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A blue 2021 Nissan Altima is shown from the front driving down a city highway.

The Ultimate Nissan Altima Takes on Subaru’s Legacy

Once the most popular model of vehicle, the four-door midsize sedan is not as ubiquitous as it once was on the roads of America. However, you can still see these sporty, luxurious models, and two of the finest are the 2021 Nissan Altima vs 2021 Subaru Legacy. While other automakers have moved away from sedans, Nissan and Subaru continue to produce a wide assortment of models, including these two vehicles. Although Subaru named its midsize sedan the Legacy, both cars have actually built quite a legacy for themselves over the years.

The Nissan Altima was first introduced to drivers in 1993 and has gone on for six successful generations. Meanwhile, the Subaru Legacy was actually introduced four years earlier, in 1989, with the current 2021 model representing the seventh generation. Over that time, both automakers have made near-constant improvements to the Altima and Legacy, jockeying for market share and position as the top combination of performance and luxury in an affordable midsize sedan. This may be why they are still popular when midsize sedans from other automakers have fallen by the wayside, discontinued due to public indifference. Now that these are two of the last midsize sedans left standing, which one can claim to be king of the hill?

Engine Comparison

Both Nissan and Subaru have taken the same approach to their midsize sedan models, each offering a base naturally aspirated engine and an optional turbocharged engine. The base engine on the Nissan Altima is a 2.5-liter inline-four. It is capable of 188 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 180 lb-ft of torque at 3,600 rpm – respectable numbers, though nothing out of the ordinary for a modern midsize sedan.

The optional engine on the 2021 Altima is a 2.0-liter Variable Compression Turbo inline-four. The VC-Turbo utilizes an adapting stroke ratio, constantly raising and lowering the pistons’ travel in an effort to deliver improved performance and efficiency. Nissan began offering the VC-Turbo in 2018, becoming the first automaker to offer a variable compression engine on a mass-production automobile. If you use 87-octane gasoline with this engine, it can produce 236 horsepower at 5,600 rpm and 267 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm. However, if you spring for 93-octane gasoline, you will enjoy 248 horsepower at 5,600 rpm and 273 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm.

Subaru also offers two engines on the 2021 Legacy, the optional one again featuring a turbocharger. However, the base engine on the Legacy is a 2.5-liter Boxer flat-four. This Boxer engine is capable of 182 horsepower at 5,800 rpm and 176l b-ft of torque at 4,400 rpm. These are not quite the numbers achieved by the base engine on the 2021 Nissan Altima.

There is also a 2.4-liter turbocharged Boxer flat-4 that is available only in the 2021 Legacy Limited XT model. This intercooled aluminum alloy engine is capable of 260 horsepower at 5,600 rpm and 277 lb-ft at 2,000 to 4,800 rpm. These numbers are slightly higher than those provided by the Altima’s VC-Turbo, which is also a smaller engine.

A white 2021 Subaru Legacy is shown driving down a country road.

Transmissions

Much like the engine options, Nissan and Subaru have decided to go with a similar approach when it comes to transmission, pairing their engines with a continuously variable transmission (CVT). Rather than having set gear ratios like a manual or automatic transmission, a CVT constantly adjusts the gear ratio to better match driving conditions. The 2021 Nissan Altima has an Xtronic CVT, with paddle shifters offered on the Altima SR and SR VC-Turbo models. These allow you to replicate manual shifting without the hassle of working a clutch. The 2021 Subaru Legacy has a Lineartronic CVT on all models, with an 8-speed manual mode if you prefer to have a little more control over engine performance.

Drivetrain Options

In keeping with the other models in its lineup, Subaru offers the 2021 Legacy with its Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive system. This is full-time all-wheel drive, so there is no way to disengage the system when cruising on the highway to give a little boost to the vehicle’s fuel economy. While this will improve overall traction, it can mean that you may be unnecessarily burning excess gas.

In contrast, Nissan offers the 2021 Altima with a choice of either front-wheel drive or its Intelligent AWD system. Front-wheel drive will give you the best overall fuel economy, although it doesn’t have the same traction in inclement weather as all-wheel drive. Intelligent AWD gives you the best of both worlds with a system that automatically disengages all-wheel drive when driving on the highway to improve fuel economy.

