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2011 Legacy GT Limited: Subaru makes a competitive sport sedan

Forget the backwoods image, Subaru has a real road machine
by: Courtesy of Subaru With its turbocharged engine, functional air scoop and all-wheel-drive system, the 2011 Subaru Legacy GT is ready to challenge the elements.

Who knew that Subaru thinks it can compete with high-end manufacturers in the competitive luxury sport sedan market? That's the apparent goal of the Legacy GT Limited, which comes standard with a leather interior, a turbocharged 265-horsepower engine, a six-speed manual transmission, four-wheel disc brakes, and an all-wheel-drive system that helps keeps everything under control during aggressive driving.

The Legacy GT Limited lacks the quality, sophistication, and top end speed of most luxury sport sedans. But it also starts at a mere $31,395, thousands less that anything with equivalent features offered by any other manufacturer.

Everyone who lives in the Pacific Northwest is familiar with the line of cars and crossovers from Subaru. If you don't already own one, your neighbor probably does.

As the advertising line goes, Subaru is the only automotive manufacturer that makes all-wheel-drive standard on every model. The advantages of all-wheel-drive are better traction in the rain and the ability to more easily travel off-road to recreation spots.

Like other manufacturers, Subaru offers a wide range of models to appeal to most consumers. The least expensive is the compact Impreza, followed in size by the midsize Legacy sedan, the midsize Outback station wagon crossover, the slightly larger midsize Forester crossover and the full-size Tribeca luxury crossover. They can all be outfitted with various luxury and convenience options, including leather interiors, navigations systems and upgraded stereos.

The base engine for all models except the Tribeca is a 2.5-liter Boxer four-cylinder that produces 170 horsepower. Also called a 'flat four,' it has two set of horizontally-opposed cylinders, creating a lower center or gravity and allowing for a lower hood. Porsche is the only other manufacturer that offers a Boxer engine in such a large number of its products.

The standard engine in the Tribeca is a 3.6-liter Boxer six-cylinder that produces 265 horsepower. It is also available in the Legacy and the Outback.

Subaru's other trick for producing additional horsepower is turbocharging the 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine. The best known applications are in the Impreza, which offers two models that appeal to the performance enthusiasts - the WRX and the WRX STI. The WRX can be bought with either a 224 horsepower or 265 horsepower engine. The powerplant in the WRX STI produces 305 horsepower.

Subaru offers two of the more powerful engines in the Legacy. The Boxer six is standard in the 3.6R, the most luxurious model. The 265-horsepower truborcharged four is standard in the GT Limited, a more performance-oriented model.

Both the 3.6R and GT Limited models encourage spirited driving. But the turbocharged engine produces nine more horsepower. It only comes with a six-speed manual transmission, which is not available with the Boxer six.

Turbocharging uses exhaust gases to spin a turbine that rams more fuel and air into the engine. The faster the engine runs, the faster the turbine spins, creating even more horsepower. While turbocharged cars aren't necessarily the fastest off the line, the are still gaining momentum when normally-aspirated ones are running out of steam.

In the Legacy, the turbocharged engine and six-speed transmission combine to produce a genuine but affordable sport sedan. Although technically a midsize, the Legacy has ample interior room, including enough rear head and leg room for three adult rear passengers. But in GT Limited trim, it can easily be driven fast, both on winding roads and straight freeways. The power band is broad and flexible, reducing the need to constantly shift gears. But it has also been clocked at zero to 60 in just 4.6 seconds.

Much of the appeal if the standard all-wheel-drive system, which distributes the power to both ends of the car and increasing cornering abilities. Unlike some early performance-oriented all-wheel-drive cars, the power shifts are so smooth the driver never feels them. The only sensation is more stability than expected.

Subaru completely restyled its entire line ever the past few years. The results disappointed some longtime fans, who admired the slightly quirky looks of the older models. While it is true that all of the new models are larger and have more conventional lines, they also have more interior room and handle better on the road.

While no one would ever say the Legacy is striking, with its large wheel arches, low air dam and side body molding, the 2011 version is at least handsome. The 18-inch aluminum wheels and low-profile performance tires on our test car helped make it look at least sporty, although not outright racy. Of course, if exterior flash is what you want, the Impreza WRX and WRX STI look like they are out of a Fast and Furious movie. In comparison, the Legacy GT Limited is aimed at adults.

The interior in our test car was also adult-oriented, a tasteful mix of black and silver that included heated leather front seats and dark faux-wood trim pieces. The gauges were big and easy to read, while the climate and entertainment controls were refreshingly system. We did not have the optional navigation system, which might have cluttered the dash more.

The Legacy GT Limited falls short in a few areas, however. The shifter is only so-so. And the interior has too much hard plastic, although it is not unattractive. The trunk, however, is huge and carrying capacity is even greater with the rear seats folded down.

For a company better known for its practical family cars and boy racers, the 2011 Subaru Legacy GT is a surprisingly grown up and competent sport sedan at a bargain price - perhaps the company's best known secret.

Facts and figures

• Model: 2011 Legacy GT Limited.

• Manufacturer: Subaru.

• Class: Midsize sedan.

• Layout: Front engine, all-wheel-drive.

• Style: Four door.

• Powertrain: Turbocharged 2.5-liter Boxer four cylinder (265 hp).

• Transmission: Six speed manual.

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 20/24

• Price: Beginning at $31,395 (as tested).