Riding into History


A writer takes a road trip into our national legacy in the refreshed 2018 Subaru Legacy!

The word association is unavoidable. When you’re driving a Subaru Legacy in territory that was vital to our fledgling nation’s political legacy, it’s all but impossible not to seize the obvious.

About a two-hour drive south of Washington, DC, Charlottesville buzzes with late 18th- and early 19th-century U.S. presidential history. Among the eight presidents born in Virginia, more than any other state, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe maintained estates within 30 miles of each other.

All three properties are meticulously maintained to this day, which makes the area rich for touring. But while visiting legacy properties in a Legacy may be too obvious not to mention, one obscure side trip is particularly enticing.

2018 Subaru Legacy

Tipped off by a University of Virginia history professor, I steered the Legacy south from Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, just a few miles south of downtown Charlottesville, to his lesser-known property, Poplar Forest. In the comfortable and understated Subaru sedan, I followed two paths to Poplar Forest. Part of my journey was along the same route that Jefferson traversed by horse-drawn carriage, careening over unpaved passages now covered with asphalt. At other times, I hummed down U.S. Route 29.

The Legacy is just as at home on the hilly, serpentine back roads as it is on the highway. The vehicle’s ride quality was impressively smooth, and its bearing on the road confident. These attributes come from the continuously variable transmission (CVT) as well as the 175-hp 2.5-liter flat-4 boxer engine, which sits lower in the engine bay than a typical inline four-cylinder. It’s a technical point, but it means that the center of gravity is lower, making the car feel more planted on the road. (A 3.6-liter flat-6 is available in the Limited trim level.)

Accelerating onto the highway, I was impressed by the steady takeoff, the result of Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive and stellar CVT performance in the 2018 model. The “continuously variable” of CVT means the transmission changes seamlessly through a continuous range of ratios, rather than the fixed number of ratios in a traditional automatic transmission. It allows the engine to run at either its most efficient for better fuel economy, or its most powerful, for acceleration. I appreciated the CVT anytime I hit the throttle – I felt very little of the steps a traditional automatic transmission cycles through as it shifts gears.

In his carriage, Jefferson certainly had a rougher journey from Monticello to Poplar Forest, a 4,819-acre property he and his wife Martha inherited in 1773 upon her father’s death. The sojourn took him three days and followed a route dictated by the terrain. Jefferson covered 93 miles to get to the retreat in rural Virginia – the exact distance is known because he measured it with an odometer he’d received as a gift. Tracing that route as faithfully as I could based on a description I’d found online, I did indeed add nearly 100 miles to the odometer. It was a hot and humid summer day, and I imagined Jefferson sweltering in his carriage while I luxuriated in the cool air flowing from the Legacy dashboard vents.

Count on enjoying a comfortable road trip in the 2018 Subaru Legacy.

Jefferson was more than willing to endure the bumpy ride. Built between 1806 and 1809, Poplar Forest is considered one of the president’s four architectural masterpieces. Like Monticello and the rotunda at the University of Virginia, the main house at Poplar Forest is octagonal and made of brick. In 1781, before the imposing, formal-feeling structure was built, Jefferson and his family hid out at Poplar Forest in a smaller house, eluding British forces that raided Monticello.

After he became president in 1801, Jefferson found very little time to himself. Constituents from all over the nation made the pilgrimage to Monticello to pay respect and curry political favor, – and the president endeavored to greet and spend time with as many of them as possible. So many people visited, in fact, that Jefferson found little time to himself to do the things he truly loved: reading, writing, and architectural and landscape design. And so, he built Poplar Forest. There, according to the Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia, “he could escape what his granddaughter Ellen called ‘the bustle and hurry of an almost perpetual round of company,’ exchanging it for ‘rest, leisure, power to carry on his favorite pursuits.

Much of the countryside surrounding Jefferson’s back-roads route to Poplar Forest remains relatively untouched. A few houses dot roadside properties, but most of the land is covered by cropland and vast fields, where horses graze. After exactly 22.7 miles of driving, I reached the James River in an unincorporated area known as Warren. It was here that the first leg of Jefferson’s trip ended; he would put up for the night and cross the river by ferry in the morning.

Thomas Jefferson's Poplar Forest home

I drove as close as I could to the river’s edge and found a parking lot for day-trippers. This part of the James flows gently, and it was alive with people swimming and floating on rubber rafts.

I put the Legacy in reverse, pulling away from the watery dead-end, made a three-point turn and headed out, picking up Route 29 just a few miles away. The vehicle’s EyeSight Driver Assist Technology, which has an impressive Lane Keep Assist feature, kept me safely on track as I cued up some traveling music. Jefferson’s soundtrack, I imagine, was primarily the clip-clop of horses’ hooves and the crackle of carriage wheels on the stony dirt roads. I opted for The Ventures, Ramones and Jack White. 

This is just some of the music I would listen to if I were using the Legacy as a commuter. I could see the vehicle serving that purpose well, given its impressive fuel-efficiency and roomy, well-appointed interior. These attributes, as well as its reasonable price, also make it a great choice as a family car.

I was feeling blissed-out but energized as I pulled into the parking lot at Poplar Forest. I stepped out of the Legacy and strolled the grounds, noting the presence of a few towering poplar trees, and regarded the beautiful brick building that Jefferson had designed. It’s much smaller than Monticello, on a more intimate, human scale. Inside the house, I was surrounded by a deep silence – those brick walls are thick, keeping the residence not only quiet, but also cool.

I imagined that Jefferson also felt a sense of relief upon arriving at Poplar Forest. This was his retreat, his “hermitage,” according to the Jefferson Encyclopedia. It’s also the place where Jefferson created an important part his legacy, notably, designing the buildings and grounds of the University of Virginia and writing to and reading letters from his friend and confidant John Adams, the second president of the United States.

It’s impressive that this rich history is within easy reach in this part of the country, and it was a pleasure to explore it in the 2018 Legacy.