There's B4 ... and after

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 April, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 April, 2004, 12:00am

THE SUCCESS of the Impreza in the World Rally Championship during the 1990s turned Subaru into a global cult icon. Until then a niche manufacturer of boxy, all-wheel-drives, the Japanese marque was beloved by farmers, country doctors and real estate agents, but lacked emotional appeal.

But when Subaru's engineers began to tinker with the Impreza's rugged, effective but fairly simple chassis - and bolted a brace of turbochargers on to its boxer engine, they created the WRX, a rally world-beater. Almost overnight, an ugly duckling became an object of extreme desire: insanely fast, worshipped by petrolheads, celebrated in computer games and imitated by much bigger manufacturers eager for similar cult cred.

Subaru has yet to turn rallying success into widespread brand recognition, however. This is certainly the case with the company's biggest saloon, the Legacy B4 (the initials stand for 'Boxer Four'). Using a turbocharged, four-cam, two-litre engine similar to that of the Impreza WRX, as well as all-wheel drive, earlier versions of the model were rapid and capable, but their anachronistic looks seemed lumpish next to the Audis, BMWs and Mercedes.

Mechanically, the B4 seems similar to its predecessors, with a single-turbo engine that produces 260 brake-horsepower and an even more astonishing 343 Newtons per metre of torque at just 2,400rpm.

The familiar all-wheel-drive powertrain has now been hooked to a new standard five-speed Sportshift automatic gearbox, which is not only programmable but offers semi-manual, Tiptronic-style override. Keeping all this on top of the European competition is a new suspension setup that features wider track and revised geometry front and rear, as well as Bilstein dampers.

Idiosyncrasies remain in the new Legacy's looks, from the enormous air scoop in the middle of the bonnet (visual chest hair that's become an established element of the B4's bloodline) and the frameless side windows, to the rear-window wiper. The long-nose, short-rear-deck profile and the wide grille, with its horizontal chrome bar, have also been carried over from its predecessor. But the lines have been sharpened, with a lower, sleeker nose emphasised by a pair of edgy-looking light covers, while the curved cabin ends in a high tail whose upturned light clusters and side crease cleverly suggest a Kamm-style spoiler.

Sitting low on its 17-inch alloys shod with beefy, 215/45 Bridgestones, the B4 looks every bit the purposeful, sporting machine - an impression heightened by the chromed oval exhaust pipes that peek out from both sides of the tail.

But this time the B4's lines display an elegance that was never seen on previous models, while the mirror-mounted direction indicators give the car a Mercedes-Benz touch.

The interior is considerably improved, too, although it still doesn't match the luxurious, all-of-a-piece ergonomics of the better Europeans.

There's nothing wrong with the eight-way-adjustable power driving seat, which, in combination with the wheel, fits and supports just about everyone. Equally, the small, leather-covered Momo wheel, with up- and down-shift buttons on each horizontal spoke, is a joy to twirl. But the instrument panel and console looks cheap and oddly unco-ordinated. The dual front airbags are also unnecessarily mean, especially as many European manufacturers now provide up to four per passenger. But the aluminium-faced console houses a Minidisc player, as well as a Kenwood six-CD changer, a neat extra for music buffs.

Fire up the B4, however, and you'll be happy to turn the stereo off. At idle, the turbo flat-four produces a satisfying rumble that suggests something far more thrilling, once it gets busy. Slip the shifter into D then touch the accelerator, and the B4 moves smoothly away from rest. Press the pedal a little further, and the car leaps forward, the rumble turning into a howling urge that's strong enough for Hong Kong.

The B4's stylistic shortcomings are forgotten on the move, for this is a hugely satisfying car to drive. Although not quite as chuckable or as kamikaze-quick as its smaller, lighter and even more powerful Impreza cousins (which becomes only too clear when a WRX hurtles past as if from nowhere, in an awesome, full-throated wail), the Legacy is a beautifully sorted beast that sits on the road like a thoroughbred, straightening out bends as if they don't exist, insatiably gobbling up the tarmac.

Power is delivered almost instantaneously, with maximum torque appearing so low in the rev band that it's almost irrelevant what gear the automatic box finds itself in. Indeed, with so much grunt so readily on hand, engaging Sport mode seems almost superfluous.

Stopping power is as prodigious as you'd expect from a quartet of ventilated discs backed up with all the expected electronic aids. Only those big Bridgestones, slapping on the expansion joints, jarred with the car's composure and its smooth, upmarket pretensions.

Judging by my short acquaintance with this latest big 'Scooby', I'd have to say the B4 is an enormously capable, versatile, characterful and even attractive car. It offers more usable bang for the buck than almost anything in its under-$400,000 price range, and comes close to shading several machines costing twice that figure.

I'd buy one like a shot, confident of picking up one of the best performing mid-size saloons sensible money can buy. But Subaru still has some way to go before it can take on the Europeans in the showroom race, although this new Legacy represents a sure-footed step in the right direction.

TESTED: Subaru Legacy B4

WHAT IS IT? Five-seat sports saloon

HOW MUCH? $398,000 via Motor Image (HK), tel: 2396 8380

WHAT MOVES IT? Single-turbocharged, flat-four engine, driving through a five-speed automatic gearbox with Tiptronic-style manual selection

HOW FAST? More than you'll ever need

SAFETY FEATURES: All-wheel-drive, ventilated disc brakes, with anti-lock braking and electronic brake distribution and front dual airbags

ALTERNATIVES: None obvious at the price, although Alfa's 166 and Saab's 9-5 are in a similar spirit