Pros: Excellent front seats; nice manual transmission; all-wheel drive; wonderful handling
Cons: Touchy throttle; jerky engine; leaky moonroof; limited headroom all around
I once had a much-loved pair of Audis, a 1986 4000 Quattro and a 1987 5000 Quattro. They were comfortable, interesting, had superb traction and -- in the case of the 4000 Quattro -- fairly sporty. I bought them cheaply, when the Audi brand was being beaten up on TV and in the newspapers for a nonexistent fault allegedly to do with unintended acceleration. This "fault" was so loudly trumpeted in the news that it seriously depressed the value of used Audis and I bought these two for a song.
A good used Audi is now far more expensive, so when the 4000 Quattro died I replaced it with a 1995 Subaru Legacy wagon. I went with a Subaru for its all-wheel drive so that I could easily negotiate the steep, bumpy dirt road to my house in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. The Audi 5000 Quattro recently had an oddball clutch failure on a trip, so we donated the car to the American Red Cross and ultimately ended up buying a very left-over 2003 Subaru Legacy L sedan to replace it. I bought the car new at the end of March 2004 with 332 miles on the odometer and a three-year, 36,000-mile warranty. (The power train is warranted for five-years and 60,000 miles.)
Although my late, lamented Audi 5000 Quattro was stuffed to the gills with high-tech toys, I usually prefer my cars to be as simple as possible as long as they have reasonable convenience and comfort. The 2003 Legacy sedan has Subaru's standard four-cylinder, 2.5-liter boxer engine, five-speed manual transmission, all-wheel drive and the normal array of features that come with the standard Legacy. These include four-wheel antilock disk brakes, air conditioning, four-speaker single-CD stereo system, cruise control, tilt steering column, power windows and door locks, power outside mirrors, keyless entry system, outside temperature gauge and two front air bags. This is a nice level of standard equipment, so I do not get the feeling that the car is too Spartan.
In addition, my car came with the "Special Edition" package that includes a power moonroof, spiffy 16-inch alloy wheels, fog lights and a leather-wrapped steering wheel. The Special Edition package is exceptionally priced at $500. The only other option on my 2003 Subaru Legacy sedan is rubber floor mats, hideously ugly things that I immediately removed from the back seat footwells as soon as I got the car home. Once I find a suitable replacement for the front floor mats, I will replace those as well. I haven't seen anything so god-awful ugly since the Miss Town of Montgomery competition in 1970.
The total sticker price for this car came to $20,875 and I was able to negotiate the deal down to a cool $17,000, which included a $1,000 rebate that came off the bottom line. I steadfastly refused to have the car larded up with any dealer options, such as the hyper-expensive CD changer and ridiculously priced paint protectant. I also avoided the $960 extended warranty. I have three other cars, so I don't plan to drive this Subaru all that much.
The exterior of the 2003 Legacy sedan is about as generic as a car gets today and there is absolutely nothing about it that screams "Subaru." It has the shape of a modestly aerodynamic modern sedan, with the high-tail, low-nose style that was first introduced by the VW Jetta in 1980. The pretty alloy wheels add a touch of class to the exterior, as does the oddly elegant silver-green paint (called "SeaMist Pearl Green"). The front doors have a nice-quality "thunk" when I close them; however, the back doors sound just as tinny as my 1995 Legacy's.
The interior is attractively functional, with a pleasingly thick steering wheel, soft vinyl dashboard and firm-but-comfortable charcoal-gray cloth front seats. The front seats are among this car's best features; they have only manual fore-and-aft and recline adjustments, but they are comfortable and well bolstered for sporty driving. The seats fit my relatively slender frame like a glove, as though they were designed for me. Between the nice-quality cloth that has a good grip and the seat/back bolsters, the seat is snug and confidence inspiring. I particularly like the way the bolsters on the back make just the right contact with my ribs. However, there is just enough headroom for me to be comfortable up front; I have about an inch above my head to the ceiling and I'm 5' 8".
The five-speed manual shifter is well located for my reach and the throws feel sportingly short compared to my 1995 Legacy wagon. The 2003 Legacy sedan's transmission also has a much nicer mechanical feel than my older Subaru; it feels like I'm in control of a piece of machinery, instead of simply selecting another setting.
