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Car reviews - Subaru - Liberty - 3.6R

Our Opinion

We like
Equipment and safety technology, roomy cabin, silken powertrain, pleasant steering, versatile handling
Room for improvement
Compromised ride quality, weight hampers performance, claustrophobic rear seat, shallow boot opening

Subaru logo10 Jun 2016

By DANIEL DEGASPERI

Price and equipment

ON THE switch from fifth- to sixth-generation Liberty 3.6R last year a full $14,000 was cut from Subaru’s six-cylinder sedan flagship, which would now be priced from $41,990 plus on-road costs.

With the MY16 update the Liberty 3.6R rises $500 to $42,490 but adds a blind-spot monitor, lane-change assist, auto-dimming rearview mirror, auto high-beam and rear cross-traffic alert to its already impressive list of standard equipment.

Luxury kit includes full leather trim with heated electrically adjustable front seats, electric sunroof, auto on/off LED headlights and wipers, keyless auto-entry with push-button start, dual-zone climate control with rear airvents and a 7.0-inch touchscreen with satellite navigation, 12-speaker Harman Kardon audio and Pandora internet radio app connectivity.

Interior

Function runs ahead of form inside the latest Liberty 3.6R. All the controls are logically laid out, the plastics are smooth and consistently matched, and general fit and finish is excellent.

The front seats are sumptuous in their shape and support, and details such as the thickly bolstered door trims and flock-lined centre console bin endow this Subaru with a semi-premium feel absent from the previous model.

The touchscreen is intuitive to use, but the relatively small – by today’s standards – 7.0-inch diameter and plain graphics also reinforce the feeling that the Liberty 3.6R is an upgraded base model rather than a special range-topper.

The rear bench does not match the front seats for depth or support, either, being ordinarily flat and with a short squab. Rear legroom is impressive, however the sunroof eats into headroom already affected by the sedan’s swoopy roofline compared with the taller, airier Outback wagon. It can get claustrophobic back there.

There is plenty of storage space around the cabin, though, including a bottle holder in each door, cupholders in the front console and rear centre armrest, and a sizeable trio of glovebox/lower dashboard cubby/centre console bin.

That may be just as well because the 493 litre boot volume is among the smallest in the class. The lid opening is also too narrow, hampering the loading of bulkier items.

Engine and transmission

Subaru’s proven 3.6-litre horizontally opposed – or flat or ‘boxer’ – naturally aspirated six-cylinder engine has never been made so affordable. For the price, most medium cars provide four-cylinder engines, albeit these days some come with an output-enhancing turbocharger attached.

The 2.0-litre turbo four in the Hyundai Sonata Premium and Kia Optima GT matches the Liberty 3.6R’s 350Nm of torque, for example, although they fall 10kW short of its 191kW power output. To beat the latter figure would require looking to the 210kW Holden Calais of identical engine capacity, or the 200kW, 3.5-litre V6 Toyota Aurion Sportivo.

It becomes clear why Subaru may have been forced to reposition its range-topping sedan when you consider that the abovementioned vehicles all compete in a sub-$45,000 space.

Mated to an automatic continuously variable transmission (CVT) and driving all four wheels, the Liberty 3.6R remains a responsive and silken operator in undemanding situations. Add quick throttle inputs, however, and the CVT can take some time to respond, which is most unfortunate when the engine thrives most on a feed of higher revs.

Compounding the problem is a hefty 1645kg kerb weight, which is 100kg heavier than an Aurion.

Only when the CVT is keeping the engine alive does the claimed 7.2-second 0-100km/h feel realistic, although during a mix of urban, freeway and country driving the Liberty 3.6R did match its combined cycle fuel consumption claim of 9.9 litres per 100 kilometres.

Ride and handling

As with the engine, the Liberty 3.6R only comes alive dynamically when it is driven enthusiastically. There is no question the inclusion of all-wheel drive aids its handling when powering out of corners that would have a front-wheel-drive Mazda6, Optima GT or Sonata Premium scrabbling for traction.

The best of its engine can be put to the ground more effectively more of the time, and a nicely balanced chassis, backed by a subtle electronic stability control (ESC) and decent grip from 18-inch Dunlop Sport Maxx tyres, combine to deliver superior handling to most class contenders.

If the fluid and mid-weighted steering delivered some true road feel and the whole car felt lighter on its feet through bends, then this Subaru could start to be thought of as the semi-sporting sedan it once was.

The Liberty 3.6R’s spring and damper rates hobble that chance, though. The abrupt pitching of the pre-MY16 models has gone, and particularly around town this Subaru feels supple and controlled up to a point.

Unfortunately that threshold is low, however, and even mildly bumpy roads elicit enough occupant head toss and jittery behaviour to be deemed an unfortunate compromise between comfort and control rather than a finely judged balance between the two aspects.

Safety and servicing

Subaru’s EyeSight active safety technology suite includes active cruise control, lane departure warning and pre-collision warning followed by autonomous emergency braking (AEB). Dual front, front-side, full-length curtain and driver’s knee airbags also feature alongside switchable on/off ESC.

ANCAP has awarded the Liberty a five-star rating with a score of 35.99 out of a maximum 37 points.

A capped-price servicing program runs over three years or up to 75,000km, with intervals every six months or 12,500km that are below average when these days annual checks are the expectation.

The Liberty 3.6R also needs a 5000km check at a cost of $245.32, with the following two checks asking $333.63 each, and the next two $417.69 and $543.84 each, which is expensive for the class.

Verdict

The Liberty 3.6R, and its 3.0R predecessor, were once pitched as semi-premium Japanese alternatives to a more expensive German medium sedan. Certainly in terms of cabin quality the new range flagship meets that expectation.

However the charming six-cylinder engine is hobbled by the weight of the car, and that has occurred at a time when this Subaru has come under scrutiny by newer turbocharged four-cylinder rivals. Some of the dynamic sparkle of previous models remains, but the suspension tune requires further improvement.

The Liberty 3.6R’s high level of luxury and safety equipment is persuasive, although ultimately even Korean rivals such as the Sonata Premium and Optima GT these days combine a strong value argument with more consistently impressive drivability.

Rivals

Kia Optima GT from $43,990 plus on-road costs
Superbly quiet and sophisticated sedan handles brilliantlyMazda6 GT from $42,720 plus on-road costs
Needs diesel to shine, but impeccable interior and dynamics are highlights

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