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Car choices, choices... Part 4

Living with the Legend

By Julian Edgar

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If you’ve been following this series, you’ll know that I decided on the 2006 Honda Legend after driving everything from a Prius to a Jaguar XJR.  The Legend is not the best car in every respect but it seems to me to be the best compromise for what I need a car to do.

And what’s that?

Provide decent fuel economy, ride quality and comfort over a 3-days-a-week, 150 km a day commute, often over poor country Australian roads.

The car

The Legend is quite a weird car – in fact, I don’t know of any other car that has its specific mix of characteristics.

Consider: the car weighs-in at a considerable 1855kg, yet has peak torque from its 3.5 litre VTEC V6 at a high 5000 rpm.

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The Legend has sophisticated alloy suspension and a very sophisticated torque-split all-wheel drive – yet is sprung quite softly.

The front brakes – running 4-pot calipers and 320mm discs – are large and powerful, yet with 217kW and that high mass, the straightline performance is good rather than startling.

Inside the cabin is a high equipment level – including seat heaters, nav, memory seats, reversing camera, Bose sound, auto dimming central and side mirrors, and so on – and yet in places you can see generic Honda switch-gear showing through.

Owning the car, I can now better see why reviews are so sharply polarised. Interestingly, the Australian reviews are almost all negative, while the UK and US reviews (the car was sold as the Acura RL in the US) are generally much more positive.

Here in Australia, I bet reviewers were thinking of the local big cars – the Commodore and the Falcon – when judging the Legend. Those locals have far more accessible performance (instant torque at low revs) and have even more space than the big Honda.  In many ways, they were also much better value than the $74,500 new car price of the Legend.

On the road

So what is the Legend like?

Firstly the bad.

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The steering is OK – but that’s it. In freeway driving the steering has a slightly dull, dead feeling. In this type of driving its weight is fine, and so is its sensitivity, but it doesn’t have the intuitive, fluid feel that results in an absolute ease of steering.

The engine is never going to be a torque monster. I haven’t been able to find power and torque curves for the engine, but the V6 is certainly not tuned for lots of low rev torque. The result is that the auto trans occasionally needs to down-change on the open road to climb steep hills, and rapid rolling-start acceleration around town also requires an (automatic) down-change.  To access the high-rpm torque, the auto trans also revs higher in each gear than you expect for the given throttle angle.

Hmm, what else? The tyres (235/50 on 17 x 8 rims) are too low in profile for really rough roads, where the back-end can hop and the ride can have some high frequency judders superimposed on its low frequency springing.

There is a slight jerk when very gently getting on or off the throttle.

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The low beam HID headlights (that steer for tight corners) are excellent, but the high beam is just a joke. (With added 225mm HID Narvas, it’s no longer a joke… More on the fitting of these in a later issue of AutoSpeed.)

Now the good.

The engine is a gloriously smooth powerhouse that revs with élan and silken power.  It can be pussy-footed around in gentle and refined driving, or booted to the redline, the cam timing and lift changing at 4950 rpm to give it a more urgent thrust.  It is a sporting engine, a wonderfully smooth engine, a strong engine with character.

The transmission, despite having only five ratios and not the expected six, uses very smart logic that means it’s almost always in the right gear for the situation, even in hard driving. Unless you really, really want a low gear to steer on the throttle (say on dirt), there’s not a lot of point in using the paddle shifters to downchange coming up to a corner – the car is already in the right gear on exit anyway.

And the handling is quite fascinating. A dashboard display shows the torque splits for the front/rear and rear left/right wheels.  

And boy, is it ever an active system!

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In normal driving it behaves like a conventional 50:50 F:R all-wheel drive car (and not like a front-wheel drive car as many reviews suggest).  This all-paw traction gives the stability and reassurance I remember from cars like my AWD Subaru Liberty RS and Audi S4.

In straightline throttle lift-off, the engine braking (carried out very effectively by the auto trans that will down-change by itself) is fed through only the rear wheels, stabilising the car. (In throttle-off corner entries it’s a bit different: more on this in a moment.)

But in hard cornering it’s a whole new world.

Let’s say you enter a corner fairly quickly and get on the power. The car starts to understeer, exactly like a constant all-wheel drive car. The torque split then actively changes, sending more torque to the outside rear wheel.

