Subaru chose a snowy off-road course in Quebec in the middle of winter to to show off its slightly updated 2013 mid-size Legacy – no surprise, given that its standard, full-time all-wheel drive system is its main differentiator in this class.
But what was somewhat surprising was the two rivals they trotted out on the same course: the front-wheel-drive only duo of the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord. Though there aren't a huge number of AWD family sedans in the $25,000-$35,000 price range, there are some, and they weren't here.
But Subaru Canada is planning this party, and it reasoned that since the Accord and Camry are the best-selling cars in this segment, these are the cars that potential Legacy buyers were most likely to also consider. Hard to argue that. But serendipitously, I managed to finagle my way into the competing Ford Fusion with its optional all-wheel-drive just days after this winter faceoff, and on a snowy day to boot.
The sloppier conditions at home didn't provide the immediate contrast of driving it back to back with the Legacy in a minus-26 C winter wonderland through the same challenging handling, braking and icy uphill exercises, but it provided a good glimpse of how the Legacy's main AWD mid-size rival handles real-world winter conditions.
To be fair, Subaru had gone to the effort to equip the test Camry and Accords with the same Bridgeston Blizzak winter tires that it fitted to the various Legacys. Most of the Subarus were its volume four-cylinder models, but there were a few pricier 3.6R top-of-the-line models.
We started off in a slalom and emergency braking exercise, with the Camry the one competitor here. The AWD Legacys got away almost instantly, especially compared to the Camry, which required a much gentler right foot to avoid wheelspin. Steering response was smooth and linear in both the 2.5i and 3.6Ri Subarus, though you could get the back end to swing out rally-style around the cones if you really thrashed it with the stability control turned off.
In contrast, every steering input seemed delayed in the Camry, with a mushier feel. It became harder to make your way around the cones quickly or, most importantly on the road, to avoid obstacles. The Camry actually had some snap oversteer, where the back end would come around on you quickly, which made it fun on a closed course, but would be less so on public roads.
Next came the skidpad exercise on a huge circle of mostly ice. From there, once the electronic stability control was turned off – at least as much as it could be, as it still comes on at a higher slip threshold – what started as a catch-me-if-you-can game to see which car could get on the other's tail first became a drift competition.
Though it was easier to keep a drift going in the Legacy versus the Accord, the Legacy AWD differential also heated up considerably after 20 minutes of lurid but fun power sliding around, a warning light coming on that required a few minutes of cool-down laps. The Accord also got bonus points for its emergency handbrake, which is much more fun than the e-brake button on the Legacy and Camry when playing around in an empty parking lot in the snow.
The 3.6R was the luxury car of the group, its tan leather and wood trimmings, large navi system, and its instant yet-smooth throttle response from its flat-six engine making it feel like a different car than the 2.5i Legacy with a Convenience pack, one step from the bottom. Mind you, its as-tested price with the high-end EyeSight safety system rang in at an extra 11 grand, with an as-tested price of more than $38,000 that will stretch most mid-size sedan buyer budgets.
The most dramatic exercise was the one starting from a stop on a tame but treacherous uphill slope. The Legacy needed some modulation with a gentle foot, especially with traction and stability control on. But a touch of the stability control button easily allowed the extra slip needed to start going from any red light or stop sign on a snowy hill.
The Accord, by contrast, was a relative disaster. There were two minutes when we couldn't leave our start point at all, the car slewing sideways at first. As the snow was flung away, exposing the ice underneath, we actually started sliding backward.
The difference was so marked it had us checking the tires to make sure they were all exactly the same. They were, with the 3.6R on the same size tires as the Accord, which were 10-mm wider tires and a slightly lower profile than the 2.5i and Camry, which were run on 205/60R16 WS70 Blizzaks.
It's impossible to say for sure how the Ford Fusion all-wheel-driver I tested later would have compared in these conditions, though with its electronically controlled AWD system, it seems fair to suggest that its slip-and-grip system likely wouldn't have provided the immediate take-off traction or handling confidence of Subaru's full-time symmetrical system, but would have bested its front-drive counterparts.
Where the Camry and Accord excel is in fuel economy, using comparable but still slightly less fuel than a four-cylinder Legacy automatic (0.3-0.9 litres/100 km less overall, respectively, says their EPA numbers), with the Legacy's available six-speed manual hurting this average considerably. But the Legacy 3.6R's powerful auto-only flat-six comes in significantly thirstier than these rivals' V-6s and top turbo-four, averaging 11.8 litres/100 km overall, versus 9.4 litres/100 km for the other three.
It was in the Accord – on the last turn of the last exercise of the event – that I got stuck in a snow bank. All it took was one tire in the snowbank, and I couldn't reverse out, or rock myself out, with the stability control on or off. With a push from a couple of instructors I was moving again, but I wonder if I could have made it out with the Legacy without help. Regardless, Subaru's point was made: with symmetrical AWD, I likely wouldn't have got stuck in the first place.
2013 Subaru Legacy AWD
Type: Mid-size, all-wheel-drive family sedan
Base price: $23,495; as tested: $27,923-$38,123
Engine: 2.5-litre, DOHC, four-cylinder/3.6-litre, DOHC, flat-six
Horsepower/torque: 173 hp/174 lb-ft for four; 256 hp/247 lb-ft for six
Transmission: Six-speed manual or CVT; five-speed automatic (3.6R)
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 9.8 city/7.4 highway (four-cylinder); 13.1 city/9.4 highway (3.6R); regular gas for both
Alternatives: Chrysler 300/Dodge Charger AWD, Ford Fusion, Honda Accord, Suzuki Kizashi, Toyota Camry