Car reviews - Subaru - Liberty - range
Fantastic 4WD system, understated but likable styling, big price reduction
Room for improvement
No unique styling for flagship 3.6R, muted six-cylinder sound
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18 Dec 2014
SUBARU has a tough fight on its hands of it wants to make an impression in the mid-to-large sedan market, no matter how good the product that it takes to market is. But its flagship variant in the 2015 Liberty range has a distinct advantage.
With the end of local production of the Ford Falcon, Holden Commodore and Toyota Camry by 2017, Subaru sees an opportunity to grow Liberty sales.
With a range-wide four-wheel drive system, even the 2.5-litre four cylinder versions have a unique feature amongst the current favourites. Cap that off with a price-tag that now undercuts most of the pack and the Japanese car-maker has the potential to do well with the new Liberty.
We started our day in the Liberty with the top of the range 3.6R, which as the name suggests, has a 3.6-litre flat six boxer engine – the only company to use the unusual configuration outside Porsche and its 911 sportscar.
Its six horizontally opposed pistons turn out 191kW and 350Nm of torque which is directed to all four wheels via a continuously variable transmission (CVT) and Subaru's proper symmetrical four-wheel drive system.
Subaru says it recognised the need to improve interior and exterior styling, and the quality of the Liberty range, and climbing into it reveals a vastly updated cabin designed with typical Subaru simplicity but now featuring more high-quality touches.
Dash and door trims wear leather and rubberised texture materials and the new 7.0-inch touchscreen sits proudly and cleanly in the middle of a well laid-out centre console.
The information and entertainment system is easy to navigate with its new more smartphone-like pinch and swipe controls and if that's still too hard, the voice control works well with only a few commands misunderstood.
We thought the keyless unlocking feature was particularly well thought out and showed a genuine consideration for Australian users. The system allows the key to be locked in the car when an activity might jeopardise it, such as surfing for example.
The car is unlocked again by entering a pre-programed code via the boot open button.
Its big leather seats were comfortable for our tester’s slighter figure but would suit fuller statures even better, providing a good place to sit for extended journeys across Australia's long highways and remote back-roads.
Speaking of which – lets hit the start button.
Without a turbocharger to interrupt power delivery the slick six responds very well to instructions from the accelerator and has a lovely free-revving nature all the way to the red line.
Acceleration is strong under full throttle in the 3.6R and power doesn't run out towards maximum engine speed as some forced induction sixes can. We liked how the flagship Liberty picks up pace with smooth abundant power.
The 3.6-litre engine has a good note but a little more of the soundtrack would have made wringing it out to the limit a more involving experience.
No manual gearbox is offered for the Liberty range but the CVT does a decent job getting power to the road in a manner that mimics the operation of a multi-ratio automatic.
Near full-throttle could occasionally cause the transmission to hold a constant high rpm but mostly it did a good job of stepping through the rev-range as a more conventional auto would, but we found the CVT was at its best in the sportier modes.
Hitting the steering wheel-mounted Sport and Sport Sharp buttons alter the transmission nature to hold revs higher and create more pronounced simulated gear changes along with sharper throttle response.
Engine braking on overrun is also managed well by the CVT reducing the amount of braking required when entering corners at speed.
Manual selection is also possible with the steering wheel paddles but the gear selector doesn't allow shifting for those times when the driver's hands are at a different position on the wheel and another ratio is needed.
Flicking the selector over to manual holds on to the selected ratio until a paddle click says otherwise and also turns the gauge surround illumination from blue to orange – a nice touch.
We enjoyed throwing the Liberty into twisty roads and feeling the excellent four-wheel drive system hold on with an iron grip inspiring confidence that was backed up by adequate steering feel and almost negligible body-roll.
Despite the commendable handling and body-control the Liberty's suspension absorbed imperfections in the road with surprising efficiency.
Other than twin tailpipes, the flagship 3.6R is hard to distinguish from lesser 2.5-litre versions and we think Liberty drivers would expect a little more in the way of acknowledgment that they had parted with $6500 over the 2.5 Premium.
We tried that variant next.
Like the 3.6R the 2.5-litre flat-four engine is shared with its mechanical twin, the Outback, but while the big crossover struggles with its 129kW, the Liberty is a much better match.
It's still no firecracker but the pleasant normally aspirated engine motors along with decent pace and doesn't run out of puff until more serious hills or a heavy load of people perhaps.
Handling was just as enjoyable as the faster 3.6R but with an even lighter more dynamic feel, with less weight over the front axle, although steering feel suffered slightly as a result.
Easily our favourite aspect of both variants is the delightful Subaru four-wheel drive system and we see it as the model's main weapon against the competition.
When carving through smooth or poorly maintained roads you can feel the family connection to the superb WRX with a wonderful mechanical confidence inspired by a true four-wheel drive system.
Even heavy handed manoeuvres could not shake the Liberty's planted posture, with little complaint from tyres and minimal scrub from the front end.
Even under heavy braking the Liberty chassis couldn't be unsettled and all four wheels held the same line despite varying road conditions.
By employing a more mechanical solution to the traction problem, the feel of the Subaru system is more satisfying than many competitors, that resort to clever electronics first rather than exploring bread and butter technology.
We are longstanding fans of the all-paw Scoobie system and we are pleased to report the royal line is unbroken with the new Liberty.
Despite the good behaviour, the Liberty can still manage a commendable ride even when traveling at pace through country roads allowing long distances to be covered in a short time.
We didn't get an opportunity to try the entry-level 2.5 Liberty with its cloth interior and smaller touchscreen but the handling and engine characteristics are likely to be identical.
With super-sharp pricing, more kit and a styling makeover that has brought subtle but likable looks, the new Subaru Liberty offers a good value package against a plethora of offerings in the more affordable mid and large sedan market.
But that's before we have even mentioned the superb four-wheel drive system.
Add the Subaru all-paw grip, fun and safety to an already great mid-sized sedan proposition and the 2015 Liberty range becomes a must-consider in its class.
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