So why the outside rear wheel?

Well, this the wheel most heavily loaded at the back, so the torque can be transferred to the pavement. But it doesn’t end there.  The outside rear wheel is, via a special diff assembly, driven at a faster rate than the average speed of the front wheels. This causes the car to pivot around a central axis: it is steered into the corner by the different driven speeds of the back wheels!

So the initial power-on understeer is quelled, the car going neutral and then even edging into oversteer.

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So does this give ballistic, balls-to-the-wall cornering? Nope, because for ride comfort and the handling of rough roads, Honda has chosen to give the car relatively soft suspension.

Many people would hate this approach – and read the reviews and you’ll find some certainly did. But I think it is a brilliant mix of comfort, grip and dynamic handling for real roads, not just smooth racetracks.  

If I speak very quietly (so in a voice that the politically correct cannot hear), I reckon that the Legend’s natural speed through corners marked at 50 – 80 km/h is a relaxed 100 – 140 km/h; at that speed the SH-AWD system is actively working but the car is yet to start getting out of shape. 

In these conditions, the car feels poised, planted and precise.

And what was that earlier about throttle-off corner entries? There, apparently, the engine braking can be differentially fed through the rear wheels to prevent throttle-off oversteer, the inner rear wheel being engine-braked more strongly than the outer.

All of this makes the car feel light and nimble – well, for a large heavy car, anyway.

However, while all that is very interesting, it’s not actually why I bought the car. So how does it rate for those initial criteria of fuel economy, ride quality and comfort?

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The fuel economy has a best of 8.5 litres/100km (flat freeway cruise at 110 km/h), a worst of about 13 litres/100km, and over the last 5000 kilometres an average of 9.8 litres/100km. You can call that good if you take into account the AWD and vehicle mass, or you can call that bad if you consider it in the context of diesel or hybrid economy. I am used to the latter, so from my perspective, the consumption is high.

The ride quality is generally good. (Before I drove the air suspension Jaguars, I would have called the Legend’s ride quality ‘very good’!) Big bumps are handled well, and short, sharp bumps are absorbed adequately. The ride is lumpier around town than on the open road: the Legend is a car that smooths as speed increases.

The overall comfort is outstanding. The seats are responsible for much of this – they’re unusual for a modern car in that they are tuned in their frequency to match the suspension. They also have genuine spring travel rather than the heavily damped, short-travel cushioning now so common.

The quietness of the cabin (aided by the active noise cancellation of the Bose sound system) is extremely good, let down only by tyre noise on coarse-chip bitumen. Wind noise is very low, no matter what the speed.

The right choice?

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Being a very critical person when it comes to cars, I initially doubted my choice.

The Toyota Aurion – wouldn’t that have been better? Then I think of the Legend’s all-wheel drive and I think: no, the FWD Aurion wouldn’t have been better.

The 2006 diesel E series Mercedes I drove – wouldn’t that have been better? Then I think of its lack of equipment – including having no navigation - and I think: too much of my driving is to appointments in areas foreign to me…. no, the Mercedes wouldn’t have been better.

The Ford Falcon - wouldn’t that have been better?  Then I think of its crappy build quality and low-rent interior, and I think: no, the Falcon wouldn’t have been better.

The 3-series BMW diesel, a car I also drove - wouldn’t that have been better?  Then travelling home on the single lane stretch of bitumen (single lane – one car width; not a single lane each way) that goes to my house the old-bullock-wagon route, the road where you need to get two wheels on the dirt when a car comes the other way, I think: no, with its atrocious ride quality, the BMW wouldn’t have been better.

And so on…

Conclusion

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The aspect that I think most persuasive in the totality of the purchase is one that is rather down to earth: the cost of the Honda. At AUD$25,750, I think the 2006 Legend is an amazing bargain. 

To get the car my heart cried out for – one of the X350 XJ Jaguars – in similar condition to the Honda would have cost about twice as much; furthermore, such a car would have been much older and, IMHO, more likely to expensively break at inopportune moments. 

The Honda is not perfect – but it is immensely reassuring and also lots of fun on a winding road, is supremely comfortable, is very safe and is well-equipped.  I wish it drank a little less, but as I found out, you can’t have everything.

For a country commute, the Legend will do me for a while.…

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