Getting a grip
This is the first time that Motor Sport has published a full Subaru road test. Such an oversight has long been due for remedial attention. Winner of the 1991 and 1992 British Rally Championships through the efforts of Colin McRae and Banbury-based preparation expert Prodrive, the Rothmanssupported Subaru Legacy in turbocharged, four-wheel-drive format has certainly earned respect in the country that spawned the Sierra Cosworth (RIP). For showroom customers, Subaru is established as the purveyor of massmarket four-wheel drive, but the days when such technology was reserved for utility vehicles are a distant memory. There is no sharper reminder of this than the £30,000-plus Subaru SVX flat-six coupe. Beneath its jet fighter-style bubble-top canopy lurk impressive dynamics and refined performance.
The Legacy we tested forms part of a six-model range of saloons and estates that has established Subaru’s new-found reputation for clean styling and a fair measure of vim. To demonstrate that prolonged appetite for speed, Subaru has not only participated in the World Rally Championship with the Legacy since making its international debut on the 1990 Safari, but has also completed an FIAobserved world record for 100,000 km (62,100 miles) at an average 138.8 mph. Our test car didn’t quite match up, logging just under 135 mph around Millbrook’s two-mile testing bowl, but that is plenty brisk enough. Besides, it can also reach 60 mph from rest in under 7s and is very reasonably priced at £18,499.
Subaru (UK) Ltd is part of the Midlands-based IM Group, which also imports Hyundais and Isuzus. It has been represented in Britain since 1977 and now has 138 dealers. The introduction of the new Impreza range, in April, will not have commercial implications for the Legacy, though it will take over as the marque’s World Rally Championship contender. This follow’s Ford’s line of logic in replacing the competition Sierra with the more compact Escort.
Disappointingly, Subaru decided that the chancellor’s abolition of car tax was not sufficient reason to hold down prices in the face of the pound’s enormous losses against the yen. As a consequence, the whole range is now significantly more expensive.
Where the normally-aspirated, two-litre, four-wheel-drive GL saloon once cost £12,499.06, it has slipped above £13,000. At £13,149, however, it remains competitively priced.
The 4×4 element is a basic part of Subaru philosophy, as is the flat-four engine layout. The 16-valve, dohc motor’s output of a comparatively leisurely 123 bhp from its four-valveper-cylinder heads in normally aspirated form is considerably enlivened by the presence of a turbocharger. Power climbs almost exactly 60 per cent, to 197 bhp, and acceleration becomes vivid. The cheapest turbocharged model is the four-door saloon tested here, and the cost incorporates ABS, an electric sunroof and shapely 6Jx15 alloy wheels.
It remains outstanding value when you find that, just before Christmas, Ford suicidally added £2255 to the cost of the Escort RS Cosworth, which subsequently retails at £24,810. The Subaru remains substantially better value. Ford doesn’t really care: it had already completed a sufficient production run to merit Group A homologation when the increase was announced. It should ensure that the bi-plane Escort is a rare sight.
The most expensive Legacy 4×4 is an estate. Subaru has always been particularly strong in this market; the turbocharged version will barely leave you change for a pint from £19,000.
The test Legacy is substantially the same as the RS model that served as the basis for homologation in 1990. If you have really sharp eyes you will see that the front spoiler of a Prodrive rally car has a dividing blade below the bumper line and that the rally men do not have the benefit of the rear spoiler, an aerodynamic aid that is now standard for the British market.
The competition car and the test Legacy share common ground, although Group A specification does allow Prodrive some pretty radical modifications, such as the six-speed semi-automatic gearbox with electro-hydraulic actuation. Add Prodrive fabrication “from scratch” in all vital areas and an engine giving at least 100 bhp extra: such a recipe permits the Legacy, on occasion, to set better stage times than Lancia, Toyota and Ford.
The road car appears to be a conventional four-door with a greater percentage of glass than steel above the door handles. Dimensionally, the Legacy saloon is “within an inch of the two-wheel-drive Sierra Sapphire Ghia” says Subaru of its overall length and width. Beneath its inoffensive lines, the Subaru is unusual for its horizontally opposed cylinders (served by both water and oil cooling), encased in aluminium, and a very simple 4×4 system.
The engine layout permits construction of an especially rigid cylinder block around the fivebearing crankshaft, but the basic block features additional strengthening for the turbocharged derivative. The multi-point, electronically managed fuel injection/ignition system is retained, but the compression ratio is dropped from 9.5:1 to 8: I and the IHI turbocharger is complemented by an intercooler. The turbo installation is beautifully executed.
The unusual four-cylinder is mounted longitudinally, but it does have some installation advantages thanks to its low overall height. A conventional five-speed manual ‘box is specified (that of the estate is equipped with the familiar commercial transport feature of dual range, effectively providing ten forward gears for agricultural duties).