The tilt steering column lets me adjust the wheel for comfort and optimum gauge viewing. The two primary gauges -- speedometer and tachometer -- are big and highly visible, with the tachometer reinforcing the sporty impression I get from the seats. The only other gauges are for fuel and temperature; everything else is left to idiot lights. At the base of the tachometer is a digital clock with an outside temperature readout. Both are also nice touches.
The center of the dashboard breaks from the overall gray vinyl treatment by displaying some genuine imitation wood -- it does seem a slightly elegant touch, even if no one would ever mistake it for real wood. In this center section are the heater controls on top, then the radio and a couple of useful cubbies for storage. The heater controls in the 2003 Legacy sedan are much better than those in my 1995 Legacy wagon and it's easy to reach and see the settings in the newer car. (My older Subaru does not have lighting for the heater selection switches, so I can't see where the air is blowing after dark. The 2003 Subaru blessedly has more logical controls that include such lighting -- it's a real improvement.)
The stereo in the 2003 Legacy sedan brings up the first negative: this car does not support the popular and simple DIN style of radio. To upgrade the radio, I had to disassemble the entire center of the dashboard, remove the subframe on which the heater controls and plastic bits are attached and unscrew the factory stereo from this steel subframe. I then had to screw the new stereo into the subframe and reassemble all the plastic bits. It is a major operation and I had some problems with my new stereo that meant I had to do it all over again. This is not the car for fancy stereo upgrades.
I'm now on my third stereo (counting the factory stereo) and I'm getting quite a bit of distortion from the factory speakers. I think the problem is the speakers, which seem a lot flimsier than those in my 1995 Subaru. My stereo travails account for the fact that I've put only about 300 miles on this car since I bought it five weeks ago.
The heater and A/C work nicely so far and I haven't noticed the engine bogging down much while using the A/C. The cruise control in the 2003 Legacy sedan is about as vague as the one in my 1995 Legacy wagon and much less precise than my German cars, but it does work. The car also came with keyless entry, which works although I don't much use it. (I hate the big key fob thingy in my pocket.)
Additional details up front include two shallow depressions in the plastic console for cups and a center storage compartment that doubles as an elbow rest. The door panels are finished with soft vinyl and cloth, and the driver's armrest contains so many switches for windows, mirrors and locks that it should come with its own operations manual.
I enjoy having the retractable moonroof, which has a tip-up feature that gives the car excellent highway ventilation. However, the tip-up moonroof in this car is noisier than the ones I've had in all my other cars. The moonroof has a manual sliding cover for when I want to keep the sun off my face.
I haven't spent much time on the back seat but there is plenty of legroom, particularly where I have the driver's seat set for my 5' 8" height. The problem, surprisingly, is headroom; there isn't any. Sitting on the back seat, my head brushes the ceiling of the car. This is not the car to use for the basketball team. Three adults on the back seat will be so cozy as to invite claims of sexual harassment.
Like many high-tail cars, the 2003 Subaru Legacy sedan has a deceptively large trunk (another "legacy" of the 1980 VW Jetta). It is both tall and long, and reasonably appointed in mouse-fur carpet. Under the flat floor of the trunk is a space for a full-size spare tire, although the car comes with a limited-use spare. There is some additional space around the spare for storage of odd items and the trunk itself is easily large enough for a week’s worth of luggage for two people. Although the back seats do not fold down, there is a small pass-through in the center of the rear seat for long skinny things. It's pretty small but it is probably enough to get a few pieces of trim home from Lowes.
My 1995 Legacy wagon has a 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine rated at 135 horsepower and the new car has a similar 2.5-liter engine rated at 165 horsepower. Despite the paper gain in power, the 2003 Legacy sedan does not feel appreciably more powerful to me than the older wagon. Perhaps it is the fact that the engine in the 2003 is still tight -- and it feels very tight -- but it does not have the extra pep that I expected from 30 more ponies.
There are other good qualities about the engine, however. It is very smooth and quiet at idle, and the 2003 has additional insulation around the engine for an overall quieter experience than the 1995. In fact, a fairly raucous engine was one of my dislikes about my 1995 Subaru and the 2003 Subaru is much better in this area. The new car's engine bay makes only reasonable noises under acceleration until I get it to 3,500 RPM or so. There seems to be a torque spike here that gives a little kick in the backside as the engine noise takes on a harsher edge. Again, this torque peak brings a bit of sporty flavor to the car.
