Subaru brings its much-loved all-paw estate concept up to date, but more dynamic and luxurious rivals from BMW, Skoda and Seat have moved the segment on even further

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It’s not immediately obvious what most of us think of these days when we imagine a Subaru.

Two decades ago it would have doubtless been an Impreza Turbo warbling through a forest rally stage. A few might picture an SUV, others a bygone niche performance special, such as a tuned WRX hatchback or a Forester STI.

The Subaru Levorg’s spiritual forebear is the Mark 4 Legacy

But according to Subaru, most people – particularly those in bigger markets for the company than ours, such as Japan and the US – would think of a four-wheel-drive estate: a Legacy.

And it’s the Legacy’s old template on which the firm is hoping to capitalise with the oddly christened Levorg. Previewed as a concept at the 2013 Tokyo show, this car’s identity comes from a collision of the words ‘Legacy’, ‘revolution’ and ‘touring’ (as you probably won’t have surmised).

Mercifully, the design brief is simpler: create a successor to the last-but-one, fourth-generation Legacy in terms of size and price and bring the Subaru ‘AWD’ wagon concept up to date by way of a downsized turbocharged engine, a sophisticated cabin and a ‘grand touring’ blend of dynamic sure-footedness, handling precision and ride finesse. All that backed up by a British touring car racing programme that has already recorded race wins.

Now to find out how effectively that brief has been delivered upon.

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It’s easy to talk about squeezing big-car cabin space into a downsized package, after all, but it’s much harder to achieve.

And aiming to pick up where one of the more popular passenger cars in Subaru’s history left off may make sense to the firm’s management, but can the same success be reproduced 10 years later?

Maybe – but if so, the Levorg’s following here will need to come from deep in the left field.

The car comes to the UK with only one engine and one gearbox: a combination of an all-new 1.6-litre turbo petrol flat four and a Lineartronic continuously variable transmission, neither of which will be what a typical European buyer will expect to find in a new sporty wagon.

So what other surprises does the Levorg have in store? And can it end up offering something genuinely appealing as well as different?

What car new buying red 306


The Subaru Levorg is the spiritual successor of the Legacy

Subaru UK only sells the current, sixth-generation Legacy in the guise of the jacked-up Subaru Outback crossover estate, making the context into which the Levorg slots more murky for British buyers than it will be for others.

Not just for the record, then, the Levorg is about six inches shorter at the kerb than its bigger brother but is alleged to offer greater passenger space than the fifth-generation Legacy, as well as a 522-litre load bay, rising to almost 1500 litres with the back seats folded.

Only trim level available to UK buyers pining for a Levorg is in GT spec

The car’s swept-back silhouette, tapering roofline, rising beltline, muscular surfacing and imposing details are all clearly intended to conjure the visual impact of a sports car from the outline of a five-door estate.

But they seem to do that only moderately successfully in our testers’ eyes, leaving the Levorg in a place where it can more accurately (and perhaps charitably) be described as distinctive rather than attractive.

Underneath the divisive styling is an all-steel body-in-white which is identical to that of the WRX hot hatchback from the B-pillars forwards and new from there aft, while being 50 percent more rigid than that of a Legacy.

The car’s suspension has been developed from that of the last Legacy, with MacPherson struts up front, double wishbones at the rear and stiffer springs, uprated dampers, stronger anti-roll bars, stiffer bushings and slightly altered geometry all featuring.

By Subaru’s own benchmarking at least, the resulting car has a lower roll rate and crisper handling responses than most of its rivals.

But the big mechanical debut is the 1.6-litre twin-scroll turbocharged ‘FB16’ boxer petrol engine buried under the Levorg’s bonnet.

Although it makes an ordinary-sounding 168bhp at its peak, its 3000rpm-wide spread of 184lb ft of torque is alleged to give the Levorg the same level of performance as if it had been powered by one of the firm’s old EJ-series 2.5-litre flat fours.

It’s Subaru’s first engine ever to combine automatic stop-start with direct fuel injection, it runs at an efficient-sounding 11:1 compression ratio and it’s sure to become a key powerplant for future smaller models from the manufacturer.

But however important it may turn out to be, a 168bhp engine doesn’t sound like much for a £30,000 family car with sporting ambitions – much less one with such a large bonnet scoop.

The continuously variable transmission through which the engine drives is also new. It’s an adaptation of the one offered alongside Subaru’s bigger motors and its fitment means that, instead of the proper centre differential that Subaru’s manual transmission models use in order to split power between the axles, the Levorg uses a multi-plate clutch for the job. Torque vectoring by braking is also part of the drive-juggling mix.


Inside the cabin of the Subaru Levorg

Subaru’s thoroughly uncomplicated interior design language feels like it coagulated around a decade ago and then set like concrete.

Anyone familiar with any Impreza from the period is likely to get comfortable quickly, as much of the architecture and aesthetic seems to have been transplanted virtually wholesale.

