We love fast estates in this country, so despite their unpopularity elsewhere in the world (looking you USA) it’s nice to see that there are still a couple of marque’s that indulge us. Audi RS have rightly caught onto a good stream with more than enough being sold to maintain the no doubt huge development costs (they all have mostly bespoke bodywork), but its unfortunate to see no lower cost alternatives available. Ok so the Skoda Octavia Combi VRS is slightly warm in comparison to the snarling V8’s seen higher up the VW group chain, but to find a real alternative we have to look way back into the 1990’s Japanese catalogue to find some wagony rays of hope.
Subaru, known for its domination in rally during the 90’s may have offered a WRX in a wagon form, but it was actually more of a stretched hatchback (think Audi A3 Sportback) than a true wagon. But a good 4 years before the introduction of the first WRX, Subaru was rallying with Legacy Turbo’s and here we find Genesis of the Japanese performance estate. 15 years later, after the coming and going of rival high performance Japanese wagons never seen in Australia like the Mitsubish Legnum and Nissan Stagea, we find my part in all of this, the Subaru Legacy 3.0R-B launched in 2004. The RB was a strange offering in the range as it wasn’t turbo, but powered by an uprated version of the elderly 3.0 Flat 6 originally designed for use in Subaru’s failed premium coupe (the glassy SVX) and later used in US market saloon cars. What should have been a bit of a pudding however was also spiced up with the gearbox and suspension found in its WRX STI cousin and a cult Q-car hero was born.
By today’s standards its only (just) hot hatch quick, uses copious amounts of fuel and requires a decent amount of thigh muscle to operate the clutch in traffic, but with those old school compromises come some old school thrills. Fire the Legacy at a bumpy off camber corner and the first thing that strikes you is the feel coming through the helm, its light and obviously power assisted, but its also purveys a huge amount of detail about the road surface and the amount of grip the modest 215 section tyres have to offer. In fact the feel isn’t too far away from the related and equally excellent BRZ, except with power also being translated from the front it carries an extra level of force feedback. The steering rack itself does pose some kickback over larger bumps, but aside from needing a slightly faster rack, the steering is a perfect sidekick for barreling down a fast B road. The front end attached to it is slightly more negligible, with the car ultimately lacking the hyper alertness of its lighter nosed turbo brother, yet thanks to having slightly more weight over the rear axle of this estate model, overall balance seems to be unaffected. One nice surprise is though what happens when you play with the weight transfer a bit more. With a symmetrical AWD system as opposed to the more common on demand system seen in today’s showroom’s, once the car has bitten at the front, so long as there is some weight on the front axle the Legacy can be persuaded to rotate from the rear. The effects thanks to its modest torque output is subtle, but in slippery conditions it can be very entertaining, allowing the car to dance on the rear briefly before the AWD system reacts and pulls the car straight again. This adjustability on the throttle is no doubt helped by the Legacy’s impressive throttle response and short gearing, but its now under its most extreme provocations that the overall structure feels slightly limp and in need of some extra bracing.
The quality of the Subaru’s damping however is without doubt, displaying extremely good body and wheel control, it never seems to be out of step with the cars rotation and although the car does exhibit an amount of roll, its never enough to wash the car off line. This quality is in no doubt thanks to the high specification of its Bilstein dampers. It’s this in essence that I love about this car. It does without some of the toys you might expect of this price and bracket, but the money has been spent in places where most drivers would never know.