The 4×4 layout depends on a central differential these days and is most definitely permanent 4×4. In the ’80s, Subarus were sold without central diffs, and had to be switched in and out of four-wheel drive in the manner of many early Japanese 4x4s. Said central differential is equipped with a Ferguson patented viscous coupling; unlike the rally cars, neither front nor rear differential is equipped with a limited slip device.
The Legacy underwent trial and tribulations beyond the call of duty to reach these pages. Following the full test track routine, when it performed creditably without threatening existing benchmarks for this type of vehicle, the Subaru was the victim of an errant Vauxhall Cavalier in Dunstable. The upshot was that a hefty dustcart ran into the back of the Subaru with considerable force. Nothing actually fractured, save a small section of the tail light glass, and all the rear lighting remained legally operable.
Difficult decision time.
The car was due to provide our photographers with transport during the RAC Rally, whose contestants were due to assemble in Chester on the morrow. With trepidation we approached the importer and explained that the previously pristine silver saloon was badly rumpled around the rear, but we thought we could still take pictures in the circumstances. Given that the car was still road legal, would they trust us to complete the week? Permission was granted with barely a sharp intake of breath, and the Subaru set out for further adventures over 1376 very wet miles.
When it left our hands, there was little doubt that it would acquit itself well. Photographer Steven Tee was convinced. “it was a good car in which to follow the rally. I really liked it. I thought it handled well and felt confident, whether or not it had two or three people on board and all their gear.
“It is not so blindingly quick as a Cosworth, but it was stable in the rotten conditions. The ride was excellent over a very wide variety of roads including low speed access to the forests and the cornering capability was especially impressive through longer, faster, wet bends.
“Absolutely nothing went wrong with it and the police paid it no attention at all, which would make a pleasant change for anyone used to Cosworths. The only thing we did not like very much was the front seats. It sticks to the road, you don’t.” Asked to chose between Ford and Subaru, he had no doubts: he preferred what Japan had to offer.
As a regular user of a Sierra Cosworth, I found that the smooth flat-four had an appetite for higher rpm than you would use in the Ford. It was content all the way to 7000 rpm; the Sierra becomes rougher beyond 5000, but compensates with superior mid-range responses.
Handling-wise, there is evidence of the equal torque split. It understeers, behaving much more like a front-drive car than the Cosworth. Ultimately, it is less exciting to drive, but what you lose in thrills you make up for in stability. It remained steady all the way to its top speed, an indicated 140 mph (actually 135) at an amiable 5800 rpm.
Incidentally, the four dials may not look much in the generally low rent cabin, but the speedometer was unusually truthful and the rev counter was within 100 rpm of veracity at almost 6000 rpm.
The cockpit was let down by the poor location of the front seats, but we did like the fact that the company had been to Momo for the steering wheel. There is a decent foot rest, a quality Panasonic radio and an electric sunroof. More over, the overall fit and finish of ubiquitous plastics is superior to that in the Ford. It lacks the Ford’s ‘gizmo-appeal’, perhaps, but it is better executed.
Dynamically, our only reservations concerned the level of transmission whine and the limited abilities of the brakes (of undisclosed dimensions) under test track conditions. The action of the electronic ABS is entirely acceptable and sensibly set to act only in emergencies.
Statistically, it would be unfair to leave the fuel consumption figure recorded by the Subaru without comment. It was heavily laden for much of that mileage and rally coverage extols heavy demands, hence the final average of less than 19 mpg. We were disappointed, though, that the Subaru thrives on 98 RON unleaded petrol. The Sierra RS is mare efficient in this respect, regularly capable of 23 mpg on a 95 octane diet.
The demise of the Sierra Cosworth – killed partially by its ‘bad boy’ insurance premiums and the arrival of the Escort RS – appears to have left the way clear for Subaru to mop up sales.
Even with Ford present, and discounting vigorously, in that sector of the market, Subaru sold 221 such Legacies to the close of November 1992. You could still find the now obsolete Sierra Cosworth four-door lurking with dealers who would be happy to get rid of it at much less than the final list price (£20,063). Even at a bargain rate, however, you would be advised to remember that K-plate examples are already fetching less than £ I 5,000 and that the engine is as fiercely rough as the insurance premiums.
Vauxhall has recently revived European interest in this sector. GM is offering a 201 bhp Cavalier 4×4 Turbo for £19.137. That promises a top speed in excess of 140 mph and 0-60 mph acceleration in 6.5s. The Vauxhall has also recorded over 23 mpg in our hands, but then we did not take it around the RAC Rally in a hurry. Nor was it a match for the Subaru in handling pleasure.
So, if you want a four-door 4×4 with a rewarding turn of speed, we have no hesitation in turning a blind eye to the Subaru’s cabin (the front seats are easily replaced) and mild braking deficiencies in favour of its commendable virtues. JW