Car reviews - Subaru - Liberty - range
Rally-car-like body-control, superb go-anywhere all-paw drive, cabin comfort, sharp price, Outback all-round practicality
Room for improvement
Frustrating CVT and thrashy engine in 3.6R, no 2.0-litre turbo-petrol option
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24 Feb 2016
WHEN we drove the all-new Subaru Outback and Liberty in early 2015, we were impressed with the versatility of both models thanks to a careful balance of on-road poise and comfort, but with the ability to tackle some surprising off-road trails to boot – especially the Outback.
For the 2016 update, Subaru has responded to both the media's first impressions and the feedback from customers in the ensuing 12 months, resulting in a light fettling of the Liberty's chassis tune by the Australian engineering team.
We sampled the suspension changes in the flagship 3.6R Liberty through a variety of South Australian roads and trails and found the revision has not detracted from the overall comfort and ability to negotiate some surprisingly rugged terrain.
The retune involved new damper and spring rates at the front end, plus the same treatment with new geometry and thicker anti-roll bar at the rear, and while the Liberty's ride is certainly a little firmer, it is not uncomfortably so.
That sportier ride has reduced body roll if not eliminating it altogether, for a more dynamic road experience, but the stiffer setting has not removed any of the Liberty's ability to iron out sizable imperfections.
While Subaru is arguably the best at applying continuously variable transmissions (CVT), we are still not convinced it makes the best use of more performance-focused engines including the 191kW 3.6-litre flat six under the bonnet of our Liberty test car.
At low speeds the auto was fairly innocuous but at higher rpm the simulated gearshifts felt more like a slipping clutch than close ratio cog-swaps. Yanking at the shift paddles was marginally better but for a performance car, we would have felt more at home with either good-old torque converter tech or a manual of course.
Like the transmission, its boxer-six engine is also smooth and comfortable at low speeds but rather than a exponential power increase and hearty soundtrack as one would expect with Porsche's interpretation, wringing the 3.6R out to the red line produced a less satisfying noise and flagging power.
The flagship Liberty is best kept under 4000rpm to make use of its 350Nm and smooth low rpm operation.
We think a $500 increase over the previous version is a small price to pay for the extra Vision Assist safety technology, which brings blind-spot monitoring, lane-change assistance, self-dimming rearview mirror, self-dipping headlights and rear cross-traffic alert.
If you are still not convinced then consider that even with the $500 increase, the 3.6R is still a whopping $13,500 cheaper than the previous generation.
Having the extra technology in addition to the clever EyeSight stereoscopic camera features was welcome on long cruising roads – an environment the Liberty 3.6R feels completely at home in.
It may look quite different but the Outback high-riding wagon is mechanically very closely related to the Liberty and shares much of the car's underpinnings, but in addition to the Liberty's two petrol engines, the Outback adds a 2.0-litre diesel option.
A manual option which accounts for only two per cent of sales is available but we hopped aboard the 2.0D Premium paired with the CVT for a blast over some more challenging trails.
With just 110kW the boxer-four diesel can seem a little breathless if revved hard, but with more attention to torque the Outback can make decent progress by holding the revs down in the grunt sweet spot with 350Nm on tap.
The model is also available with the company's 2.5-litre petrol engine and a 3.6-litre six-cylinder version, but unfortunately the excellent Subaru 2.0-litre turbocharged flat-four is not. A shame because we think the 177kW/350Nm performance would be the perfect Outback match.
There are no changes to the way the Outback tackles rough stuff for the 2016 update, which means it is still a pleasure to pilot over some off-road challenges such as poorly maintained rural tracks and rocky single trail.
Those adverts where the Outback is thrashing almost recklessly through mud, sand and rocks? It really does that. We loved pointing the Subaru at a range of modest off-road obstacles at speeds you might not normally consider, and enjoying how easily it made progress.
Traction and ground-clearance were never a problem despite a range of slippery surfaces and knobbly protrusions.
Our competent co-driver even managed some WRX style four-wheel slides on closed forest tracks. The Subaru permanent and symmetrical four-wheel drive is certainly not just a gimmick and with some loose surfaces, the Subaru rally heritage is evident even in a sensible diesel wagon.
The Outback's suspension is most impressive when confronted with major mishaps such as a deep but almost invisible pot hole that spanned the full width of the road. Hitting the excavation at about 60km/h caused the suspension to bottom out but recovered incredibly well and our course was completely unaffected.
That composure is somewhat of a Subaru trait and, while there are certainly other crossovers and SUVs that can match its on-road manner, it is when the Outback and Liberty hit tougher trails that they really show their colours.
For drivers wanting to take the road less trampled, the Outback and Liberty offer a confidence-inspiring option with comfort, convenience and an enjoyable ride no matter which far-flung corner of Australia you chose to explore.
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