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Car reviews - Subaru - Liberty - B4 sedan

Our Opinion

We like
Excellent chassis, top end power of twin-turbo engine, ride quality
Room for improvement
Hesitation between the two turbos, needs better brakes, unattractive old-design alloy wheels

15 Apr 2002

LOCAL Subaru enthusiasts have been waiting for the best part of a decade for a new model with which to replace their ageing Liberty RS Turbos.

After a drawn-out Australian Design Rule homologation process, Subaru finally gave us the Liberty B4, a long-awaited successor to the first generation RS.

The numerous delays in bringing the B4 to Australia meant the car we actually received was an update of the third generation model, as it came with the new front bumper and headlight treatment given to all Model Year 2002 (MY02) Liberty models.

But now that it is here, trying to position the B4 within the marketplace is not such an easy task, as it does not fall cleanly into one specific segment - a bit like another Subaru family member, the Forester GT, which crosses over between light duty four-wheel drive and performance sports wagon without offending either camp.

Subaru's Liberty brochure manages to call the B4 a prestige car, a grand tourer and a performance sedan all within the space of five paragraphs.

Regardless of where you place the B4, it stacks up well - Subaru has delivered it to the Australian market with a level of performance and equipment and at a price that leave it with no direct competitors.

On a performance basis the B4's rivals are much more expensive, like Audi's S4, which is almost double the price. Yet on price rivals like Volkswagen's Bora V6 4Motion struggle to match up - either on paper or on the road - with the performance on offer.

The B4 blurs the boundaries between prestige and performance at a much cheaper price point than any of its European rivals.

In relation to its fellow Liberty models, performance is what the B4 is really all about. As for prestige and equipment, it is not that far removed from the Heritage model.

The B4 gains a more sophisticated immobiliser/alarm system, coloured leather trim, sports steering wheel, sports seats and a higher specification audio system with an additional speaker, but misses out on cruise control and side impact airbags.

The only big ticket items the B4 concedes to its European rivals are a sunroof and satellite navigation, but the latter is not a feature that Subaru has put in any of its model to date anyway.

The Liberty is already a class-leading package with its combination of solid build quality, refinement, good equipment and safety levels, and rewarding driving dynamics.

The B4 takes the base package and raises the bar a couple of notches with improved performance and handling, and a more prestigious flavour.

At its heart is a twin turbocharged version of Subaru's 2.0-litre, flat four engine. With 190kW and 320Nm on tap, it offers a substantial 65 per cent power increase over the 2.5-litre Liberty models, as well as around 45 per cent more torque.

The idea behind the twin turbo set-up is to reduce the turbo lag inherent in single turbocharger systems by having a wider torque spread across the working rev range and less peaky engine performance characteristics.

So for that reason it lacks the mid-range punch of its single turbo counterparts, but makes up for it with stronger pulling power down low (as the smaller turbocharger spools up quicker) and a bigger rush at the top end (when the bigger, secondary turbo kicks in).

The disappointing aspect of the sequential twin turbo set-up is the distinct hesitation that is evident after the primary turbo runs out of puff and you are waiting for the secondary unit to fully activate.

It is most noticeable under full throttle loads when you are asking for everything the engine has to offer - although it is not just in transition that the "staging" effect is evident.

Most owners are unlikely to rev their car to redline with any regularity but if you upchange at the engine's natural torque point around 4500-5000rpm, the next gear engages smack bang in the middle of the turbo lull and you can sense the electronics are unsure whether to grab the end of the first turbo or go immediately to spooling up the bigger unit.

Apparently, the quirks of this turbo installation have been ironed out to a fair extent in theses updated cars, but the fact that it remains noticeable shows how troublesome it must have been in the beginning. It is really the only downside to an otherwise smooth and refined engine and a seamless power delivery.

The Liberty has always been capable of handling more power and, despite the turbo issues, the B4 has now given it enough punch to exploit the well-balanced chassis.

Clearly, the Bilstein dampers have the desired effect of improving the B4's dynamics and increasing body control without harming the ride quality.

Naturally, grip levels are very high courtesy of constant four-wheel drive and the Liberty's excellent chassis, although understeer will set in earlier than in a WRX when you are pushing hard.

But the B4 is really better suited to high-speed flowing roads and covering long distances with ease, while the Rex thrives on tight and twisting mountain passes and getting from point A to B in the shortest possible time.

If you've just stepped out of a WRX you will immediately notice the B4's extra bodyroll when cornering, which can be put down to its heavier kerb weight for the most part, but you will also notice and appreciate the improvement in ride quality.

For a car with 17-inch wheels and low-profile 45-series tyres, the B4's ride is exemplary, cosseting the occupants with more compliance and comfort than it really has any right to.

Over rougher surfaces - like a dirt back road - it struggles to maintain the composure of a regular Liberty in soaking up road shock, but that is more a result of the lower profile tyres and their shorter, stiffer sidewalls than any problem with the suspension settings.

The five-speed manual transmission - the only option available as the automatic version is specific to the Japanese and New Zealand markets at this stage - has a shorter shift than the Liberty RX and, although it feels similar to the WRX to use, manages to do away with that car's distinct notchiness.

Shift quality is clean and positive with little chance of missing the gate or crunching the gears when going for a fast change.

The steering is surprisingly light for a car with these sporting overtones, especially given the larger wheel/tyre combination and bigger footprint over standard Liberty models, but it remains direct in its responses.

The brakes, while fine for everyday running, are not quite up to the task when pushing hard and begin to fade - they suffered a noticeable decline in retardation at the end of downhill runs over our test loop.

The B4 really needs the bigger brakes from the STi Imprezas to better cope with its combination of performance and weight.

Noise suppression and general refinement levels have never been an issue with the current Liberty range, as the car is a long way ahead of its medium size competitors - Daewoo Leganza, Holden Vectra, Mazda 626 and Toyota Camry.

Even for the prestige sector, the B4 remains at the top of its class with no sign of squeaks or rattles and an absence of any annoying vibrations or mechanical harshness.

The Liberty is a solidly built car inside and out, so that's a good base to work off when designing and installing a premium stereo system.

The B4's McIntosh audio system is not quite on the same level as the amazing Bose system Audi uses in its premium models, but it's not far from it, offering a richness and depth of sound not evident in the standard Liberty audio unit.

For other equipment the B4 doesn't want for much as the standard package includes the usual items like climate control air-conditioning, electric windows and mirrors, remote central locking, variable intermittent wipers, map lights, adjustable steering, dual cupholders, vanity mirrors and foglights.

Safety is also well taken care of with anti-lock brakes, dual front airbags, front seatbelt pretensioners, three-point ELR (emergency locking retractor) seatbelts at all seating positions and, of course, the traction benefits of driving through all four wheels.

Cabin ergonomics are another strong point with all the Liberty's major controls being clearly marked and falling intuitively to hand.

Subaru has captured the essence of a good sports sedan with the B4 - a powerful engine and sure-footed handling without compromising on comfort and equipment levels, and all for a reasonable price.

It may not have the outright abilities to rival its WRX relative in the performance stakes, but as a more complete package it deserves the nod ahead of both more powerful Australian and more fancied European rivals.

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