Subaru Legacy versus VW Golf and Mazda Axela

Wednesday May 15 2019

Subaru

The Subaru's biggest problem is the steering. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

BARAZA JM
By BARAZA JM
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Hi Baraza,

I am an avid reader of your column, and I must say it is very insightful. I often refer to your articles any time I have a chat with my peers or my mechanic on cars matters. I have had experience with the Toyota Ractis and Axio for business and generally, the experience is okay in terms of consumption, maintenance, spare parts availability, besides fetching some good amount of money upon resale. I am currently sourcing for a vehicle for personal use, mostly to be used around town with occasional trips out of town. I am torn between the VW Golf FSI, Madza Axela (Sedan) and the Subaru Legacy B4. I am looking for space, safety (as I am planning to start a family) performance, stability, favourable fuel consumption, ease of maintenance in terms of service costs and spare parts availability. Resale value should be a factor because as the family grows, there will be need for a bigger car, although that is a bridge I shall cross when I reach there.

I seek your advice on this.

GK

Hello GK,

Yes, you should cross the resale bridge when you get to it, though as things stand, the Mazda may be your best bet as far as that list is concerned.

Subaru has a tarnished reputation through guilt by association — a big mistake on the part of the judgmental masses who do not know just how good a car they are deriding is; while the VW is clearly and unapologetically German which means "expensive to buy and run" in Queen's English — again, an error-prone view that sees people miss out on what near-perfect automotive engineering looks and feels like. I like them both and I have owned two out of the three brands in contention.

With that out of the way, shall we find out how the Subaru wins this comparison because it does.

Space

Subaru is bigger than the Axela, which in turn is marginally bigger than the Golf, maybe.

In actual fact, the Subaru is one rank higher than the other two in the confusing and sometimes blatantly disregarded classification system that manufacturers use to outdo each other in terms of specifications.

The Legacy's Mazda rival is the 6, which is sometimes called the Atenza depending on the market. The Axela, known as the 3, is smaller.

The Legacy's Wolfsburg nemesis is the Passat, from which the Golf ranks lower in size and class. The Golf saloon is the Jetta, also smaller than the Passat. I don't need to quote any figures; this is a clear Subaru win.

Safety and stability

I have combined these two because they are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

Safety first: all three cars score "Good" in the usual moderate overlap front, side, roof strength and head restraints/seat crash test parameters, which is not really saying much, so let me explain how and why the Subaru edges ahead.

The Legacy answered a bonus question called the "Small Overlap Front Crash Test, Passenger Side" and scored an "acceptable" mark. The other two never bothered. Strike one.

The Legacy has a front crash prevention and/or mitigation system, which is described as "superior" by the relevant authorities*, though this is an optional equipment. The other two have no idea what we are talking about. Strike two.

The Legacy comes with AWD as standard, what is described as "variable assist 4WD" (potato-tomato) which as I explained in another article, is ideal for directional stability and not off-roading.

The Axela and the Golf are typically understeer-prone FWD platforms with AWD as a frequently overlooked option on the forecourt.

When you buy any of these two, you will most like get a front-drive hatchback. AWD is very uncommon unless in higher performing specs like the Speed3 and the R respectively. Strike three.

Stability: Of the three cars, the Subaru wins. It is longer and wider than the Mazda and the ‘People's’ car, and therefore has a bigger footprint which lowers the c-of-g for a given vehicle height.

I know this because part of acquiring my degree in Physics involved calculating this kind of stuff.

To this, add the much-vaunted symmetrical AWD which provides near perfect balance in the drivetrain.

To this again add the engine: a boxer, also called a flat engine, and with a good reason. It resides lower in the bonnet, further dropping the c-of-g, and it is mounted longitudinally and in line with the gearbox, clutches and diffs — front, middle, rear — to create the aforementioned symmetry in the drivetrain and optimise weight distribution.

The Hiroshima-born God-of-Light and the Son-of-a-Kübelwagen have transverse-mounted in-line engines, usually with the gearbox on one side.

This creates unequal length driveshafts, which are the reason why torque-steer exists. And the in-line engines stand tall, which may be an endearing quality when looking for a mate or a professional wrestler but not for engine placement as far as handling and balance are concerned.

