In Summary
  • The Forester and the Outback in particular enjoy special status as bastions of safety, second only to the globally renowned Volvo.
  • 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.

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.
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