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Subaru Legacy Estate | Shed Buying Guide

The thinking man's fast Subaru estate can still be had for very little money; here are the pitfalls

By Tony Middlehurst / Thursday, June 20, 2019

According to PHer qube_TA (so it's his fault), Subaru estates were the first wagons to be specifically marketed towards lesbians. Apparently Subaru's customer surveys revealed that their products were popular with 'outdoorsy-types' (qube_TA again) who didn't want pickups because they were perceived as a bit too big and butch.

You don't have to be a Sainsbury's shopper to appreciate the value of the brilliantly capable all-wheel-drive Legacy Estates, machines that are as good at towing as they are at blasting along a forestry road or towing a caravan. It is both a tool and a jewel that combines fine practicality with performance and old-money credibility. If you've owned an Impreza Turbo Wagon but your family doesn't fit into it any more, you really should be at least considering a fast Legacy.

You need to pick the right model, mind. The sheer number of different Legacy models is mind-boggling. We're not just talking trim levels here: we're talking about many, many variations of that flat/boxer engine format, not just capacity-wise but also aspiration types. Normal, single-turbo, and twin-turbo - Subaru has been there and done that. It's a miracle the company's still going.

Lesser-powered NA Legacies are worthy and functional, but they're about as exciting as a wet weekend in Gainsborough. Models like the JDM twin-turbo EJ20 however will give you the thrills of a Class A weekend in Vegas with Elvis back from the dead and performing three times nightly at Circus Circus.

Covering all Legacy models in this Shed Buyer's Guide would be like playing Whack-A-Mole with a toffee hammer, so Shed is going to concentrate on one and chuck in a few other insights as he rambles along.

Because examples have actually come up in Shed of the Week at sub-£1500 prices, and because even the 125bhp non-turbo models drink like a big fish, the clear and obvious Shedman's choice must be the 1993-2002 275-ish hp 2.0-litre twin-turbo GT-B. These engines would only fit in right-hand drive cars, which sounded perfect for the UK, but for some reason they were never officially sold here.

The GT in GT-B means it's a five-seat estate (the saloons were RSs), while the B stands for Bilstein suspension. The GT-Bs also had larger brakes, thicker anti-roll bars and BBS LM split rim wheels. Agile, composed, torquey and fast on a variety of road surfaces, the GT-B was smooth and refined when you needed it to be, slippier and less 'council' than an Impreza, ram-packed with mechanical character, and more than capable of setting your trousers on fire while still delivering the regulation 25mpg. Peak power was at around 6500rpm with a redline at 7500 and a limiter at 7750. More meaningfully for the road, peak torque was at 5000rpm, with around 80% of that available from 2000-6500.

Weighing in at under 1400kg, it notched up a sub-six second 0-60 time in the manual and once held the production station wagon speed record at around 170mph. PHer badgerracing believes that. He bought a 2000-model manual GTB in 2009 for £1700 and saw a GPS-confirmed 150mph on the autobahn with plenty of pull still occurring. Another PHer whose name escapes Shed for the minute reckons he saw 163mph (also GPS-validated) in his GT-B while chasing a '57 plate RS4.

Bodywork & Interior

Subaru UK once had a naughty habit of leaving imported cars lying around in the docks for a year until buyers could be found. They had no special anti-rust treatment to see them through that, so finding at least some corrosion on a late 1990s Subaru is more of an expectation than a surprise.

Doors get frilly, the rear door seams in particular being good indicators of early signs of rot. That's no biggie but the plastic sill covers can hide all kinds of nastiness in the sill areas. Rear chassis legs above exhaust boxes are also vulnerable to attack, as is the top of the windscreen, and the bonnet slam panel can literally disappear. Fixings generally on old Japanese cars can metamorphose into chunks of rust that sockets love to eat.

Have a look underneath because if PH forums are anything to go by Legacies are regularly thrashed along every kind of road. As a result the underside gets peppered by rocks. Lift the boot carpet to check for signs of accident repair work (new mastic or paint overspray). Check bonnet and door gaps for the same reason.

The Legacy cabin is famously Lidl. Dodgy cupholders aside, the scratchy plastics and sackcloth started out as being tough, but the plastics on older cars can become rather brittle and difficult to remove in one piece. Before you start pulling bits off, check whether you'll be able to find replacements as not all of it is available new these days.

Some people love the seats. Others really struggle with them, complaining of too-flat bases that seem to send their legs to sleep. The boot is huge thanks in part to Subaru's flat-lying 'boomerang' rear suspension.

Wind noise from the frameless windows and the sunroof are all normal. So is the thinnish paint's poor stonechip resistance. You may also notice a healthy appetite for headlight bulbs. Heater controls can play up and it's worth testing the operation of all the door locks and windows.

Engine & Transmission

First, let's look at something that isn't a fault as such, as Subaru was totally aware of it, and that is VOD.

The sequential turbo setup employs more or less same-size turbines to provide serious power right through the rev range. But once the primary turbo has launched you off the line, it temporarily despools as a secondary turbo comes to life somewhere between 3500 and 4000rpm. That primary turbo does chime back in, but until it does there is a something of a comedy gap in the midrange power flow, almost as if there's another gearchange happening. This dropoff has been given a name by the Legacy TT community - the Valley Of Death, or VOD.

