The Subaru Legacy GT spec.B is making the review circuit with Colorado license plates, which seems highly appropriate at this time of year.
On the slopes around the Continental Divide, the snow is beginning to pile up and the skiers are planning their getaways for later in the year. Many who make the drive up Interstate 70 from Denver tend to prefer all-wheel drive for safety because snowstorms can blow across the mountains with little warning, reducing visibility and traction to precarious margins.
During one particularly harrowing drive on I-70 during a snowstorm at night, I pressed on, driving on snowpack that may or may not have covered the road, not knowing where the shoulder of the highway ended and fighting constant icing of the windshield. The sport utility maintained good traction, but the wipers fought a losing battle against the ice. Yes, I made it off the mountain, but I was exhausted.
Subaru and other automakers have found some remedies for those conditions. The All Weather package includes heated wipers and washer fluid, heated side mirrors and the coziness of heated front seats.
While Subaru's popularity in icy climates provides a nice niche, the Japanese brand wants to appeal to drivers in all regions with its combination of safety and performance. All-wheel drive adds an element of safety on rain-slick streets as well as those covered by ice. Unfortunately, AWD also carries a penalty in fuel consumption.
Thus, Subaru's sales proposition has increasingly focused on performance from a turbo-charged 4-cylinder "Boxer" engine that generates 243 horsepower in the 2007 Legacy GT spec.B sedan. Called a Boxer because its cylinders are horizontal to the crankshaft instead of vertical, the engine has been a mainstay at Subaru because of its surprising performance. Engineers have also reduced turbo-lag to barely detectible levels.
The spec.B, which appeared as a limited edition of 500 units in 2006, is now a full-fledged production car, emerging from the automaker's Lafayette, Ind., assembly plant. Technical highlights are headed by the SI-Drive system (Subaru Intelligent Drive) that allows the driver to choose from three modes of performance.
The performance sedan also carries a version of the 6-speed manual transmission created for the Impreza WRX STI.
Although the spec.B comes with a heavy ration of standard equipment, the base sticker price is a bit staggering at $33,995.
Starting with the Legacy's stout proportions, designers added aerodynamic side ground-effects moldings with chrome trim and big, 18-inch wheels to the spec.B. The sedan's interior features charcoal upholstery with blue inserts.
The 8-way power driver's seat gains a memory function for 2007, and the interior is further distinguished by aluminum-alloy pedal covers, a 3-spoke leather-wrapped steering wheel with integrated audio controls and "spec.B" floor mats. The Subaru Navigation System remains standard on the spec.B model and available for all automatic-transmission-equipped Legacy 2.5 GT Limited models.
Safety features on all Legacy models include front, side-impact and side-curtain air bags. An anti-theft alarm with immobilizer and tire-pressure monitoring system are also standard on the spec.B.
Along with the Boxer engine, Subaru has also built its reputation on Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive as standard equipment. The system uses a viscous-coupling locking center differential that splits torque equally between front and rear in normal conditions. Slippage of the front or rear wheels will transfer more power to the opposite set. Another embellishment, called Vehicle Dynamics Control, is an advanced stability system that can help keep the vehicle going in the direction the driver is steering, especially in slippery road conditions.
The SI-Drive, controlled by a rotary knob on the center console, lets the driver choose between intelligent, sport and sport-sharp performance modes.
The system controls the electronic throttle system's response and fuel and ignition to adjust torque.
"Intelligent" mode, designed for typical commuter traffic, reduces engine torque and maximum power and switches to a more relaxed throttle response. Engineers say the selection can improve fuel efficiency by up to 10 percent.
"Sport" mode provides quick throttle responses and powerful acceleration for conditions such as freeways or for climbing mountains.
"Sport sharp" mode provides even quicker throttle response and more power sooner. Designed to appeal to enthusiasts, the setting is useful in passing situations on two-lane highways.
Fuel-economy figures of 19 miles per gallon in the city and 26 on the highway are not bad for a car this lusty. With pump prices falling, the Legacy could see more drivers turning their attention to this handsome, sporty car.
WHAT'S NEW: First full production year for spec.B.
PLUSES: Performance, safety, comfort, standard features.
MINUSES: Price, fuel economy.
BOTTOM LINE: All-wheel drive sets performer apart.