On paper, there was a lot about the Subaru Legacy 3.0R spec.B that appealed to me. Its unobtrusive styling meant that most wouldn’t give it a second look, but beneath its staid exterior was a plethora of technical highlights – which, combined, made me sit up and take note.
Six naturally aspirated and horizontally-opposed cylinders, a close-ratio six-speed manual transmission, all-wheel drive, hydraulic rack-and-pinion steering, a limited-slip rear differential, and finely honed suspension, were all on its roster.
The centrepiece, Subaru’s six-cylinder boxer engine, also put out 242bhp and 219lb ft - enough to grant the manual spec.B saloon a 0-62mph time of 6.7 seconds. Not comically quick, sure, but definitely in Q-car territory. Its performance and sleeper nature, coupled with its quality, extensive equipment list and reputed refinement, made it even more desirable.
What bugged me, however, the odd murmur about it not being equal to the sum of its parts, in terms of engagement and fun – which shunted the subtle yet swift Legacy down my must-own list. I wasn’t going to jump in with both feet and pay a premium one, at any rate. A sound yet inexpensive example, though, might prove just tempting enough to commit to Legacy ownership.
There was one other bugbear: I knew of 3.0-litre Subarus, owned by friends and colleagues, which had blown head gaskets. I’d seen similar tales on the forums, too, so there was evidently a chance of grief. You only tend to hear the negatives stories, that said, and not about the countless perfectly fine examples providing flawless service - but I’d still need to bear it in mind.
Fortunately, the Legacy that subsequently popped onto my radar had a lot in its favour. Its mileage wasn’t excessive, it had some good history, and everything worked. It was wasn’t that expensive, so I decided to take the plunge and find out what the spec.B was like in person. If it didn’t measure up, so be it; I could draw a line through it, move it on, and wonder no more. More to the point, the car in question was cheap enough that I could treat it as disposable. If it blew up, and the repairs far exceeded its value, I could effectively just walk away from it.
I promptly got on a train, picked it up, and that was that - I had myself a rare Legacy spec.B. The temperature needle of which, several hundred miles later, decided to pay a visit to the stratosphere.
Coolant in various states subsequently exited stage right; an ugly-looking mist swept up over the bonnet, while north of a litre gushed out of the expansion tank and onto the road below.
It transpired, somewhat unsurprisingly, that at least one head gasket was spent. And herein lies the lesson: if you want to mess around with cars, and chop and change, you have to prepare for the worst.
Repairing the Legacy, for example, wasn’t something I could deal with myself at the time. It would consequently have to go to a specialist, and the bill would be at least twice what I paid for the car itself.
That might sound excessive, but doing it would involve removing the engine – and that process would inevitably lead to other jobs that were worth doing while everything was apart.
Which could have been justifiable, perhaps, if the Subaru had proven noteworthy. Unfortunately, I found that the oft-cited criticisms lined up with my personal observations and feelings.
There were elements of the Legacy that I liked, such as its comfort and stability and the noise it made at full chat, but I didn’t find it at all exciting or engaging, in part due to dull steering and weak brakes.
What was more disappointing was that it wasn’t a patch on my previously owned and lightly fettled turbocharged Forester, which was a far more evocative, characterful and better-supported car.
I was not going to sink thousands into sorting the Legacy out, as a result, so I advertised it as a spares-or-repairs affair. Within a few hours, I kid you not, I had cash in my hand and space on my drive.
Suffice it to say that I won’t be rushing to buy another. But nothing ventured, nothing gained; I tried it, didn’t like it, and I now know more about the Legacy than I did before.
That acquisition of hands-on experience is one of the reasons that I’m often inclined to recommend working your way through myriad cars - if possible - despite the potential pitfalls. Aside from generating yourself an interesting back catalogue of cars owned, and bolstering your knowledge, you’ll also meet people, learn new skills, and find out what really hits your automotive sweet spot.
You don’t even have to spend a fortune; you could jump from a first-gen Ford Focus to a Fiat Panda 100HP, then on to a third-gen Toyota MR2, or into a Mazda MX-5, and not necessarily break the bank.
You can read reviews until you can no longer focus on a screen, after all. But all that matters, ultimately, is how a car makes you feel when you drive and own it.
Just remember to budget properly, and manage the risks as best as possible, and you’ll have a blast.