For reasons I will explain in a more in depth post later, my beloved white 1999 Subaru Legacy has met its maker, after such a brief but full life of 125,000 miles. She could have been resurrected, but $3400 for a rebuilt junkyard engine seems like too much for a car that already has suspension, air conditioning, and other incurable ailments. I feel compelled to answer the siren’s call of a new mode of transport.

But from where does that call come? I thought long and hard about getting another Subaru, but have decided against it this time around. Why? They are no longer what they used to be.

Subaru’s fill so much of a niche they sell themselves up here in the snow-belt. All-wheel drive, on a standard-weight well-handling non-rollover-prone car, that’s not even an expensive Audi or Volvo is very very hard to come by – and yet Subaru makes it standard, low cost, and in my opinion the very best engineered AWD system out there. The cars are basic, reliable workhorses that you can run into the ground…it just may take 10 years. Quirky, off-beat styling that makes you go, “Is that really the way it’s supposed to look?”, helps them stand out for both good and bad, and gives “Subies” personality. Uber-basic, functional, practical interiors a la the 1995-1999 and 2000-2004 Legacies and Outbacks and the Impreza all the way to 2007 don’t over-complicate some of the questionable ergonomic decisions high-end marques like Volvo, Mercedes, and BMW make. And those tiny amount of us in the U.S. that care or pay attention to things like the World Rally Championships appreciate a car with not just a racing pedigree, but a flog-the-hell-out-of-it-and-then-drive-off-a-cliff-after-slamming-into-a-tree-at-100mph racing pedigree. The WRC is real stock car racing, not that namby-pamby NASCAR we’re forced to watch. I like to pretend I’m Colin McRae as I accelerate from that stoplight and soak up that low, oddly-syncopated yet distinct burble that comes from the unique horizontally-opposed Boxer engine.

What’s more, for all their utilitarianism, Subarus have always been inspiring. They have character. Personality. Charm. Everything from the AWD and luscious Boxer rumble to those odd styling cues and downright cheap-o interiors – and even the one-and-only jaws of life friendly sashless door window – feeds into that. It’s nice to have a Japanese car (more reliable than a Chevy, at least) that’s decisively original with a healthy dosage of “spunk.” These are characteristics that are absolutely expunged from the millions upon millions of vapid Toyota Camrys and Corollas, Chevy Malibus and Cavaliers and all their “just the same” clones out there. They’re boring. Dull. Drywall-esque. (Toyotas are well-built, so again, minus one for Chevy). I’ve become convinced that cars like the Camry sell so well because even though Americans do more driving than anyone else in the world, we absolutely hate doing it to the point that we’d rather just teleport with no memory of how we got there in the first place. That’s the vibe the Camry or a Malibu gives me: what car was that? Sorry, my memory’s flakey.

Subaru was different. I say “was,” because it quickly became apparent to me this car-shopping time around that the engineers at Subaru are slacking off. Either that, or their Toyota bosses are overriding their design decisions. Toyota bought a 15% share in Subaru’s parent company, Fuji Heavy Industries, in 2008. Every redesigned car they’ve put out since then, in my opinion, lacks the integral “Subaru spunk”.

Take the new 2010 Legacy. (Disclaimer: I never actually sat in one or drove it, so I’m going off reviews and what I’ve seen on the road.) It does look ridiculous when the previous model was one of Subaru’s exception-that-proves-the-rule clean designs, so that part’s the same. But, the car is bigger and feels like a bloated version of its former self. It has the floaty driving dynamics of a (gasp!) Toyota Camry. And the interior is still cheap, but it tries to conceal it with fake wood and metal trims. Be honest, Subaru! My 1999 Legacy was made of cheap crappy plastics, but the important part was that they held up well and composed a clean, functional design.

Or the new 2008 and after Impreza. (I did drive this one.) The previous model’s styling wasn’t anything to write home about, but at least it was distinctive – in 2002 with funky “frog-eyed” headlights, 2004 with an odd “bulldog snout”, and 2007′s actually kinda-neat swept-back grille and headlights. 2008 and after conform to the same forgettable Corolla looks. And the clear headlights on the hatchback are just garish. Stepping inside, you hit your chin on the window because they added a sash – why? To be like everyone else. Once you’re inside, another cheap-o interior. But again, while this one is “honest” with its plastics and trim and seems like it would hold up, the design still tries to (vainly) be up-market. The dashboard makes two big sweeps left and right, with a large and imposing center console and oddly placed vents below the radio. I found the dash to be so tall it was like I was sitting in a trench peeking out at the road, and actually had to use the seat’s height adjustment to see over it well. My shorter front passenger couldn’t even see the hood. And the driving style, while still sufficiently sporty, thanks to the Impreza’s lower weight and identical engine, is just more toned down in the suspension department. It may be fast, and it may corner-carve okay, but it doesn’t feel that way.

Everywhere you look: a Forrester that looks even more like a RAV-4 and less like the tall car-based wagon it was, and an Outback that’s ballooned to a certified truck (it’s too heavy to be federally-regulated as a car anymore). Subaru has lost it’s way. And that’s why I’ve gone with a 2010 Honda Fit, a hatchback from the only other car company I truly love.

I gave Subaru plenty of chances to win me back.

My 1999 Legacy could have survived for a few more years, with a touch better reliability. (This is the one thing they have gotten better at in recent years.)

I could have found exactly what I was looking for, if they hadn’t discontinued the Legacy wagon in 2007.

I could have carried all my stuff to school, if the Legacy sedan’s back seats folded down.

I could have bought a new Impreza, if they had made them with better fuel economy, more interesting colors inside and outside, better visibility, a dashboard that wasn’t quite so huge and imposing, or driving dynamics resembling something more fun than a Corolla.

They’re still decent cars. But they blend in. They no longer inspire.

If Subie’s gone astray, I can only hope that they’re still good enough at off-roading to find their way back.