Family sedan buyers in search of extra pizzazz and performance face something of a paradox these days. On the one hand, it's not hard at all to find lots of power -- not when your average six-cylinder Toyota Camry pumps out 268 hp. At the same time though, "mid-size" cars have gotten bigger and heavier, the transmission choices have gotten fewer, and front wheel-drive has become even more dominant.
Enter the Subaru Legacy 2.5GT and Ford Fusion Sport AWD. Not only are both these challengers to the midsize throne fresh off successful redesigns, but these particular models offer upgraded powertrains and all-wheel drive in the name of spicing up the family-car experience.
We recently spent some quality time with these sedans to determine if either offers any legitimate thrills to go along with its practicality.
The Fusion and Legacy have targeted the heart of the midsize market with their latest redesigns. For Subaru, that means a rather substantial uptick in size and more conventional design. It's no surprise then, that the new Legacy while handsome, is no longer sleek, though the 2.5GT's 18-inch wheels bring some of the sexy back. The Fusion, which received evolutionary changes to its exterior, has become more athletic looking, and comes with unique 18-inch wheels of its own.
Inside, both cars have made impressive strides. The Legacy's growth means there's an additional four-inches of legroom for rear passengers. Upfront, the dash is well laid out and more attractive than on past models, but still uses far too many hard plastics for a $30,000 car. Thankfully, drivers finally get an auto-up power window.
The Fusion has taken an even farther leap forward. It matches the Legacy in comfort, but employs better materials throughout. Ford also seems to have paid a bit closer attention to insulation, as the Fusion does a better job isolating road noise. Unfortunately, the Sport model obscures much of this refinement with garish red trim and shiny seat inserts that appear ready for a night at the disco.
Either of these up-level models will gladly suit your need to be pampered, as both come with leather seats and features like Bluetooth and premium sound systems.
Of course, we didn't climb into these top-of-the-line models just to parse the differences in standard equipment and dash trim. We wanted to see which, if either, of these two cars followed through on its promise of performance. On paper, both seem to have quite a bit going for them. Each package car features a boost in power, a six-speed transmission, and all-wheel drive (the Fusion Sport is available in front-wheel-drive form). But look closer, and there's a slight but noticeable difference in attitude that makes all the difference.
For the Fusion Sport, Ford follows a rather conventional method of adding capability. There's a larger, 3.5-liter V-6 upfront, which makes 263-hp (compared with the base V-6's 240-hp), plus firmer dampers and thicker antiroll bars. The resulting Fusion certainly feels quicker than lesser, 3.0-liter V-6 models, but even with the optional all-wheel drive, which brings the curb-weight up to a hefty 3800 pounds, it remains soft around the edges, and primarily focused on coddling the driver. Steering is a bit slow and suffers at times from artificial-feeling feedback.
Subaru, on the other hand, manages to slip a few of quirks into the 2.5GT that make it drive like more than a nice afterthought. For starters, there's a turbocharged, 2.5-liter boxer engine that makes 265-hp, just as in the WRX. We wondered at first why Subaru still bothers with an entirely different engine for its top dog when the slightly cheaper, six-cylinder Legacy 3.6R is for all intents and purposes just as powerful. The turbocharger's urgent whine and sportscar-like midrange thrust provided a more than satisfactory answer. Subaru further asserts that it means business by backing up the four-cylinder with a six-speed manual. It would be unusual enough for Subaru to offer a stick-shift in anything other than a base mid-size sedan - almost no one else does these days - but the GT goes a step further and isn't even available with an automatic. It's not the best gearbox, with long, somewhat balky throws, but we'll gladly take it over the Fusion's ho-hum six-speed slushbox, which has neither shift paddles nor a manual mode. The smaller displacement engine also contributes to the Subaru's noticeable handling advantage, as the four-cylinder Legacy weighs about 350 pounds less than the Fusion. Lest we overstate matters, it's worth noting that the 2.5GT receives no suspension improvements over the comfort-oriented 3.6R and, like the Fusion, exhibits more body roll than we'd like. It also does a poorer job absorbing road imperfections than the Fusion.
The Fusion Sport AWD and Legacy 2.5GT are both worth a second look in their crowded segment. If your main qualifications are comfort and refinement, the Ford deserves a slight edge. But if you're like us, and want a dose of feistiness to go along with a roomy back seat, than we'd recommend the 2.5T, which, despite its larger and more practical exterior, remains a family-man's WRX.
We'll be honest though: we think both automakers can do better. Ford has a twin-turbocharged, 365-hp Ecoboost engine and a team of SVT engineers who just finished souping up the Mustang and F-150. Subaru has a whole raft of WRX performance parts and a talented tuning team of its own. So, how about it, guys? When can we look forward to comparing the Ford Fusion SHO and Subaru Legacy STI?
2010 Subaru Legacy 2.5GT Limited
Base price (with destination): $30,690
Price as tested: $34,146
Size: 2.5L turbo-charged 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 265 hp @ 6000 rpm
Torque: 258 lb-ft @ 2000-5200 rpm
Weight: 3477 lb
18 x 7-in 15-spoke aluminum alloy wheels
225/45R18 performance tires
18 / 25 / 22 mpg
2010 Ford Fusion Sport AWD
Base price (with destination): $28,400
Price as tested: $29,590
Size: 3.5L DOHC V-6
Horsepower: 263 hp @ 6250 rpm
Torque: 249 lb-ft @ 4500 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Weight: 3803 lb
18 x 7.5 in. aluminum wheels
225/45 all-season tires
17 / 24 / 19 mpg