Curbside Classic: 1990-94 Subaru Legacy – The First Generation

(first posted 2/8/12)    The Legacy represented a precarious journey upmarket for Subaru’s lineup, as well as being the springboard for the price point too-far SVX coupe (CC here).  Breaking out of their small AWD Wagon niche for the first time, Subaru now competed directly with the midsize FWD sedan and wagon offerings of Toyhonissan. That turned out to be a lot tougher than expected. The Legacy struggled in that mass-market fwd role; its lasting legacy would be in its all-AWD future, as well as the Outback it eventually spawned.

The Legacy was the first offering from Fuji Heavy Industries firmly in midsize territory, with a 101” wheelbase and  length of 177.6″/181″ for the Sedan and Wagon respectively.  It was a solid car for its day, with most of the archived reviews giving it passing marks.  First year sales in 1990 were 108k, with a roughly 45-55% split between FWD and AWD; by the end of the run they had declined slightly to 100k with a 40-60% split on the driven wheels.

The Legacy’s weak sales created serious questions about Subaru’s future in the US, and perhaps in a last ditch effort to reposition the brand, Fuji made the call to offer all future US-market Legacies, as well as all Subarus, as AWD only. That move really cemented the image and future of Subaru, one that would have lasting repercussions.

Like their Japanese brethren Subaru has succumbed to the same bracket creep that has made the current Civic and Corolla compact class vehicles.  The current Impreza is almost identical in engine size & power, size and weight to this generation of Legacy. On the plus side fuel economy with the slush-box has improved from an anemic 20/26 EPA to a more respectable 25/33.  Amazingly, a comparably equipped Legacy stickered for about $17,250 in 1990 dollars ($29,000 adjusted) versus approximately $19,800 for today’s comparably sized Impreza .

As the 1990s progressed, Subaru would muscle in on the Swedes’ traditional demographics and play a supporting role in the recent passing of Saab. The Legacy would dethrone the Volvo brick wagons as the car of choice for those engaged in liberal bumper sticker-shod left lane banditry while listening to All Things Considered en route to yoga or a farmers market.  Later in the decade the Turbo’d Legacy and Impreza would come to evict Saab from the affordable turbo hot-hatch ecological niche until GM got all Isle of Moreau with the Saabaru 9-2.  Similar to Volvo, Subaru experiences the phenomena of wagon take inversion. Watching for first gens I see the wagons on the road up here in the Sierra AWDland constantly; out of my population guesstimate of fifty I can count the sedans on one hand.

The 2.2L EJ Engine that debuted in the Legacy would have a long run as the workhorse of Subarus lineup through the 90s as well as supersizing into the 6cyl in the SVX. Up until it was revised in the middle of the second generation Legacy run in 1996, the engine was non-interference.

This is also something of an auto-biography as a 1990 Wagon was purchased by my family in fall of ’89 and became my bequest in 1997.  It survived a rough six years of several stupid fender benders and my constant testosterone fueled hoonery until being stuck down before its time in a rear-end collision in 2004.

“Be vewy vewy quiet, I’m hunting watios”.  Climbing the grades on EB I80 from Auburn to Truckee  at altitude, the slushbox does a superb Elmer Fudd impression. From first-hand experience I know that the 4EAT 4 speed automatic has a frustrating tendency to downshift and hunt in the mountains unless you thrash the engine hardheartedly. The front fold-out cup holder tended to drop drinks and was limited to the diameter of a 12oz soda. More so than any car I’ve ever driven, operating the AC unleashed a massive power and fuel sucking vampire; using it heavily dropped fuel economy some 25%. On many surviving models the chrome that was covered on the roof line is revealed as the paint chips.

The original Legacy represents a key step on the path that led Subaru to its current profitable position of upon the heights of the AWD car and CUV segments of the US market.  The next step was the marketing Jujutsu that took a competent AWD Wagon and altered consumer perceptions to strike a rich vein of ego and vanity witha simple addition of a lift kit and body cladding.  Although this first generation Legacy lost traction in its vain effort to go mainstream, it formed the basis of all future AWD Legacies and Outbacks to come, propelling Subaru to significant success to come. Not a bad legacy indeed.