Launching the car is a bit tricky. The clutch grabs very low in its throw and the engine bogs down quickly, so I have to add throttle to get a smooth launch. Unfortunately, the throttle "tip-in" is instantaneous -- either I'm at idle or the engine is leaping up the tachometer; there is little between. I have to think about it every time I start in first gear or I will stall, which I have done a few times. I hope that the clutch will break in a bit and that the tip-in situation will either work its way out or can be adjusted by the dealer.
Unfortunately, the 2003 Subaru Legacy disappointed me in my Blue Ridge Mountains test. There is a long uphill climb on a major road near my home where the pavement reaches up to a pass and slopes back down the other side. The Blue Ridge Mountain test starts with the car going 60 MPH at the base of the hill and tries to maintain speed (and gear) as long as possible. The 1995 Legacy wagon will make it to the top of the hill at 58 MPH without too much strain, while the 2003 Legacy sedan made it to the top of the hill at 54 MPH -- and it was starting to insist on a downshift. This was disappointing.
I hope the engine will loosen up as it breaks in and give me a bit more power. In addition, I plan to upgrade to synthetic oil at 1,000 miles, something that I find also helps with power a little bit. Maybe I will look for a K&N air filter, too.
I am impressed with the sporty handling of the 2003 Legacy sedan. The steering has low effort but there seems to be decent feedback. It is fun to hit curvy sections of backroads and the car responds quickly and predictably to steering inputs. Like other all-wheel-drive cars, I do not feel much in the way of oversteer or understeer, unless I really push it too hard or take the wrong line through a curve. This is a relatively high sedan and that pays a penalty in some body roll, but the 205/55x16 H-rated Bridgestone Potenza tires are grippy and I have yet to lose traction for acceleration, handling or braking.
Speaking of braking, the 2003 Legacy's four-wheel disk brakes are a big improvement from my 1995 Subaru wagon. The newer car has a firmer pedal and very reassuring stopping power. Subaru did a nice job on these brakes, which are the best I've felt in a sedan. Again, the brakes help reinforce this car's impression as a sporty sedan.
The car has a pleasingly tight turning radius and it seems to turn on a dime. There is a large blind spot to the right rear when I back up the car, which is a bit of a problem for getting out of my driveway.
The worst part of this car's performance is its throttle tip-in, which is instantaneous and very hard to control. It's fine under acceleration but attempting to maintain a slow-but-steady speed brings on a comedy by whiplash situation where I initially accelerate a bit too much and then ever so slightly reduce pressure on the throttle. This plops the car back against the engine's strong compression and my head lurches forward. I lightly touch the throttle and the car jumps forward, snapping my head back, only to have the cycle repeat again.
This happens only at around-the-neighborhood speeds of 25-30 MPH or so, and not at highway speeds. The car is perfectly normal at highway speeds. Which may account for the reason why I didn't detect this problem during my test drive, where I immediately headed out to the open road. I really hope that this throttle tip-in can be adjusted either mechanically or through software, as I find the car uncomfortable to drive in suburbs and in traffic.
Lifting the hood, the 2003 Subaru Legacy sedan is much harder to work on than my 1995 Legacy wagon. The newer car's engine bay is much more crowded and even reaching the spark plugs will be a cursing, knuckle-bashing effort. Fortunately, the car comes with very long-life spark plugs and a timing belt that requires replacement at 105,000 miles. The air and oil filters are easily reached, and the oil is easy to check. Otherwise, the engine bay is not particularly friendly to shade-tree mechanics.
I have refueled the car only once since buying it and got an impressive 24 miles per gallon. Considering this is a new engine driven in mixed traffic, this seems pretty good to me for a 3,225-pound all-wheel-drive car. The car's sticker lists the gas mileage as 21/27, so my 24 mpg is right on track.
Overall, I think I got a good value in my 2003 Subaru Legacy sedan. It is reasonably well appointed by the standards of contemporary cars, and it is comfortable and sporty feeling. It is, unfortunately, not as peppy as I thought it was going to be. The worst thing is its throttle tip-in performance, which I seriously hope can be adjusted to make the car smoother at slow speeds. The car may drive me crazy over time if this is a permanent condition, although it is probably worse with the manual transmission in my car than it would be for cars that are equipped with automatic transmissions.
