Home » From The Mid-Atlantic To The Middle Of Nowhere: 2003 Subaru Legacy vs 1998 Subaru Legacy

From The Mid-Atlantic To The Middle Of Nowhere: 2003 Subaru Legacy vs 1998 Subaru Legacy

Sbsd 10 31 2023
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Welcome back! Continuing with our search for cars at opposite ends of the same interstate, today we’re looking at Interstate 70, which stretches from a park-and-ride lot in Baltimore, Maryland to a desolate and lonely junction with Interstate 15 in western Utah. I’ve found two different bodystyles of the same car, a few years apart, for the same price. They also appear to have the exact same wheels, coincidentally.

But first, let’s check on in the results of our I-5 bookends. I expected the Roadmaster to win, but the Toyota to make a good showing, and it looks like I was right.

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Everybody seems to love those big GM whales. You can’t say they’re exactly engaging to drive, but if you have a lot of road to eat up in supreme comfort, there’s really nothing better. Some cars are perfect reflections of the places that made them, and the Buick Roadmaster is the quintessential American cruiser.

Interstate 70 is one of those highways I’ve traveled on almost all of, but never in one fell swoop. The parts that stand out in my memory are the snarls of traffic around Pittsburgh and Indianapolis, the long straight slog across western Kansas, the Eisenhower Tunnel through the Rocky Mountains, which crosses the Continental Divide (and passes through some of the upper levels of Moria, too, I believe), and the sign as you’re leaving Green River, Utah that says “Next Services 115 Miles.” They’re not kidding. It’s absolutely beautiful countryside, but if you run out of gas or overheat or something, you’re going to be admiring that countryside for a good long while.

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With that in mind, I searched for cars in the Grand Junction, Colorado area rather than pushing the search westward. As luck would have it, I found a car that was a near-perfect mirror of a car for sale in Baltimore, and for the same price. It was meant to be.

One last quick admission before I show you the cars: I don’t like either of them. I’m not a Subaru fan in general, though I think a lot of that has to do with the typical owners and drivers. Subaru ownership is too often a lifestyle, not a consumer choice, and that lifestyle too often includes driving too fast for conditions “because I have all-wheel-drive” and glossing over obvious major design flaws. But I try to be fair, and show as many different cars as I can, so here are two Subaru Legacies for your consideration.

2003 Subaru Legacy L sedan – $1,500

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Engine/drivetrain: 2.5 liter overhead cam flat 4, four-speed automatic, AWD

Location: Ellicott City, MD

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Odometer reading: 159,000 miles

Runs/drives? Yep

I’ll be honest: it wasn’t until I saw the photos of these two cars side-by-side that I realized they were of different generations. The styling of Subaru’s Legacy model changed so subtly from generation to generation that it’s hard to tell them apart. This isn’t uncommon among Japanese makes; several generations of Toyota Corolla are indistinguishable without a spotter’s guide as well. This is apparently the third-generation Legacy, in its lowest L trim level. It still has the basic power goodies, and pretty nice interior appointments, it looks like; this is around the time stuff like that jumped from the “Optional” to the “Standard” list of equipment in all but the most basic economy cars.

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All-wheel-drive has been part of the standard Subaru formula since the mid-1990s, of course; it’s the feature on which it has built its brand. Subaru has also stuck steadfastly to the horizontally-opposed engine layout it has used since the early ’70s. This era was still plagued by head gasket leaks, I believe, but those have become more or less a Subaru maintenance item at this point. No mention is made of whether or not this car’s head gaskets have been changed; it’s a question worth asking.

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As nice as it looks inside, there are some mildly troubling signs of rust outside. The rear wheel wells appear to be rusting through from within, and I imagine you would find more signs of rust under the plastic cladding along the rocker panels. The drawback of a car that’s good in the snow is that it gets exposed to a lot of road salt, and that takes its toll.

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I kinda dig that it’s a sedan, though. We don’t see many three-box Legacies in my neck of the woods. Every fifth car around here is a Subaru wagon of some description, but the sedans are rare.

1998 Subaru Legacy GT wagon – $1,500

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Engine/drivetrain: 2.5 liter dual overhead cam flat 4, four-speed automatic, AWD

Location: Grand Junction, CO

Odometer reading: 240,000 miles

Runs/drives? Indeed

Two-thirds of the way across the country, we find this green machine: one generation older, and a couple of rungs up the trim ladder. This one even I have to admit is kind of cool. I never much cared for the Outback variant, but the Legacy GT is more my style. It’s an automatic, but honestly, that’s all right with me too. The manual Subarus I’ve driven kind of annoyed me, with sloppy gearshifts and clutches that bite practically right off the floor. I’d just as soon have the slushbox in one of these.