The right-hand-biased volume knob should be an ergonomic improvement, but is a rarity in the left-hand drive world

The improvements, according to Subaru, are in the quality of the trim materials, a greater proportion of which are now soft-touch furnishings.

That’s true, but the addition of some piano black finish on the fascia and blue stitching on a new-look flat-bottomed steering wheel doesn’t dramatically lift the Levorg’s cabin beyond Subaru’s usual humdrum standard – and it isn’t going to be enough to tempt customers out of Germany’s premium-brand cars.

The cabin’s virtues are familiar, though. There’s an undeniable robustness built into the rudimentary feel, and like those of most of its stablemates, the Levorg’s fittings exude a sense of indeterminate toughness. Likewise, the fascia’s layout is sensible and largely ergonomically sound, helped no end in the modernisation stakes by the introduction of Subaru’s latest 7.0in infotainment touchscreen.

Spaciousness could also be listed among the Levorg’s assets. As its underpinnings suggest, it is not a conspicuously large car, yet the road test tape measure suggests you get more rear leg room here than you would in a well-proportioned family hatch such as the Audi A3 Sportback.

The head room under the boxy awning is unsurprisingly decent, too, meaning that adults will fit in the back with room to spare.

The load bay is appropriately large, with the 522 litres of space on offer with the rear seats up being slightly more than you’d get from a Ford Mondeo estate.

The claimed 1446-litre capacity with the rear seats down is inevitably less than that of the Ford Mondeo, but with a load bay length of nearly 1.9m, Subaru’s assertion of ‘high practicality from a compact footprint’ is no empty claim.

Subaru’s previous lack of a competitive infotainment system was well resolved with the current Subaru Outback, and the Levorg shares its ritzy-looking 7.0in touchscreen with its bigger sibling.

A standard item in UK cars, the display suffers a little from being overly reflective, but its responsiveness and clarity are both decent.

And while there isn’t much flourish to the software, its functions — including sat-nav — all passed the usability test (despite falling into the trap of presenting DAB stations in ensembles rather than a real-time list of what’s available). Navigation mapping detail is good, while directions are clearly displayed and easy to follow.

The stereo is a six-speaker set-up of serviceable quality, and there’s extra functionality to be gained from connection to a smartphone if you download the apps to pair up with Subaru’s Starlink system.

As for the standard equipment, with only one trim level, the Levorg’s list is fairly extensive with dual-zone climate control, cruise control, rear-view camera, four USB ports, sat nav, LED headlights, leather upholstery, and electrically adjustable and heated front sports seats the key highlights.


The 1.6-litre turbo engine in the Subaru Levorg

For those of us used to Subarus of old, the Levorg is a curious proposition.

We’re more familiar with its turbocharged engines producing horsepower numbers beginning with a ‘2’ and being mated to manual transmissions or automatics of the conventional variety.

Moving the SI-Drive mode buttons from the transmission tunnel to the steering wheel is a good move

But here we are: downsizing comes no more obvious than this, with a 1.6-litre turbo four-pot engine that’s coupled to a continuously variable transmission.

At least it’s still a horizontally opposed four-cylinder engine, although aurally there’s little indication of that – and certainly not in recognised Forester/Impreza fashion.

Instead, it’s just a smooth unit that spins away quietly and, to its credit, effectively. The Levorg’s 0-60mph performance of 8.4sec would be competitive enough – were there an obvious competitor.

The last car of similar size and power we drove – a Ford Focus wagon with a 148bhp 1.5-litre engine – couldn’t be coaxed to 60mph in any less than 10.0sec, even with a manual gearbox.

Certainly, the fact that the Levorg offers a broad spread of torque – and from only 1800rpm – can make the engine feel like a larger and more sprightly unit than its size suggests.

Frequently a small engine with a boosted output can feel a bit laggy as its turbocharger takes a moment to spin into life, but throwing the CVT into the mix masks this characteristic completely.

Throttle response is thus hardly sharp, but we suspect it wouldn’t matter a great deal how quickly the engine picked up, given what it’s mated to.

If you’re just mooching around, the transmission resides in its continuously variable mode, during which it’s as smooth and unobtrusive as any transmission in Christendom.

But there are also six preset ratios that allow it to do a passable impression of a conventional automatic, to give a more naturally accelerative feel than when keeping the revs at the disheartening constant drone of peak power.

There are two modes. If you’re in ‘i’, you’ll need to push past 35 percent accelerator travel in order to get the transmission to behave like a normal auto, while in ‘s’ you only have to push past 30 percent throttle, not that any of our testers could discern much difference.

Or, by assuming control with the steering wheel paddles in either mode, you can ask it to lock up into a set ratio – which it does fairly well, except when slurring ratio changes initially.


The Subaru Levorg's ride can be brittle at times...

When we say the Levorg feels mostly like a Subaru, we’re acknowledging long-established Subaru handling traits as both a compliment and a criticism.

