It’s hard to believe now, but in the early 1990s Subaru’s formula of turbocharged engines in sharp-handling, all-wheel-drive compact sedans was a strange and novel concept. Among the earliest Subies to fit that mold was the turbo 1991 Legacy Sports Sedan. Yes, that was the official name, and it preceded all the WRXes that ended up overshadowing it.
One of the reasons we love Motorweek‘s retro reviews is that they give us a peek into how these cars were received when new. In the late 80s, the idea of a family sedan that could handle the twisties was a foreign concept in the US, where sedans still had names like Park Avenue and New Yorker. Sports sedans hailed mostly from Europe, Bavaria to be specific, but Saabs, Volvos, and factory hot rods like the Cosworth Mercedes 190E sedans gave buyers a variety of choices.
Japanese carmakers offered some sporty four-doors, but cars like the Honda Accord were never marketed on those traits. The V6 Nissan Maxima was an exception, but like most sedans from Japan its front-wheel-drive layout docked points.
The Legacy Sports Sedan was different. Thanks to Subaru’s all-wheel-drive system it had added handling chops and wasn’t bogged down by the FF stigma. A turbo added to its 2.2-liter boxer four gave the aura of a high-tech sports car and churned out 160 horsepower and 181 lb-ft of torque. That was a solid bump over the standard 130 horsepower and 137 lb-ft, which was on par with other Japanese sedans of the era, and sent the Legacy from 0-60 in just 8.0 seconds.
Legacy Sports Sedan was also a marked departure from past Subarus. The brand was mostly known for rugged wagons and the BRAT. The GL-10/Loyale had pioneered the turbo AWD sedan, but it was still a bit of an in-between step. The Legacy wore sleek, modern sheetmetal with a slim spoiler and a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it hood scoop (more a of a slot, really). We’re honestly surprised with the restraint that Subaru showed. Any other company would have had the word “turbo” right there in the name and at least four or five stickers advertising as such.
A 5-speed transmission, strengthened to handle the turbo’s added torque, came standard (though an auto was optional). Motorweek praised the motor’s “strong and smooth” operation an “minimal lag” from the turbo. They also raved about the handling: “In hard cornering, front plow is minimal, right up to the limit, where it breaks into smooth, controllable rear-wheel oversteer.” Brakes were another high point, “as good as anything from BMW. ”
Despite its athleticism, the Legacy worked as a practical daily driver as well. The ride proved docile and comfortable, and it returned a decent 19 city, 25 highway mpg. With an $18,899 starting price it was quite a bit more than most Japanese sedans, but you got what you paid for.
We don’t know how many Sports Sedans Subaru sold, but from unscientific in-the-wild observations we’d estimate that it was an incredibly low percentage of all Legacys, somewhere in the low single digits. In 1992 Subaru offered the same engine on the US Legacy Wagon but, sadly, in automatic only. It’s one of the few remaining Japanese cars that hasn’t been discovered by the Bring a Trailer crowd, and you can probably still pick one up at a decent price, if you can find one.