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This one has more miles on it than the sedan – over 80,000 more – but it seems to have been kept up well. It has a cheap cover on the driver’s seat, which I presume means it’s worn out underneath, but the rest of the inside looks all right. And I like this dashboard better than the later model. It’s more honest, less uppity, though I could still do without the fake wood.

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I don’t see any obvious signs of rust on this one, at least; Colorado doesn’t use road salt (which can make things exciting at times) so cars don’t disintegrate like they do in, say, Michigan. It is missing some clearcoat, but that’s not uncommon on ’90s cars anywhere. It also has a few dents and scrapes, but it’s fifteen hundred bucks.

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240,000 miles is a lot for any car, but this one seems to wear them well. I’m still not sure how much I trust Subaru drivetrains, but maybe the high mileage works in a new owner’s favor in this case. Anything that could have happened to it probably already has, and has been repaired. The seller does note a small leak from the water pump that probably should be addressed, but other than that, it seems like a good runabout.

All-wheel-drive in itself has never struck me as a reason to buy a car, but I suppose there is some merit to the idea that it’s better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it. Especially when it comes to a cheap beater that would likely only be used in bad weather anyway. They’re available in two flavors: a newer sedan, with fewer miles but rust issues, or an older wagon, that’s cooler, but has a lot more miles. Which one will it be?

(Image credits: Craigslist sellers)

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Geoffrey Reuther
Geoffrey Reuther
7 months ago

“Head gasket era Subarus” are not created equal. It depends on what version of the EJ25 is under the hood.

Hence, despite my love of wagons, I must choose the Sedan with the EJ251 over the wagon with the EJ25D.

The failure modes are different, as is the post-repair prognosis. The EJ251, if fixed with an MLS gasket, will run almost as reliably as an EJ22. The EJ25D won’t; it will continue to eat gaskets, just at a slower rate.

Side note spurred by the “wearing the same wheels for some reason” comment:

Both of these cars, at the least, have wheels from another Subaru installed. That style was used on the 3rd gen Legacy GT. It’s an attractive set, and not unusual as an upgrade for 2nd gen Legacies or base 3rd gens.

But that Sedan also has some interior parts most likely sourced from the junkyard. Namely the woodgrain trim. You can see the car doesn’t have either heated seats or the upgraded (tweeter) speaker package. It’s extremely unlikely the car came like this from the factory, but grabbing the trim out of an Outback or Limited would be super easy. Just takes a philips and flathead screwdriver.

El Neileo
El Neileo
7 months ago

Geoffrey, this was the 2003 LSE (special edition) that we built with the mid model refresh. The front bumper, fog lights and grill were slightly modified. This LSE model came with the woodgrain trim but without leather, fog lights and the larger GT style alloy wheels and the wheels installed on the actual GT were changed for 2003 and 2004.

Ford Friday
Ford Friday
7 months ago

I’ve been preaching the good word of the 3rd generation legacy (the one that’s a sedan) for a long time. I have a 2004 sedan and it’s great (although it’s is a manual). I’m not going to “defend a design flaw” but I think the headgasket thing is a bit overblown with newer Subarus (2000+) that have the EJ251 engine. It is a known problem with work arounds and if you treat it right you’ll still get 150,000-200,000+ miles out of a set, and they’re somewhat cheap and easy to replace these days if you find the right mechanic (or do it yourself). There are other cars that everybody loves with worse design issues than that. I admit that older Subarus with the EJ25D (like this wagon and all of the 90’s Outbacks) do have really bad headgasket issues, so I understand why the reputation carried over.

Last edited 7 months ago by Ford Friday
El Neileo
El Neileo
7 months ago
Reply to  Ford Friday

We also changed the head gaskets to the more reliable “crush style” gaskets and changed the way the head bolts were ran down with the nutrunner in 2002 – 2003 ish.. I built the engines and installed the heads and I remember us doing that as a running change to help combat head gasket leakage. Anyone that does a head gasket job on one of these engines should get the better gasket because they discontinued the weak one.

Ariel E Jones
Ariel E Jones
7 months ago

I knew, before I got there, that this crew was going to pick the wagon. Me included.

Lhn91
Lhn91
7 months ago

I, unlike the author, LOVE the fake wood grain (I realize I’m a bit odd!) but I also HATE rust, and appreciate practicality. I’m also assuming that a Subaru with that many miles has been maintained. So the wagon for me, although I’d love to add the extra woodgrain from the sedan.

Dogisbadob
Dogisbadob
7 months ago

The wagon has the (DOHC) EJ25D, possibly the worst Japanese engine of all time. The head gasket leaks internally.