Otherwise, I'm pleased with my purchase. The car seems solid, all the controls feel smooth and precise, and the car handles and brakes very well. Now, if only I can get the sound system the way I want it and can stop the bucking broncos at slow speeds.
UPDATE, Sept. 13, 2004:
I took my car to the dealer for its 3,000-mile checkup a few weeks ago and discussed the throttle-tip in and jerky operation with the shop supervisor. He agreed that it was a problem but claimed there was no adjustment for it. He said that the problem was that the engine was being forced into idle by what he called a "fuel shutoff valve" and it was this abrupt switching into forced idle that caused the jerky operation.
On the way home from that less-than-satisfying visit to the dealer, I mulled over what the mechanic had said and came up with a couple of approaches to fixing the abrupt tip-in problem. First, it might be nice to find the switch that senses when the throttle is in idle position, so see if I could somehow trick it into giving me more latitude with the pedal.
This was far easier than I thought. Without a manual, I found the switch after a five-minute search. Even more important is that it already has the means to be adjusted... I didn't have to fudge anything! It is unbelievable that the dealer was either too uninformed or too lazy to bother making this simple adjustment when a customer complained.
After adjusting this switch, my car is better but not perfect. It is less jerky when driving at slow speeds and easier to control, but it could be better still. However, if your car has this problem, a two-minute adjustment will make it better. Here's how you do it:
Lift the hood and grab a standard phillips screwdriver. Space is a little cramped where you have to work but I found that a standard phillips screwdriver works best. I suggest that you find and loosen the screws with the engine cold, then snug them back down. This will make it easier to loosen and adjust things with the engine hot.
As you look at the engine, right on top in the center is the accelerator cable. This cable connects to the throttle body. If you're not sure exactly what the cable is, have someone go in the car and step on the gas pedal. As you look at the engine, you will see the cable and the lever on the throttle body move.
The accelerator cable is on the right side of the throttle body as you look at it. On the left side, exactly opposite where the throttle mechanism enters the throttle body, is the throttle sensor switch. The throttle sensor switch is attached with two phillips-head screws: one on top that has an adjustment slot and another on the bottom that acts as a pivot. Loosen both screws a little and then snug them back down. Don't tighten too much as you will need to loosen them again when the engine is hot.
Start the car and let the engine get good and hot. With the engine running, loosen the two screws enough to allow the switch to move. (Please be careful... don't let anything dangle into the moving belts and pulleys! And the engine is hot, so be careful about that, too!) Pivot the switch slowly so that the rear of the switch moves down toward the ground. At some point, the switch will turn off and the engine will change its idling characteristics. If your car is like mine, this is quite noticeable. Find this switch point by moving the switch back and forth past it a couple of times and adjust the switch so that it just barely switches to low idle. Snug the screws down and check the action of the throttle.
I went for a test drive and took a screwdriver with me. Several times, I got out and adjusted this switch to find the optimum location. Fortunately, this is a very quick and easy adjustment to make. The result was that my car now has less of the jerky forward-and-backward motion when I drive at low speeds. It still has some but it is better. It's possible that I will be able to adjust the switch more carefully and make it better still.
Okay, I understand that cars are a real mystery to some people and I'm not suggesting that you do this adjustment if you are puzzled by which end of a screwdriver to use. However, it is a very easy adjustment and you won't even get your hands dirty. If you don't feel confident, perhaps there's a neighbor or friend who's handy with tools.
The shame of this is that Subaru and its dealers apparently either don't know how to adjust this switch (which is hard to believe) or are too lazy to bother, telling customers that there is no adjustment for jerky throttle tip-in. Not a smart way to keep customers.
If you have any questions about this switch adjustment procedure, drop me an e-mail and I will be happy to answer questions.
Update, Oct. 31, 2007:
I sold the car to a big dealer last night. The jerky throttle tip in, which never went completely away, finally wore me down. I tried many things but nothing fixed it and it was uncomfortable driving the car. The final straw was that the moonroof leaked during last week's rain. For a car that has less than 20,000 miles and has been totally pampered, I just didn't like it. The handling and brakes were wonderful, and the steering was sporty and precise. However, the engine just sucked the fun out of the car, even though it loosened up a bit and got better gas mileage (as high as 30 mpg) at the end of my ownership. In any event, I sold it and will get something other than a Subaru to replace it.
I'm downrating my review as a result of my experience. I no longer recommend the 2003 Subaru Legacy.