Gen-three cars featured changes that dulled the VOD edge (and improved the economy figures), and 'Revision-D' EJ208 engines are better still, but it's something to be aware of. There's plenty of online advice about how to refurb the vacuum solenoid box, the inside of which looks a bit like Medusa's snakey head. One of the vacuum lines off the boost solenoid has a restrictor 'pill' or bead in it that will affect power delivery if it gets out of position. Or you might be lucky and find it's just a leaky or dislodged pipe.

Poor running means there could be a problem with the intake or exhaust air control valves, or with a perished actuator line or a sensor. Talking of which, MAF sensors get dirty. You can clean them, but code 23 tells you it's bust, which typically happens at around 70k miles.

Code 66 on a diagnostic machine will tell you that the turbo piping has been wrongly refitted or that only one of the turbos is working.

As hinted at earlier, most 1990s Legacies struggle to top 28mpg, and vigorous use of the gearbox could easily reduce that to under 15mpg, but then again it is a hard-charging car. Given that, it's important to stay on top of the sort of maintenance activities that might seem old-school now. These flat-four engines are very particular about oil and filters. Save money on those at your peril. You'll want to change the oil every 4000 miles or so. Subaru fours can run through a fair quantity of oil too, and for maximum peace of mind you might want to think about running yours on dear petrol. In Japan they're usually run on 100RON.

The good news is that head gasket failure was mainly restricted to the EJ25 2.5 litre cars so we won't worry you with that. Just as well really because sorting that out is a long and complicated job, even with the engine out. There are two sets of gaskets on a flat four, remember, so even if only one goes you'd probably not feel comfortable about ignoring the other one.

What we can't ignore on the EJ20 twin-turbos is the possibility of main crank bearing failure, usually number three which can thin out and spread like tin foil. Subaru UK took the easy option of blaming owners (while extending US car warranties to eight years, hmm) but even meticulously maintained cars were suffering from this issue. The TT's short-skirt pistons are known for rattling when cold but you can get round that by claiming that it's a performance trait and they all do that innit. The 100,000 mile mark seems to have a certain significance with both the crank and pistons, and with clutches. There have been odd instances of broken conrod bearings too.

Shed thinks that the cambelts on pre-1997 Subarus are of the non-interference type, so you can theoretically run them till they snap without a care in the world, other than how you're going to get to that day's destination. Cam sensors do fail.

The four-speed torque converter auto boxes on lesser Legacies can feel a little clumsy, so GT-B owners won't be troubled by that, but there may be a little clutch judder from cold. Check that the full-time 4WD and traction control systems are working as they're meant to. Look also for leaks in the cooling system, squeezing the radiator pipes hot and cold to feel for any hardness.

Suspension & Steering

Bilstein is a byword for quality suspension but even their stuff breaks, especially in big and often hard-driven cars like these. Look for knocking and leaking.

Proper wheel alignment is a very good idea on this sort of car to avoid uneven tyre wear. The steering angle sensor (contained in the steering column behind the airbag) is meant to be recalibrated after every alignment, and something in the back of Shed's mind is telling him that only Subaru dealers have the tool for that. Maybe things have changed since he last checked, though.

The steering should feel positive with little play. Give it full lock both ways on a piece of open ground and listen for odd clonks and whirrs.

Wheels, Tyres & Brakes

The BBS wheels that came with GT-Bs are worth money, so make sure your prospective buy has them, and if not negotiate on the price.

Legacy brakes are known for feeling a bit spongy, and there is a tendency for rear discs to get scored, but you should be less afflicted by all this in a GT-B.

The hill start assist that many of us think is a fairly recent advance was in fact present on Subarus from 1994. They called it the Hill Holder. It might not appear on all (or any) turbo Legacies, just on fairly mundane NA models like the 2.0 GL. If your Legacy does have it, the hydraulic/brake pressure mechanism does need monitoring if you don't want your brakes to jam on. It's not something to fear, just a cable link from the clutch slave cylinder to a valve on the brake line. It's easy to adjust or remove.


Students of Greek mythology will remember the Sirens, irresistible lassies who lured unsuspecting fishermen to their doom by playing hypnotically groovy music atop jaggedy cliffs.

Fast Legacies have a reputation for being a bit like that, especially the JDM ones that come over here with little or no service history. The prospect of big running costs scares many owners into getting rid before the big bomb drops. On the other hand, as one PHer wisely noted, everyone who has a Legacy and sells it ends up regretting it. And the anecdotal evidence from Subaru owners is that major blowups are not common.

It is true that Subaru came third from last in a 2004 Reliability Index with an average repair cost of £993, and insurance can be expensive, as can some genuine Subaru parts - a PHer selling his GTB on here paid £1100 for a new timing belt and water pump, a set of coil packs and spark plugs and an oil filter change - but then that's also true for many German car parts.

And there's a great online community of fellow sufferers, especially uklegacy.com, who are always ready to help on tech issues or parts sourcing. Import Car Parts can help you find JDM bits. Working on older Legacies is also quite pleasurable. On the occasions that you do need to do some work, most of the mechanicals, suspension, drivetrain and electricals are relatively low-tech and straightforward (if not always quick) to fix.

Don't let Subaru ownership frighten you. Rather, let it enlighten you.

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