In the face of rocketing insurance claims, local authorities across the land have re-defined what constitutes a pot-hole. What you and I would consider to be a wheel-buckling crater is now simply a surface feature. Before a man with a tin of spray-paint will even consider marking out a pond in the middle of the A31, it must be allowed to grow large enough to accommodate several outdoors-types equipped with head-torches and a stripy rope.

In any other culture, you could be forgiven for contemplating buying a vehicle designed to cope with the Third World-nature of our transport infrastructure. But in these times of knee-jerk environmentalism, SUVs have been all but outlawed.

Luckily, there is still one option left, and it comes from the maker of heavy plant machinery.

The Subaru Legacy first appeared around the same time granite was invented and, while others have tried to replicate the concept (think Audi Allroad, Skoda Octavia Scout, Volvo V70 AWD, etc) the Legacy has always been the best.

It’s never been a big seller, though, and that’s largely down to a reliance on large, thirsty petrol engines. Now that the Government is beginning to tax us for breathing, Subaru needed to deploy Europe’s secret weapon – diesel.

Of course, being Subaru, the company opted for a more unconventional approach when designing their own diesel engine. Using their 40 year experience of horizontally-opposed petrol engines, Subaru designed the World’s first ‘Boxer’ diesel.

The boxer name comes from the way the pistons punch outwards like a boxer’s fists. Subaru engineers say this format allows them to create a compact design with a low centre of gravity to help road-holding, and greater refinement thanks to the self-balancing nature of the piston’s opposing forces.

The new engine is a little clattery when fired up from cold, and the characteristic shut-down wobble is still evident, too, but the cabin is well insulated against noise and vibration. We would have liked what noise there is to have more of the off-beat character we’re used to from Subaru’s flat-four designs, though.

Performance is more than adequate, however, with a quoted 150 PS (147 bhp) at 3,600 rpm, but with a more interesting 258 lb/ft of torque at a useful 1,800 rpm. The official figures for the Sports Tourer indicate a top speed of 126 mph and an 8.5 second dash to 60 mph, thanks mainly to the tall gearing allowing 60 mph in second gear. The Outback is only marginally behind with 124 mph and 8.8 seconds.

Out on the road, there’s the typical diesel-esque lag below 2,000 rpm, followed by a pleasing surge of acceleration. Subaru claim they’ve endowed the boxer diesel with an uncharacteristically linear power delivery – they’re right to a point. Once past that initial lethargy, acceleration continues unabated almost until the 4,700 rpm redline. Once there, the rev limiter calmly introduces itself with a progressive reduction in power, rather than an abrupt curtailment of engine festivities.

Riding the wave of torque up through the gears feels the natural way to get the best from the engine. It’s a shame the gearbox is equipped with only five speeds; although what ratios there are have been intelligently selected, each is still quite tall. Indeed, for some slow corners, you’ll need to change down into first to avoid falling out of the power band. With a six speed ‘box, the ratios could have been shortened and spaced closer together, without sacrificing cruising refinement.

There’s also no automatic option, presumably because the self-shifting transmissions from the petrol models can’t handle the diesel’s torque.

Still, there’s a chunky, reassuring gearshift action to be enjoyed, and an almost complete absence of drive-line shunt, even in heavy, first-gear traffic.

The open road is where the differences between the Sports Tourer and Outback models show themselves.

The Outback shrugs off pot-holes and other imperfections, almost as if they weren’t there. Even huge, water-filled caverns fail to upset the ambiance inside the car, with the suspension quietly going about its business of smoothing out even the most neglected of road surfaces.

The Tourer, however, has a tighter, sportier set-up that allows the vagaries of our road network to make their presence felt just that little bit more. However, it’s a testament to Subaru’s ability to screw a car together properly that, no matter what you drive over, not one squeak or rattle will be heard.

Of course, the Outback’s longer-travel suspension does mean there’s more body-roll on offer. It’s kept well in check, though, and never descends into the kind of uncomfortable lurching we might expect from an SUV.

Both models corner well under power, with the limit of adhesion marked by a graceful four-wheel drift rather than an arm-twirling frenzy culminating in a bonnet/hedge interface. Cornering at speed while off the power will provoke more understeer, however.