Crash test

The absence of a rear diff and/or a centre-mounted gearbox means weight bias is towards the front. [*The relevant authority in question is the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). It specialises in crash test programmes and safety ratings for each and every single vehicle that hits the market, and are strict and innovative when it comes to deciding how safe a vehicle is. Part of the curriculum in the road safety school I attended in Baltimore last year involved a school trip to Arlington, Virginia, where we visited the IIHS — a real eye-opener of a school trip if there ever was one -and some things stood out:

  • Some of these crash tests have very surprising results. The old Volkswagen Tiguan came away from the rollover crash test literally unscathed — nary a scratch, let alone a kink in the bodywork. This had never happened before, or since. The Toyota Prius and BMW 3 Series have unacceptable headlights compared to less uptight and/or lower premium vehicles. Last but not least, Subaru seems to be a favourite as a Top Safety Pick year in year out.
  • The Forester and the Outback in particular enjoy special status as bastions of safety, second only to the globally renowned Volvo.
  • Vehicle safety is the new chrome. A rating can make or break a car's sales numbers even more than standard specifications and price.
  • Africa in general and Kenya in particular needs an NCAP (New Car Assessment Programme). We could rely on others or we could create our own; same difference, really, but we don't have an existing one as we speak. That is why literal deathtraps with zero safety features and no crash testing whatsoever such as the Mobius can still enjoy sales alongside impenetrable and highly buffered bank vaults such as the Mercedes-Benz E Klasse, guardrails notwithstanding.

The new Suzuki Jimny, which comes with automatic emergency braking, got panned by critics for scoring a three out of five.

In light of that, the Mobius would be banned outright and the creator probably censured for trying to sell a dangerous item to the public in this year of our Lord 2019 when safety and Vision Zero are key priorities in motor vehicle manufacture.]

Fuel economy

This will go any way, but I daresay the Golf probably wins here by a narrow margin over the Mazda, if at all.

The FSI tech involves finely metered high pressure direct injection, which means fuel consumption can be micromanaged to a very high degree.

Mazda has SkyActiv, which also involves direct injection but has a lot more sorcery and enchantment in the recipe (I may discuss this in further detail in a future write-up), but this has only just started trickling down to us so it is not so common.

The Legacy is not to be left behind in this direct injection party. Available for the Legacy are the FA and FB engines with reimagined bores and strokes, and reduced weight to result in a 28 per cent reduction in frictional losses between pistons, con-rods and whatever other gubbins go into the engine internals.

So, these cars pack largely similar tech as far as engine technology and optimised efficiency go; meaning they have to be separated on other grounds and this is where the Legacy starts to suffer.

It is the biggest and it is the heaviest, and that is not good. The AWD drivetrain may provide balance but it also adds weight and creates rolling resistance in the tyres which again hurts economy.

I'll tell you something, though: this is all theoretical. Fuel economy comes down to the deftness of one's right foot, their situational awareness and how much restraint one shows from using the brake pedal.

Discipline

I'll use myself as an example: I have a BH5 Subaru Legacy GT-B E Tune II, an 18-year old wagon on life support with a heart transplant and an iron lung, and with a big bore exit at the smelly end of its alimentary canal.

I average 12 to 13km/l on normal driving, and this is keeping in mind that probably a quarter of that fuel is wasted between needless rev matching and the creation of noise from its rectum which causes more conservative members of society to give me and my dark horse the stink-eye.

At a stretch, I can leave the city, head to the village and drive back, a round trip slightly exceeding 800 kilometres, on a single tank.

That is not a typo, I kid you not: that is how good I am at driving, if I may say so. Many have witnessed this skill in disbelief as the quick and admittedly noisy vehicle simply teetotals its way into their hearts and minds.

The result is always the same: impressed and begrudging respect. Keep in mind this is 20-year old technology at work aided by raw talent.

The summary is the Legacy you ask about may have all factors playing against it on paper, but with the right driver behind the wheel, could potentially beat the other two in fuel economy.

The trick lies in three things, in decreasing order of pertinence: driver skill, a manual transmission and a turbo (or two).

Maintenance and spares

Subaru wins again. I don't need to "attack" Volkswagen any more with its Check Engine curriculum vitae, papier-mâché DSG box and small, smoky turbos, so the closest itch for the ‘Subie’ is the Mazda.

Each of the Japanese brands has its idiosyncrasy in terms of maintenance and spares.

Subaru spares are commonplace and sometimes modular/interchangeable, but then again bigger engines mean more gallons of oil and bigger parts such as filters and brakes and whatnot during servicing. The upside again is they tend to last forever.

Mazdas are not really problematic from experience, but anecdotal evidence and reader feedback in this column suggests that parts may not be ubiquitous, so if you get one, you'd best adopt your most invasive helicopter parent persona or you'll spend a large part of your life asking for directions towards someone, anyone who stocks Mazda parts looking for a tiny little sensor that you'd wish the car could do without.

And now, the Subaru's biggest problem: the steering. The tiller in the ‘Subie’ is electrically assisted rather than dependent on hydraulics as has been the case since Leonardo da Vinci designed the first PAS.

Electrical assistance has its own inherent downsides, but the one that stands out in the Subaru is failure.

The electric steering will fail at one point or the other. And the replacement costs well north of Sh100,000 with most prices being in the Sh120,000 — Sh130,000 range. It is a matter of when, not if.

This same problem plagues the Forester SH model and has been a sticking point with this writer, which may explain why he is not in a hurry to upgrade El Turbo's office to something newer.

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