If you have owned a Subaru sedan from just about any time in the last 30 years, the pros and cons of the redesigned 2020 Subaru Legacy will likely sound familiar.
The Legacy midsize sedan delivers an exemplary safety record, a comfortable cabin and a stellar all-wheel-drive system as standard equipment. But it is not as stylish, as luxuriously refined or as inexpensive as several key competitors.
That is the classically Subaru formula: Hardiness and comfort, which you pay extra for instead of an extra-hushed ride, the fanciest possible features or the flashiest design.
From the outside, the new Legacy looks very much like the old one, which debuted back in 2015. That’s not so bad; it is a handsomely inoffensive design. But this all-new vehicle would have blended in with the crowd even five years ago, and it looks particularly anonymous now.
Subaru has made more drastic changes on the inside, for better or for worse. The company has worked to banish cheap interior materials, and indeed it’s hard to find an offensively cut-rate part or ill-fitting piece of trim. But the overall ambiance does not jump out and dazzles like a Honda Accord or Mazda6.
The primary cosmetic change is that nearly all Legacy trim levels now come with a big vertical 11.6-inch touchscreen infotainment system, which dominates the dashboard and adds color to the interior. But unlike the best touchscreens, it displaces some physical buttons and knobs rather than complementing them.
While it’s far from the worst offender, Subaru left some operations, like the seat heaters, buried into submenus.
Mechanically, the Legacy’s revisions are mostly incremental.
Its base 182-horsepower 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine delivers acceptable but unremarkable power; it can groan when you push hard on the accelerator, but Subaru keeps the volume low inside the cabin. You know the engine is working hard, but it does not drown out your conversation. Meanwhile, its suspension delivers a generally smooth ride and easy handling, but without the buttoned-down feel that most competitors now manage.
The biggest news is that the Legacy’s upgraded engine is no longer a fuel-thirsty six-cylinder engine but a fuel-efficient turbocharged four-cylinder. This smooth, quiet, 260-horsepower engine manages an EPA-estimated 27 miles per gallon in mixed driving, just 3 mpg below the base engine, and a whopping 4 mpg better than the 2019 Legacy six-cylinder.
Subaru loyalists should be aware, though, that the Legacy is not the only game in town for all-wheel-drive midsize sedans. Two of the segment’s top three best-sellers — the Nissan Altima and Toyota Camry — have either recently introduced the system (Altima) or will debut it within a few months (Camry). The Ford Fusion also has an all-wheel-drive variant.
Moreover, if all-wheel-drive is not a top priority to you, several of the Legacy’s front-wheel-drive competitors cost thousands less when comparably equipped. You see, despite the Legacy’s class-competitive base price of $23,645, some other midsize sedans have additional standard equipment, less expensive options, bigger discounts off the sticker price or all of the above. That is not just value leaders like the Kia Optima and niche players like the Mazda6, but also big names like the Altima and Camry.
In other words, the Legacy is one of the most expensive midsize family sedans, alongside the much more premium-feeling Honda Accord. That’s fine if you want one of the best affordable sedans with all-wheel-drive, but a tougher sell otherwise.
Of course, most folks who want all-wheel-drive gravitate toward some sort of SUV. And that is where the Subaru Outback comes in. It is essentially a Legacy station wagon (which is not otherwise sold in the U.S.) with additional ground clearance and a couple of styling tweaks. The Outback far outsells the Legacy, and for good reason: While it is more expensive than its sedan counterpart, the Outback is an extraordinary deal compared to competing crossover SUVs.
The Outback is priced from $27,545. That’s about $4,000 more than a comparable Legacy sedan, but that is still a phenomenal value by the standards of a midsize SUV or even a compact model. Subaru’s smaller, less fancy Forester crossover is just $2,000 less than the Outback, and the Forester is already one of the better deals in its segment.
Based on our week in a Legacy with the base engine and a brief preview drive of a turbocharged Outback, the latter gives up almost nothing while transitioning from a sedan to an SUV alternative. The driving experience is similar between the Legacy and Outback and the fuel economy drops only by 1 mpg on each engine.
This means that in areas where the Legacy is merely acceptable by sedan standards, the Outback can truly stand out compared to SUVs: fuel economy, handling agility and value for the money. That is why the Outback has outsold the Legacy for years, despite its higher prices.
There are still some advantages to the competing five-passenger crossover SUVs like the slightly larger Honda Passport and Ford Edge, along with smaller ones like the Honda CR-V and Ford Escape. All bring a more SUV-like seating position, with a higher seat, shorter nose than the Outback, and higher roof. From the driver’s seat, the Subaru feels like the sedan on stilts that it is, rather than a purpose-built SUV. Also, the Outback’s cargo capacity is competitive more than class-leading.
Also shop the Outback against the Buick Regal TourX, a competing all-wheel-drive midsize station wagon that is even less like an SUV. The Regal has high sticker prices but frequently sells at big discounts.
If you liked the previous-generation Outback, you will find a mostly familiar experience, except for the big new touchscreen it shares with the Legacy, along with some conservative styling tweaks and incrementally improved driving dynamics.
Brady Holt is a member of the Washington Automotive Press Association.