or leisurely, and you have to be a novice to miss a gear.

With the stiffer spec.B suspension system, which includes gas-filled shock absorbers, the test car exhibited a bias toward taut handling and away from a supple ride. Yet the ride was acceptable on all but the harshest surfaces.

The spec.B’s front seats deserve special mention. They are supportive, with large side bolsters to keep the torso in place during hard cornering. There’s a manual lumbar support, and the seat inserts are done up in alcantara, a pseudosuede covering that grips clothing, also helping to keep the driver anchored.

Although there are headrests for three in the back seat, only two should attempt to sit back there because the center position — as is fairly common on many cars these days — is severely shortchanged. Even the outboard positions are tight on headroom, though there’s plenty of knee room.

Priced at $34,620, the Legacy GT spec.B comes only one way: fully equipped, with antilock brakes and electronic brake force distribution; traction and stability control; side air bags and side curtain air bags; a navigation system; dual-zone automatic climate control; remote locking; an audio system with six-disc in-dash CD changer and pre-wiring for satellite radio; memory settings for the eight-way-power driver’s seat; motorized sunroof; heated front seats, and a leather-wrapped three-spoke sport steering wheel.

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