A long Legacy

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As longtime readers know, we have a Subaru Legacy wagon in the family, a gallant 1991, bought used with 90,000 miles (for all of $2,900). Four years later, it has 140,000 and a few dents and dings, but no real challenges: It’s a trooper.

I remember well Subaru’s dark days, which coincided with our car’s manufacture. Before the happy serendipity of the wildly successful Outback, the company was in the doldrums. But when the sport-utility thing hit big, there was the Legacy already with four-wheel-drive. So all Subaru had to do was raise the car a bit, slap on some big wheels and tires and voil�, instant SUV!

Subaru had a long road to its current success in the U.S. market with nothing but all-wheel-drive vehicles. Just like the barely remembered Borgward, recently profiled in this column, Subaru, then known as Nakajima Aircraft, has roots in World War II Axis war production. Under the tutelage of founder Chikuhei Nakajima (1884-1949), it was Japan’s leading airplane builder until the end of the war.

As Fuji Sangyo and then as Fuji Heavy Industries (its present name) by 1953, it made such unprepossessing vehicles as the two-horsepower Rabbit scooter, perfect for Japan’s devastated economy at that time. The first car, the tiny P-1 or Subaru 1500, offered Japan’s first one-piece or monocoque body construction. It was innovative in offering front-wheel drive (a Subaru hallmark), but was not a huge sales success.

In 1958, Subaru came out with the first passenger car I remember seeing on the street, the four-passenger minicar known as the 360 (a.k.a. "Ladybird"). Talk about tiny! The 360 was smaller than an English Mini. Some misguided importer near my home brought in a fleet of these in the late 1960s, but sold only a few before the model died in 1970 without making the slightest dent in the American market.

The 360 was popular in Japan, however, as were its successors, the R-2 and goggle-eyed 1000. Subaru gained a higher profile in the U.S. in the 1970s: Remember the Brat pickup and those curious, high-rumped station wagons? Unfortunately, these pioneering Subarus rusted away rapidly (the "Rusty Justy," for example), giving the company a rather poor reputation on the American market.

The Legacy was a huge leap forward when it debuted in 1990 as the company’s first "grown-up" mid-sized sedan and wagon. Four-wheel-drive was offered from the beginning, and there was also the innovative Porsche-like horizontally opposed "boxer" engine. Subaru gained respectability, but sales didn’t go crazy until it started with the Paul Hogan commercials and introduced the Outback, which was followed by lucrative Baja, H6, VDC and LL Bean editions.

The Outback deserves credit for saving Subaru, but I’ve never liked it much. My favorite iteration is the plain all-wheel-drive Legacy wagon, with the 2.5-liter engine and a nice five-speed. My 2003 test car this week differs from that spec only in its sport-enabled four-speed automatic transmission. Loaded, the car goes for $27,392.

The latest Legacy, introduced in 2000, is a great winter car, with the all-wheel-drive, a limited-slip rear differential, antilock brakes and the all-weather package that included heated seats and mirrors, plus a wiper deicer. As I know from experience, these are wonderful vehicles to take out on a snow day, when everyone else is huddling inside.

For 2003, the Baja is a new model, which is basically a four-seat Outback with an open cargo bed in the back. For competition, the Legacy/Outback has such trendy vehicles as the Pontiac Vibe, DaimlerChrysler PT Cruiser and Toyota Matrix. But while I expect great things from the Matrix, I can personally attest to the stout-hearted nature of the Legacy wagon.