The sedan has the SOHC EJ251, which is no Toyota itself, but it’s less shitty than the 25D of the wagon. At least the head gasket leaks externally rather than internally.

I voted for the external head gasket leak over the internal.

Also, head gasket sealer like Bars Leaks HG-1 has finally made older Subarus worth buying again.

Lightning
Lightning
7 months ago

I’d pick the wagon because wagon. The Legacys of these two generations are my car life, since I own a wagon from each generation. AWD, wagon, and manual transmission are it for me. The 4EAT auto in these have a good reputation though – I’d drive them. I love the styling of wagons in the first four generations of Legacys. Simple lines do it for me in car styling. I love the snowflake wheels on both of these cars too – I have them on my 2003.

Am I a typical owner of an older Subaru? Yes! I’ve lived in a snowy place for 25 years, I am an outdoorsy person – mountain/trail runner, cross country skier (on ’90s-era cross country skis), and mountain bike (on my similarly vintage ’90s mountain bike). Maybe it’s a regional thing, because unlike what you have observed, I don’t see old Subarus in ditches on the first icy day of the winter season here in Alaska. It’s always SUVs and pickups that are going too fast for the conditions and ending up in ditches. And I’ve probably seen a dozen cars in ditches in a single drive before. If the old Subarus were doing that, they wouldn’t have survived 20-25 years. I’m also a car nut who does a lot of his own repair work, which a lot of the owners of old Subarus (as opposed to owners of more modern Subarus) seem to be. Unlike many, I prefer the non-Outback versions because I don’t need the clearance because I stay on roads (never gotten stuck due to snow depth), need the AWD because hills require both AWD and snow tires, and don’t like the Outback styling cues (cladding, two tone, uglier wheels).

I have to defend the manual transmissions in Subarus. The ones in my Legacys are really fun. I lent my 1996 to my brother once when he was here in Alaska on holiday (we both learned stick on the excellent shifting family Acura Integra in the ’80s, and he also owned BMWs and a Supra with sticks). Without asking him, he remarked on the surprisingly great shifting when he came back. And that’s without having a tach in my base version. I play around, double-clutch downshifting to be as smooth as possible just driving around town because it’s so easy and fun.

The engine in the 2003 (EJ251) is excellent once the head gaskets have been replaced (preferably with MLS), and that’s generally a permanent fix as someone mentioned earlier. It’s more likely than not to have been fixed already at this age and mileage. When it fails, it’s in a benign way (external oil leaks) that can be nursed along for tens of thousands of miles though. There’s a EJ251 Legacy Outback wagon with over a million km out that spent most of it’s life towing caravans around Europe. It even has one of the original head gaskets still on it. See various youtube videos and current owner’s website: SubGlobe Legacy – The Story of my Legacy’s

The engine in the 1998 (EJ25D) has a worse reputation, producing milkshake when it fails. But if it’s fixed and running well, like this wagon’s supposedly is, nothing wrong with running with it.

I wouldn’t say old Subarus have many design flaws. Just one really, the composite head gaskets in EJ25s (which Subaru had a fix for, but didn’t use for a long time – the MLS head gaskets in the turbo EJs didn’t fail). The head gasket issues of some of the EJs were a $2K fix to go another 100K+ miles, totally worth it compared multiple issues that can total out a car in say a AWD BMW or VW of similar age. Rust can possibly be called a design flaw, but just don’t buy a rusty one, and rust-treat it like DT did with his winter beater Valient and his brother’s Mustang. My 2003 has zero rust.

Last edited 7 months ago by Lightning
OrigamiSensei
OrigamiSensei
7 months ago

Went with the longroof for low price, lack of rust and cooler form factor. But I’m not excited about it.

The western terminus of I-70 is a bit freaky. It truly is in the middle of nowhere; I would have expected at least a truck stop but there’s absolutely nothing. Capitol Reef National Park is cool, though, and you drive by/through it on the way to Grand Junction.

JDE
JDE
7 months ago

The Sedan is probably the better bet, but that rust around the wheels and inside the door jambs is concerning to say the least. Look carefully at the pinch welds and underbody structure.

Freelivin2713
Freelivin2713
7 months ago

I’ll take the Legacy!

Luxobarge
Luxobarge
7 months ago

Subaru ownership is too often a lifestyle, not a consumer choice

Right, unlike owning a lifted Ford F-150, a BMW, a Land Rover, a Land Cruiser, a Jeep, any kind of sports car, or any car other than a Honda Civic or a minivan, apparently.

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
7 months ago
Reply to  Luxobarge

So you are telling us you drive a Suburu and proving the stereotype without just coming out and saying it?

Luxobarge
Luxobarge
7 months ago
Reply to  Mr Sarcastic

I mean, obviously.

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