There's something clever awaiting drivers of the redesigned 2007 Subaru Legacy GT sedan or wagon. Behind an understated button on the center console beside the driver's right thigh is a novel technology dubbed Subaru Intelligent Drive, or SI-Drive for short. With a mere tap or twist of the button, the Legacy GT reconfigures itself into one of three distinct performance personae, ranging from nearly-mild to almost-wild. In short, SI-Drive creditably renders Subaru's midsize flagship as three-cars-in-one.
There's also something rather subtle, if unintended, awaiting Legacy GT drivers within the careful nomenclature selected by Subaru for identifying SI-Drive's three performance modes. These are, respectively, "I" mode for "Intelligent"; "S" mode for "Sport"; and "S#" ("S-sharp") mode for "Extra-Sport." Working backwards, these labels refer to powertrain performances that deliver 243 horsepower and 241 foot-pounds of torque with lightning-quick throttle response and abrupt, high-rpm gear shifts in "Sport-sharp"; the same power and torque, yet on a more gentle power curve in "Sport"; and lowered power and torque (to about 195 hp and 228 foot-pounds) with an almost lazy power curve in "Intelligent."
If lowered, ambling powertrain output (which Subaru predicts will increase fuel economy by as much as 10 percent, by the way) is intelligent, does it follow that anything more is, well, the opposite of intelligent? And since, in musical notation, the sharp (#) symbol can be construed to mean "a raised half-tone out of key," are fanciers of "Sport-sharp" mode perhaps a little off? Ah, the semantic perils of Politically Correct mass-marketing; and, yet, I suppose we are long past the meritocratic innocence of "Good," "Better," "Best" designations.
And that's too bad, because even at its tamest, the new-for-2007 Legacy GT is a very good car indeed. Whether in wagon or sedan configuration, the Legacy is fast becoming a BMW 3-Series rival that is functional, comfortable and sporty by turns. And in limited-edition "spec.B" trim (for the sedan only), an exclusive six-speed manual gearbox and a rally-derived tuned suspension with front Bilstein struts transforms this all-wheel-drive midsize commuter into an almost-racer. Driving a "spec.B" in "Sport-sharp" mode is, in fact, something like inspired madness.
So what's really going on here? Let's call it the headlines-per-gallon phenomenon. By this thinking, you're a putz today for banging on about high-performance and having fun behind the wheel while every other dreary commuter is cracking open piggy-banks just to keep the mule in fuel. So Subaru has devised SI-Drive to give the "intelligent" commuter (get it?) a way to de-tune the Legacy GT powertrain by about 20 percent of output in order to express fuel-efficiency solidarity with one's fellow-commuter schleps.
And then, on weekends, away from view, that same SI-Driver can shred the backroads with rip-roaring engine performance that borrows heavily from Subaru's rally-race-winning WRX STi. And yet SI-Drive is no gimmick. It's a genuinely innovative marrying of sophisticated mechanicals, like intercooler turbocharging and variable valve timing, with cutting-edge electronics like the electronic throttle and dynamically programmable automatic transmission. Information processing and a veritable network of feedback sensors and relay systems wrap the SI-Drive package with a bow. That three-position console button, in other words, gives the driver a choice of three "macros" by which all manner of performance parameters are radically re-programmed for different driving purposes.
From an enthusiast point of view, the Legacy GT spec.B is clearly the Thrill Champion. In "S#," throttle response is instantaneous as the powerband rockets abruptly upwards. Shifting the six-speed box requires staccato attention to timing, whereas steering and suspension feel are rock-solid and precise. It's the same in the other Legacy GT sedans and wagons, which get either a five-speed manual or a five-speed auto. Across the board, "S" mode is still muscular, but power arrives more politely, less violently. And in "I" mode, performance while highway cruising and stop-and-start commuting is tamed to the point of a Valium daze.
What's missing is the integration of dynamic suspension tuning into the SI-Drive mix. Whereas the spec.B corners delightfully flat, to the point of being harsh in traffic, the other models are a bit squishy when charging hard and a little floaty when sport touring. How nice it will be (and optimism can only help, no?) when Subaru links variable suspension damping, at least, to its impressive SI-Drive engine-transmission management technology.
For vehicles that will likely straddle the $30,000 barrier for the Legacy GT sedan and wagon and trespass into $35,000 territory for the spec.B when they appear in showrooms this fall, these new Subarus incorporate interior refinements that have become prerequisite for this competitive "near-luxury" category. The center-stack in the dash consolidates climate control, available GPS navigation and high-end audio. An XM Satellite Radio option is seamlessly incorporated into the head-unit, and a standard Auxiliary jack allows easy plug-in for not only iPods but all manner of portable music players. Particularly clever is the audio mode selector, which memorizes different volume settings for radio, CD and auxiliary device so that switching between all three can be accomplished without bursting an eardrum.
Soft and fuzzy Alcantara cloth in the spec.B nicely approximates suede upholstery without the surface care and high-noon sun-scalds associated with typical leather seating. As a sedan, Legacy GT seats five adults comfortably, although at the expense of trunk space, which shrivels to a mere 11.4 cubic feet. More gear-oriented lifestyles will prefer the wagon, whose 33.5 cubic feet of rear stowage almost doubles to 65.4 cubes when the rear seatback is folded.
Subaru wants to position its Legacy GT with SI-Drive as the "great performance car you can drive every day." That's fair enough, as far as it goes. But what becomes clear after even a few miles of driving is that brains and brawn coexist harmoniously in this new Subaru line-up. And it only takes a button to tell them apart.
2007 Subaru Legacy GT sedan/wagon & spec.B sedan, 4-door, 5-pass.; 2.5-liter DOHC H4 w/ intercooled-turbo, vvt & SI-Drive; AWD, 5-sp. auto, 5-sp. manual, and 6-sp. manual (spec.B only); 243 hp/241 ft.-lbs. (max.); est. 20 mpg/city, 25 mpg/hwy w/ premium (min.); sedan trunk: 11.4 cu. ft.; wagon cargo: 33.5/65.4 cu. ft.; tow: 2,700 lbs.; 4-wheel ind. suspension & ABS disc brakes, 17- & 18-inch wheels, dual auto HVAC, front/front-side/front-rear head airbags; est. base price: $29,500-33,500/sedan & wagon., $35,000/spec.B; on-sale: Autumn 2006