Let’s get the criticism out of the way first, because it’s no big deal: on some poor surfaces, the ride is a little edgy – less isolated and noisier than that of, say, a Skoda Superb. That’s it.

Ride cab be brittle at times, but the Subaru Levorg feels grippy and agile

And there are many advantages to the way the Subaru-ish Levorg is set up, with its permanent four-wheel drive system making for good traction, while even at 1590kg it has a strong sense of agility. There’s plenty of grip, too, from what are modest-sized 225/45 tyres on 18in wheels.

Those who live out in the country and like their Subarus to feel like Subarus, in other words, will mostly like what they find: a secure, stable-handling and moderately able estate.

Where the Levorg departs from the Subaru norm, though, it becomes a less convincing proposition. Owners familiar with the way that Legacys, Foresters and Imprezas steer will find nothing in the Levorg’s electric power steering to remind them of the engaging rim of their older car.

At 2.8 turns from lock to lock, the Levorg’s rack is brisk enough and well weighted, but there’s little indication of what the front wheels are up to.

And it’s most likely that they’ll be pushing onwards, because the drivetrain is set as standard to send 60 percent of drive to the front axle. There is the ability to shuffle that around a little, but only ever up to 50% to each axle, so the Levorg remains a car mostly dominated by its front end.

It occasionally threatened to become slightly more playful on our wet handling circuit, but an ESP system whose traction but not stability control switches out doesn’t let more than a hint of the chassis’ adjustability shine through.

The Levorg brakes well, with solid feel from its centrally located left pedal and good retardation in both the wet and the dry. And when Subaru talks of limited roll rate, it isn’t kidding.

The Levorg retains strong control of its body movements compared with traditional family cars, as befits a vehicle with an Impreza WRX-derived front end, but there’s little more excitement than that to be had — which, if you had even a cooking variant of the old Legacy, is a bit of a shame.

Still, turn-in is brisk and willing and cornering is stable. You won’t trouble the stability control a great deal in dry, but it gets more of a workout in the wet.


The Subaru Levorg GT 1.6i DIT Lineartronic

The Levorg line-up could hardly be easier to understand. Only one model is available: the GT, although overseas markets will have access to Subaru’s 292bhp 2.0-litre variant.

It’s therefore adequately equipped (keyless entry and start, heated leather front seats, sat-nav, 18in alloys and automatic wipers are all standard) but hardly modestly priced.

Novelty appeal should keep values high for a while, but after that the performance will be less strong

A recent price increase has also put the Levorg at the level where, for £1780 less than its on-the-road price, Ford would sell you a top-spec Ford Focus ST3 Estate – a car that manages to produce vastly more power (247bhp) than the Subaru while simultaneously emitting 5g/km less CO2.

Predictably, then, the four-wheel-drive Levorg doesn’t compare any more favourably with Ford’s equivalent engine. The automatic version of its 148bhp 1.5-litre Ecoboost unit in the regular Ford Focus Estate (costing £27,735 for a top-spec Titanium X model) is almost as quick while capable of a claimed 50.4mpg combined – in some contrast to the 1.6-litre boxer’s official 39.8mpg.

True MPG testing reduced the Levorg’s figure to 34.1mpg, meaning running costs are hardly exemplary.

The car’s predicted resistance to stone-like depreciation will come as a welcome surprise to prospective buyers, but its proximity to the used values of its major rivals three years out is presumably based on the assumption that the Levorg is going to remain a little-seen option in the UK. 

What car new buying red 306


The 3 star Subaru Levorg
There was a time when you knew what you were getting with Subarus: something wilfully out of the ordinary, with engaging dynamics to be enjoyed by the purist.

The Levorg retains some of that appeal. It’s keener than the average family estate to drive and has the security of four-wheel drive.

The interior feels like a Subaru’s always did, with a welcome nod to modernity. And it’s more spacious inside than cars of a similar size outside.

Curiously un-Subaru-like Levorg fails to rekindle much warm feeling

That, though, is about the limit of its appeal. Dynamically, it’s not sufficiently far from an average estate car to win over those who’ll otherwise find a Scout variant of a Skoda Octavia acceptable, and although its 1.6-litre engine produces creditable performance, it’s mated to a transmission that saps its enthusiasm and economy.

So, in the end, the Levorg doesn’t feel quite as wilfully different as a Subaru traditionally would, nor do its more conventional aspects outdo those of the cars it’s up against. So unfortunately, the new Subaru Legacy-successor falls behind the Ford Focus ST-3 Estate, BMW 3 Series Touring, Seat Leon Cupra Estate, the Skoda VRS 230 Estate and the Audi A3 Sportback e-tron.

To close the gap to this formidable set, the next facelifted Levorg, which is still some way off, will need have reduced running costs, a manual gearbox option and provide an entry-level trim.

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Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Subaru Levorg First drives