Twenty-five years ago today, Subaru announced a new model, the Legacy. It was a late entry in the mid-size sedan field, a class often marked by mundaneness in purpose and form. Nevertheless, Japanese carmakers occasionally injected into these cars doses of performance and techno-gadgetry. Examples include the Mitsubishi Galant VR-4, Mazda 626 GT, Nissan Bluebird SSS-R, and Honda Accord SiR.
However, such variants tended to be sporadic fits of passion, homologation specials, or technological showcases. By contrast, the subject of this article was plunged into a serious racing campaign at birth, got worked over by one of the most revered factory racing development organizations, and saw continuous high-performance development throughout its lifespan rarely enjoyed by its competitors. That car is the original Subaru Legacy.
By the mid-1960s, Japan and its booming economy had been mobilized by cars like the iconic Subaru 360. This growing market prompted Subaru to develop a larger sedan: the Subaru 1000 of 1966. Significantly, it was Japan’s first mainstream FWD passenger car. With it came a longstanding Subaru tradition: the horizontally-opposed boxer engine. This was the first tangible root of the Legacy lineage. In 1969, the 1000 was updated and renamed FF-1.
The iterative evolution of the “large” Subaru continued in 1971 with the Leone. Perhaps as significant as the 1000, it established two more Subaru traditions: 4WD and frameless door windows. Strictly speaking, 4WD entered the Subaru fold near the end of FF-1’s lifecycle, as the FF-1 1300G Van 4WD was developed at the behest of Tohoku Electric Power. Only 8 were produced (more like custom-made), none of which was sold to the public.
Nevertheless, the 4WD FF-1 was well-received enough to inspire a production 4WD Leone model. The success of Leone sales are what cemented Subaru as a major carmaker. By 1978, Subaru was selling over 100,000 cars a year in the US, and the one millionth Leone rolled off the assembly line in 1982. By the mid-1980s, Subaru had gained popularity in many markets.
The third-generation Leone debuted in 1984 and was a rather sophisticated compact economy car. The performance-oriented RX Turbo version was equipped with 4WD with differential lock, turbocharged SOHC boxer engine, and 4-wheel independent suspension. Curiously, this model was sold in the US, though majority of Leones (badged as DL/GL and, later, Loyale) were bread-and-butter variants.Indeed, Subarus had gained a reputation as rugged and economical, with all-terrain capabilities. While US sales were good, they were concentrated in “weathered” areas such as the Rockies, Pacific Northwest, and Northeast. Effectively, Subarus were niche products.
Keep in mind that this was the deep-1980s, when nearly all Japanese carmakers seemed to be taking over the world. Development of groundbreaking products-to-be — LS400, Legend, NSX, Q45 — were beginning or already underway. Naturally, Subaru wanted to broaden its appeal and marketshare. It saw to reach this end via two approaches: high-performance upmarket and racing.
The former approach manifested as the Alcyone sports car. Unveiled in 1985, its aerodynamic body was matched with a cockpit featuring an aircraft- or video game-like digital instrument panel. It showcased the best of Subaru with available 4WD, turbocharged flat-4, a flat-6 later on, traction control, and even an electropneumatic suspension.
As a halo car, it raised a few eyebrows, but sales remained low. At the time, the idea of a high-tech sports car from Subaru was difficult to swallow by many Americans thanks to its reputation. However, Subaru’s granola perception really was accidental due to 4WD in its cars; sports and performance models were in its blood from the beginning. The 360 was raced in the Japanese Grand Prix back in the day, and the R-2 SS was one of the first factory sports model kei cars. And let’s not forget the RX Turbo.
However, the dynamics and performance of the Alcyone was not quite up to par with contemporary full-on sports cars such as the RX-7 or 300ZX. It was more akin to the Prelude, a competent sports coupe in its own right. The real flagship was to be the next iteration of the large Subaru car. Developed under project code 44B, it was to be larger and more sophisticated and luxurious than any preceding Subaru.
The Legacy debuted in 1989. Its development as the new flagship was either prudent product planning or a stroke of genius. Yes, it was the top-level Subaru product, but ostensibly it was also a contender in the lucrative mid-size sedan class. It was thus simultaneously developed with some of the latitude and attention of a specialty product as well as the practical and usability constraints of an everyday car — all of which was afforded by an allowance promised by mass market appeal.
This shows in the resultant car. At first glance, its design is rather conventional and easy on the eye. A closer look reveals some design quirks, such as the stepped window arrangement in which the door window lines dip down from the bottom edges of the windshield and rear quarter window on the sedan, foreshadowing a design feature on the upcoming Alcyone SVX. In addition, the glass are either all adjacent to each other or connected by blacked-out pillars as on the wagon, giving the illusion of a floating roof and resembling an aircraft canopy.
The handsome shape of the car is defined by angular lines and wedges, which build on the design lineage of the Alcyone and the third-generation Leone. However, subtle blistered fenders hint at performance intent and potential. It’s a friendly-looking car with something just a bit sinister. Obviously, this otaku is a Legacy fan, so bear with me as I suggest that this is one of the greatest deceptively innocent designs with complexities hidden in plain sight.
Under the skin, the Legacy had the mechanicals befitting the new Subaru flagship. Like its predecessors, it rode on independent suspension all around. FWD was standard, with available part-time 4WD on lower grades activated via the trademark button mounted on the gear shift. Higher grade models were equipped with full-time 4WD. In manual transmission cars, this system splits power evenly between the front and rear axles and uses a viscous coupling limited slip differential (LSD) to vary power in case of slippage. With automatic transmission, most of the power is normally routed to the front wheels, while a computer-controlled clutch varies power under slippage. In its time and class, these AWD systems were sophisticated equipment.
Coupled to these drive systems was the new EJ family of flat-4 engines. All variations had four valves per cylinder, with either SOHC or DOHC. At launch, there were 1.8, 2.0, and 2.2L versions, including the much admired EJ20. In Japan, the new Legacy came in a wide range of models powered by the 1.8 or 2.0L EJ, while in the US only the 2.2L was available.
The array of standard and available equipment was impressive, so much so that Subaru tried to market the Legacy as a luxury car. Aside from mechanicals such as 4-wheel disc brakes, front and rear anti-roll bars, or available ABS, there were options like automatic climate control, leather seating, or even an electro-pneumatic suspension.
Three body types were available: sedan, flat-roof wagon, and high-roof wagon. With one exception, only the sedan and flat-roof wagon were sold in the US, while all wagons in the home market were high-roof.
Sitting on top of the range was a highly-developed sports model: the Legacy RS. The top-of-the-line RS was powered by the intercooled turbocharged DOHC EJ20G putting out 220PS. Available only as a sedan with 5-speed manual transmission and full-time 4WD, this was one of the launch models, signifying the role of the Legacy as a high-performance flagship. All the requisite equipment was there: a rear LSD, ABS, tuned springs and shocks, 15-inch alloys wearing aggressive Advan tires, a four-spoke MOMO steering wheel, and front seats with extra side bolsters. Even by today’s standards, this was a well-equipped sports sedan.
In fall of 1989, the Legacy’s sports range was extended with an optional automatic transmission on the RS, the new GT, and the RS Type R. The GT was powered by a slightly detuned EJ20G putting out 200PS. Importantly, it was available as both the sedan and the Touring Wagon. The RS Type R, on the other hand, was a stripped-down RS with a lower price. Intended for motorsports as the basis to build a race car, it began a Subaru tradition that continues to this day.