While the steering in neither model could realistically be described as overly communicative, it’s still direct enough to allow accurate and confident placing of the car on your chosen line, with the Tourer having a slight edge over the Outback.

On the motorway, there’s little wind noise to give away your speed, and the tall gearing means the engine is left to lollop along within its natural comfort zone of 2-3,000 rpm. Overtaking in fifth gear is perfectly achievable, if a little relaxed.

Somewhat surprisingly considering the diesel model’s late arrival to the range, the overall feeling is very cohesive. The Boxer diesel’s power delivery somehow suits the suspension set-up and steering. Although a six-speed gearbox would add a little extra urgency to the mix that we think most people would appreciate, the Legacy is a competent long-distance cruiser that’s happy to pick up its skirt and fling itself through a series of bends. And, if those bends are covered in craters, mud, and soaked by a recent downpour, the Legacy will inspire confidence to a degree other cars can only dream of.

That confidence carries through to the interior, too. There’s a reassuring solidity to the controls, and the rear seats fold flat without having to remove headrests or seat bases. Suspension intrusion is kept to a minimum, and a hidden compartment under the boot floor houses the spare wheel (full size on the Outback, space-saver on the Tourer) and oddments storage.

The seats are supremely comfortable over long distances, and offer a wide range of adjustment. Tall drivers who prefer the steering wheel adjusted to its lowest level may find the handbrake interferes with their entry or exit. Luckily, the huge sunroof, which features a pop-up wind deflector and sun blind, doesn’t encroach into the available headroom too much.

Equipment levels are well chosen, with useful features as standard including cruise control, electric seats with two-position memory, dual-zone climate control, HID headlamps, folding door mirrors and an MP3-compatible six-disc in-dash CD player. The mid-range RE model adds leather seat and door trim, while the top REn adds satellite navigation.

The Legacy should be relatively painless to run, too. The published economy figures state a 49.6 mpg return on the combined cycle, and this compares well with 2WD estates from Ford and VW. Our own testing suggests this is perfectly achievable.

CO2 emissions of 151 g/km from the base model 2.0D R Sports Tourer only just miss out on a road-tax busting Band C. Still, that places the Legacy in Band G once the new VED rates come in from 2009, just below the point at which the new higher first year ‘showroom tax’ takes effect.

The Outback’s extra weight has only a slight effect on this position, with a combined figure of 48.7 mpg and 153 g/km.

Servicing is every 12,000 miles, and the network of around 80 friendly and approachable dealers should make Legacy life hassle-free.

While the Legacy doesn’t necessarily shine in any one area, its well-rounded competence in so many aspects makes it hard to argue with as an overall ownership package.

At launch, prices for the Sports Tourer started at £19,995, with the Outback priced at £1,500 more. At that level, both versions offered excellent value for money. However, on 1st May, Subaru quietly increased prices of all diesel models by a further £1,000, citing exchange rate fluctuations.

The single largest problem with what would otherwise be a compelling package is that Subaru Japan doesn’t believe in diesel, and that’s reflected not only in the derv-drinking engine’s unfashionably late arrival to the party, but also in the tiny production numbers. One dealer we spoke to had only been allocated eight diesels for the year and, not surprisingly, had sold every single one in the first month alone. We feel sympathetic towards Subaru dealers who, having finally been given the car they’ve needed for years, must be pulling their hair out in frustration.

Supply issues aside, the Subaru Legacy Diesel is close to the perfect car for the UK. It’s economical, tax-friendly, practical, comfortable, reliable and still equipped with a sense of fun. It can handle our war-zone of a road network and provides genuinely useful 4×4 abilities mixed with a social conscience.

With a six-speed gearbox and it’s original sub-£20,000 price tag, it’d have been even more compelling.

A compelling choice, with a wide range of abilities encased in a well-built package and supported by a friendly dealer network. A six-speed gearbox and perhaps an auto option for some would place it top of the tree. Outback a genuine antidote to our pot-holed road network.
Our verdict: Our verdict: 4 stars out of 5