By Alex Taylor III
September 10, 2009

Poison for many manufacturers, the 2009 model year has been an elixir for Subaru. It is one of only two brands (the other is Kia) to show a sales increase this year. In an industry that is off 27.9% for the first eight months, Subaru is up 11.2% and is closing in on Mazda for 11th place in overall U.S. market sales.

Subaru manages all this with just three car lines and one truck (Mazda currently has a total of eight) and in this case focus pays off. The pre-production Legacy sedan I drove recently (Legacies are the top of the Subaru line) looked and felt like a much more expensive car. Base price is $19,995, but even at $24,995 (plus a $695 delivery charge) for my test car, I believe it is a remarkable value.

Subarus used to have a quirky streak, but the all-new mid-size Legacy looks muscular and mainstream without being boring. Inside I felt unusually well looked-after. The cabin was upscale without being fussy and the level of workmanship surprisingly high. All the touch points and instruments were sturdy and functional and unlikely to lose their appeal after years of use.

That’s an important consideration for Subarus. I have a friend who happily putts around in a Legacy wagon that dates from the first Clinton administration. It isn’t particularly stylish, but it is reliable, and he sees no need to replace it.

Like all Subarus, the Legacy comes with standard all-wheel drive and a new CVT transmission that boosts the EPA mileage rating to 23 mpg city/31 highway. That is so good that it beats the rating for the manual gearbox.

Oddly, Subaru provides paddle shifters for gear changes on the CVT, even though the transmission has infinite variability with no fixed gear ratios. I found myself downshifting on hills in order to maintain speed but I needn’t have bothered.

It is a little difficult for me to identify the factors behind Subaru’s success. It has been successfully upgrading its product line, but all manufacturers try to do that. Unlike Kia, Subaru has been building from a solid position to a stronger one, so there’s nothing dramatic there, either. Nor has there been any standout model or eye-catching ad campaign to create buzz.

So attribute Subaru’s success to the company’s unspectacular but highly competent management team, their U.S. headquarters in a Philadelphia suburb well away from the automotive mainstream — and a buying public that, in difficult economic times, knows where to find a good value.

Think of Subaru’s success in 2009 as a victory for common sense.

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