In nature, when species compete for ever scarcer resources, survival often depends on finding a niche. Giraffes evolved their long necks so they could reach the trees other animals couldn’t. The peccary, a wild cousin of the domestic pig, developed specialized jaws and a digestive system that allows it to eat cacti—spines and all. The new-car market isn’t so different, and with sedans continuing to lose ground to crossovers, sedan makers must fight over fewer and fewer customers. Just as it is in the animal kingdom, surviving in a class dominated by the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry is all about finding a niche. And the Subaru Legacy definitely has one.
Developed alongside its related Outback crossover sibling, the 2020 Subaru Legacy is built around the same Subaru Global Platform (SGP) underpinnings and offers the same drivetrain options: an updated naturally aspirated 2.5-liter flat-four that makes 182 hp and 176 lb-ft of torque, and a new turbocharged 2.4-liter boxer four-cylinder that pumps out 260 hp and 277 lb-ft. Regardless of the engine you choose, you’ll get a CVT and standard all-wheel drive. The Outback is the clear breadwinner of the two—in 2018 Subaru sold more than four times as many Outbacks as it did Legacies—but the automaker sees a viable competitor in its seventh-generation midsize sedan offering.
To show us, Subaru invited us to Ojai, California, to drive the new Legacy. Located just north of Ventura, the Ojai Valley is known for its organic produce, spiritual wokeness, and exceptional driving roads. Those roads highlighted some of the major enhancements of the new model, and also revealed some areas that could use improvement. For starters, the 2020 Subaru Legacy is quieter than before, thanks in part to a new door weather strip design, sound-insulated glass for the windshield (and front door windows of the turbo model), and the natural sound-deadening properties of the new platform’s structural adhesive, which is used heavily throughout.
The drive began in a 2.5-liter naturally aspirated car. You won’t win any drag races with the base engine, but you also won’t be left wanting for more power in most situations. The boxer four-banger felt adequate enough for tooling around the small towns and hilly mountain roads of the Ojai Valley. Even on the highway, the base engine didn’t have much trouble getting up to speed. Once again, Subaru’s CVT proves to be one of the best in the business. Most buyers probably won’t be able to tell (nor will they care) that it’s not a traditional automatic. Floor the accelerator, and the transmission seamlessly advances through its infinite gear ratios while firing off simulated shifts, which sound and feel convincing. The CVT constantly looks for opportunities to drop engine rpms for silent, efficient cruising, but it’s also ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice to make the most of the naturally aspirated mill’s 182 ponies.
Perhaps the most exciting news about the 2020 Subaru Legacy is the return of a turbocharged engine option in the new XT model. A version of the Ascent three-row crossover’s turbocharged 2.4-liter replaces the naturally aspirated 3.6-liter flat-six of the last-gen car; it comes mated to a high-torque version of the CVT with standard paddle shifters and eight simulated gears. Switching to that car, I didn’t immediately notice the extra power. But the additional 78 hp and 101 lb-ft revealed itself once I got up to a more spirited pace.
Hustling the turbocharged Legacy around corners was entertaining enough, but the excitement was cut short by its fun-sapping all-season tires, the only set currently available on the XT. All Legacy models get an improved brake-based Active Torque Vectoring system that’s intended to improve cornering ability, and if the tires just had more grip the XT could make better use of it at higher speeds to correct frustrating understeer. The car’s relatively soft suspension and ample body roll also don’t aid the impression of sportiness, though Subaru says body roll has been reduced by 45 percent with the switch to the SGP architecture. If you were hoping for a reborn Legacy GT, we’re sorry to tell you this isn’t it. But even if it’s no sport sedan, the XT does have advantages. The turbo engine’s midrange punch makes passing on the highway significantly easier, and you’ll be glad to have boost on tap when climbing a steep grade.
One area where the Legacy has evolved is in its cabin. Passenger volume grows by nearly 1 cubic foot, and rear legroom is up 1.4 inches. The interior design, like the exterior, remains conservative, but it’s now more modern-looking with higher-quality materials. Nappa leather is available for the first time in Subaru’s history on the range-topping Legacy Touring XT. There’s also a soft-touch leather-look dashboard wrap that’s color-matched to the seats and uses real double stitching. But the real star of the interior is the new 11.6-inch central touchscreen, standard on all but the base model. That Denso-supplied unit features sharp resolution and well-thought-out menus, but the screen could be more responsive to swipes. Higher-trim models get an onboard navigation system developed by TomTom, which has graphics reminiscent of Google Maps that fill the majority of the vertically oriented screen.
In addition to offering standard all-wheel drive, Subaru has made safety a major part of its niche. Subaru has the most IIHS Top Safety Pick+ winners of any brand for 2019, and it expects the 2020 Legacy to achieve TSP+ status when it’s tested later this year. Every Legacy gets Subaru’s EyeSight suite of advanced safety features, which now includes adaptive cruise control with lane centering, standard. Not bundled with that group of features is the DriverFocus Distraction Mitigation System, an option on the Limited trim and standard equipment on all XT models. That system annoyed us with its constant beeps in the new Forester, but I seemed to get fewer false alarms in the Legacy. As it’s supposed to, it would only beep at me if my gaze wandered from the road ahead.
Value is another core strength of the Subaru brand, and the Legacy continues to build on that with a starting price of $23,645. The Legacy Touring XT tops the range with prices starting at $36,745.
In a landscape ravaged by a swarm of SUVs, midsizers formerly at the top of the sales volume food chain now scrap to drink from the same pool of average sedan shoppers. Meanwhile, the Subaru Legacy, which has evolved unique adaptations over its seven generations, sustains itself on a smaller pool inaccessible to the rest, serving a customer base that wants all-wheel drive, outstanding safety features, and great overall bang for the buck.