The moment my 1996 Subaru Legacy wagon rolled over 200,000 miles on the odometer, I was driving at a creeping pace behind a big Chevy pickup. As that pickup fishtailed, slipped and slid through the ice and slush, I remembered all over again why I love this car.
At the time that I bought this car, I needed something that was cheap to buy, cheap to drive, and could get me from A to B reliably. My minivan’s transmission went out, and I was on foot in Wyoming weather with my three young kids. Add to that, my husband had just gotten a temporary job, but it was a 10-mile drive outside of town. I also needed something that could take me on a 150-mile round trip four times every month, without breaking down in the middle of the mountains.
My husband lived in Alaska for 20 years and grew up in Michigan. He’d always known that if you need a tough little car that can get through anything, you need a Subaru. My own pre-conditioning consisted of years of my dad telling me “You should have bought a Subaru” every time I had car troubles. His own 1986 wagon ran for over 400,000 miles without extensive repairs, only retiring after it was run over by heavy equipment. When we saw this car sitting on the used car lot, I’ll admit that it was a pretty easy sell thanks to this reputation.
Space is a huge factor for us, being a family of five humans and two dogs. Remember, this car was bought to replace a minivan – and a fairly roomy, boxy minivan at that. While the dogs don’t get their own seatbelts in the Subaru, it does comfortably fit everyone as long as both canines are in the far back. That said, it is a bit narrow. My kids are currently 1, 3 and 8 years old and have plenty of space. The 8-year-old is just over five feet tall, out of a booster seat, and he’s starting to run out of foot room. I foresee him feeling a little scrunched within a couple of years. That said, my 6’2” husband can sit in the front with plenty of space for both head and feet.
Another big space consideration is that I do craft sales and trade shows, as well as serve as a backup coordinator for Bountiful Baskets. That means that I need space to put a bunch of boxes and displays on the one occasion, and space for about 200 laundry baskets on the other. My dad’s Subaru often carried trapping equipment, an 8-person raft with all the equipment (including an outboard motor and life jackets), and so much more. I’d hoped the 1996 wagon still had the same cargo space, and I wasn’t disappointed. The boxy build and hatchback make it extremely easy and convenient to load and unload, and I can fit everything I need plus some. Fold the back seats forward for more space – yes, we DID just take an old couch to the dump in our Subaru.
As for comfort – yes, the car rides close to the ground. This is a problem for my husband, with his tall build and bad knees. It’s not a problem for me. I’m 5’6”, and this car seems to be made with my size in mind. The seats are a nice firm plush, which has kept me comfortable for up to four hours at a time (I haven’t taken any longer drives yet). Cup holders would have been a huge improvement, though – there aren’t any. You can get some cargo organizers that fit nice, though.
Subarus aren’t built for beauty. Yes, the 1996 wagon is boxy and unattractive with barebones trim. It gets the job done while holding down costs, and expenses did not go into the aesthetics. The stock paint job has stayed intact so there are no rust issues. I personally really like the blocky shape. It doesn’t look good, but it makes maximum use of the inside space. In addition, the shape gives me an excellent field of vision, as opposed to the sleek look of the 1998 Taurus (one of my previous cars) that blocked my view for changing lanes and did not allow me to see up. Since I’m a very utilitarian person, I’d take the practical if a bit unsightly Subaru any day.
I’ll get my own video walk-through eventually, but until then — here’s the one from the car lot. This is the exact reviewed car, though it has a few more dings and dents now than when we bought it. As you can see, despite the heading at the beginning, it had about 187,000 miles on it when we bought it.
We bought the car used, but previous owners and the seller report no major mechanical work before it came to us. Because we bought it from a trusted car dealer in this small town, and the salesperson is a respected friend of the family, we have no reason to doubt that report. It is a bit loud at higher speeds, but that seems to be normal for this model.
Since we got the car, we’ve had few issues. A belt started slipping soon after we bought it, and a quick examination found a tension arm that either wasn’t adjusted properly or had rattled loose. It cost us nothing to fix since we do our own mechanical work, but took about a half an hour to fix. Several minor gaskets (not the head gasket) have started to leak and will need replaced in the spring, also minor if you aren’t paying a mechanic. Finally, the throttle position sensor had to be replaced soon after purchase, costing about $100 for the part. Other than that, there have been no issues in the 200,000 miles this car has been on the road.
Fuel economy is a huge selling point for this vehicle, and we’ve been quite pleased with its performance. We average between 26mpg and 32mpg at every fill-up with a mix of highway, in-town and mountain driving. The lower average comes from winter use since the car sits idling to warm up, sometimes up to 30 minutes in bitterly cold weather. Headlights, spark plugs, oil filters and oil are all pleasantly inexpensive for this car, allowing us to spend less than $100 a year on maintenance. As for insurance – well, the representative all but flat-out said, “What trouble could you possibly get into with a Subaru?”
My son has to be taken up into the mountains on a 10% grade to switch between my house and his bio-dad’s, so being able to go uphill is a must for us. The Subaru Legacy did very poorly the first time I tried to take it up the mountain, barely limping to the top of that highway in the Bighorn Mountains. That’s when we discovered the bad throttle position sensor. After switching the part, we’ve had no issues whatsoever with this car. It maintains speed beautifully uphill. Acceleration is slow, especially uphill, but that’s to be expected of an economical car with a small engine.
We live in Wyoming with alley parking (municipal plows don’t touch alleys), so automatically we need something that can drive on anything from black ice to foot-deep snowdrifts. That’s specifically why we bought a Subaru. With all-wheel drive and nice weight over the axles, I can almost forget there are adverse conditions out there. Just last week, I brought the car home on black ice in 50mph winds. Other cars almost went off the road with every gust, and one right in front of me did. My little Subaru didn’t even slip once.
If you need a versatile, utilitarian vehicle that’s cheap to run, then this car presents an excellent choice. You won’t find extra frills and a luxury appearance, but you will find a solid vehicle that gets the job done. My little “Energizer roller skate” has hit a deer, survived several nasty hailstorms and charged through some nasty snowstorms. It’s not pretty, but nothing stopped it.
Some descriptions call the 1996 Subaru Legacy Wagon “Subaru’s people hauler.” It is that. You get cargo space, and can fit up to five people. Yes, the people in the back have to be average adult size or smaller, but they’ll fit.
In short, this is a cheap, reliable car with decent gas mileage. It’s a practical family vehicle or great for a student. If you want a showpiece, look elsewhere.