Suspension and Brakes

Nissan offers the 2021 Altima with two different suspension systems. Most models of the Altima feature an independent front suspension and a multi-link independent rear suspension. The Altima SR and SR VC-Turbo models offer an upgrade sports tuned suspension for a crisper ride and better overall cornering. Both suspension choices feature front and rear stabilizer bars. In contrast, Subaru has the same suspension on all models of the 2021 Legacy. The front is a MacPherson strut independent suspension, while the rear is a double-wishbone configuration. There are front and rear stabilizer bars on the front and rear of the 2021 Legacy.

The two automakers have also taken a slightly different approach to the braking systems on their midsize sedans. The 2021 Nissan Altima has front vented disc and rear solid disc brakes. The 2021 Subaru Legacy has front and rear vented disc brakes. This choice theoretically allows for better cooling under sustained braking, but vented discs are more expensive and can eat through pads faster.

A silver 2021 Nissan Altima is shown from the back as it drives down a snowy road.

Performance Figures

In comparing the performance of the 2021 Nissan Altima and 2021 Subaru Legacy, the thing that jumps out at you is that the Altima at all levels has better acceleration than the Legacy. When comparing the base models with their respective 2.5-liter 4-cylinder gas engines, the Altima beats the Legacy off the standing stop. The 2021 Altima with this engine can go from 0 to 60 mph in 7.4 seconds, while it takes the Legacy a full 8.0 seconds to reach that speed. If you go for the more powerful turbocharged 4-cylinder engines, you get similar results. The 2021 Altima with the VC-Turbo can get up to 60 mph in just 5.8 seconds. It takes the 2021 Legacy 6.1 seconds to reach the same speed.

When it comes to handling and cornering, the two models are fairly similar. The Nissan Altima has a 111.2-inch wheelbase, which is slightly longer than the 108.3-inch wheelbase on the Subaru Legacy and can improve stability. The Altima also has noticeably better lateral grip, enhancing safety during sharp turns.

Fuel Economy Ratings

Just like the performance comparison, the 2021 Nissan Altima outdoes the 2021 Subaru Legacy at all levels when it comes to fuel economy. The best numbers are put up by the Altima with front-wheel drive and the 2.5-liter engine, which will get you 28 miles per gallon in city driving, 39 miles per gallon on the highway, and a combined 32 miles per gallon. Since Subaru does not offer a front-wheel drive Legacy, let’s take a look at how the two models with all-wheel drive compare with respect to fuel economy.

The all-wheel drive Altima with the 2.5-liter engine gives you 26 miles per gallon in the city, 36 miles per gallon on the highway, and 30 miles per gallon combined. This is a slight edge over the Legacy with the 2.5-liter engine, which gives you 27 miles per gallon in city driving, 35 miles per gallon in highway driving, and 30 miles per gallon combined. This is probably due to the fact that the Intelligent AWD on the Altima automatically shifts to front-wheel drive for improved fuel economy when driving conditions change.

This difference between the two models is most pronounced if you spring for the turbocharged engine. The Altima with the VC-Turbo gives you 25 miles per gallon in the city, 34 miles per gallon on the highway, and 29 miles per gallon combined. These numbers are almost as good as the base model engines on both models. In comparison, you will only get 24 miles per gallon in the city, 32 miles per gallon on the highway, and 27 miles per gallon combined with the turbocharged Subaru Legacy.

The Bottom Line

The 2021 Nissan Altima and 2021 Subaru Legacy represent two of the finest midsize sedans available today. There is a reason why both are still being built after about 30 years: they offer exceptional performance and value to their drivers. However, when comparing the two models, it becomes quite clear that the 2021 Altima has more to offer drivers than the 2021 Legacy, with better acceleration, improved fuel economy, and more options when it comes to the drivetrain, suspension, and more. It becomes clear that if you want to go to the ultimate, choose the 2021 Nissan Altima over the 2021 Subaru Legacy.

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