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Car reviews - Subaru - Liberty - sedan/wagon range

Our Opinion

We like
Dynamics, space, refinement, ride, practicality, safety, stability, ease of operation, CVT’s economy and responsiveness, rocketship GT’s overall brilliance
Room for improvement
Styling too similar between models, lower models’ plasticky cabin presentation, dowdy exterior styling, lack of old car’s premium feel

9 Sep 2009

DID you know that ‘Liberty’ is a name that is reserved only for Australian-bound versions of Subaru’s mid-sized family car?

Elsewhere it has always been known as the Legacy but – wisely sensing how adversely this name would affect RSL members if they saw it on a Japanese car – the Fuji Heavy Industries-owned company went for Liberty instead back in the latter half of 1989.

But Liberty as a name now seems more appropriate than ever in the presence of the almost all-new, fifth-generation model that has been released in Australia this week.

You see, Subaru has aimed its “midsizer” – that is in all dimensions larger (as well as cheaper and easier to build) than the previous version – straight for the North American family car heartland.

Chief engineer Takeshi Tachimori admits that a change was needed to lure more of the sort of buyers that would otherwise settle for a Honda Accord or Toyota Camry, so Subaru could “win more friends” – but without necessarily alienating the more traditional Liberty demographic.

Hence, to lure the former, Subaru stretched and widened the wheelbase and body to liberate as much room inside as possible. It refined the car with a novel engine cradle mount, got rid of those pesky frameless side windows for quieter regular-Joe door sashes, made the whole structure stronger, eliminated as many noise pathways as possible and then created a conservative design.

Now, we always felt that past Liberty models had a touch of the Audi A4 about the way they looked and were presented, but now – as a result of this Americanisation of a Japanese-designed car – the Subaru is much more in the Camry mindset.

As Mr Tachimori told us this week, many of the sort of people who have bought the Liberty in the past for the brilliant way it drove are now well into their 50s – so this conservative new approach neatly explains how Subaru plans to lure the previous models’ more traditional demographic.

Anyway you look at it, sporty and dynamic … the MY10 Liberty ain’t.

Step inside though and suddenly some of the changes really do make sense.

For instance, there is a stack more space in every direction, from the driver’s seat adjustment to the vast rear bench with its plentiful knee, head, shoulder and legroom. Eliminating the sedan’s ‘sixth’ side window means that bigger doors that now open wider than ever can be fitted, making the Liberty liberal in its lounging capabilities.

But in the base 2.5i models the Camryfication of the series continues with a fascia that does not feel premium at all.

Yes, the actual look and design is smarter than before, with neat instrumentation (save for an idiotic ‘eco’ gauge that is a throwback to the Holden Camira’s dreaded Econo-gauge), a pleasant centre console design and nice use of metallic-look trim in some areas, but – gee – have Subaru even bothered to peer inside the similarly priced Accord Euro, let alone a base-model VW Golf?

The plastics look coarse and feel hollow, but the cheap-looking seat fabric particularly put us off. And what’s with the downmarket airline-style front seat backings and their accompanying storage nets?

Thankfully, ascending the range into leather upholstered models such as the GT brought much welcome tactility relief, as the hide – along with other details such as the lacquered dash trim and McIntosh audio upgrade – do much to reinstate some of that AWOL premiumness inside.

However, the Audi A4 analogy is by now a distant memory … until you actually drive the latest Liberty.

What a relief it is then that this car large family car still feels like a lithesome Subaru from behind the wheel.

The best selling model is expected to be the 2.5i with the all-new CVT Lineartronic automatic, and this makes for quite a distinctive drivetrain combination.

Acceleration is smooth and progressive, but without the disconcerting ‘rubber band’ like properties of some other CVT applications. Whether you’re using the pedals or the steering wheel paddle shifts, the response from the 123kW/229Nm 2.5-litre boxer four-pot unit is satisfying. Lineartronic might be the best CVT we have ever driven.

On damp-to-wet roads, the Liberty 2.5i’s (hydraulically powered) steering felt sharp and secure, accurately pointing the car exactly where we wanted it to go without the dullness that we remember from some previous Subaru applications. In terms of weighting and response, we think the Japanese have the helm well sorted.

Helped by the all-wheel drive, a strong set of anchors and sensibly calibrated VDC electronic safety aids, the 2.5i proved to be a stable yet satisfying tourer, offering huge amounts of grip and just enough feedback for the driver to react within his/her confines.

A discernable drop in road noise, coupled with a compliant ride quality, shows that Subaru’s engineers have not lost their knack in making their everyday family cars drive with more than just a soupcon of flair.

Slowly then, that premiumness keeps seeping back into the latest Liberty.

Choose the turbocharged 2.5i GT and the Subaru soars. With either the slick five-speed automatic or slightly notchy six-speed manual, this car covers the blacktop as if it is covered in grease – it just glides along the surface.

Backed up by all the all-wheel drive hardware, as well as the SI-Drive engine and transmission regulator, it carves up corners and handles with a surety that catapults the GT into, well, GT territory. We had forgotten how accomplished a performer the previous hot Liberty was, but this one does it with added refinement and composure. We were totally hooked on this one.

It’s just too bad there is not enough visual differentiation between the models. The GT could be a Premium if it wasn’t for the bonnet scoop.

We missed out on driving the Liberty wagon, but a stint at the wheel is not needed to discover how much more commodious that carpeted cargo area is, while a set of handles automatically lower the split/fold rear backrests in one easy move.

Easy move. This is what the new-generation Liberty is all about. Larger packaging, a tangible step forward in refinement, and a very commendable pair of four-cylinder drivetrains – including the excellent Lineartronic CVT application and slingshot GT powerplant – bring new levels of maturity to an long-time mid-sized favourite of ours.

Progress being what it is, we can now understand why the cool frameless doors have been binned, and why there is now enough room for most people to find both comfort and relaxation on board a Liberty.

But the Subaru simply looks big and dumbed down, while the lesser versions’ interior ambience just does not cut it against smarter and saucier interior treatments from some rival manufacturers.

For these reasons, the Liberty is in real trouble of alienating the sort of people who would have previously known that the Liberty was a quality piece of kit simply by looking at it.

Our advice is to look past the Subaru’s pastiche styling and really enjoy the comfort, space, refinement, safety, security and rewarding driving experience that lurks underneath that fat American-like surface.

The 2010 Liberty, then, is a bit like Orson Welles post Citizen Kane – a proven performer whose ballooning middle age spread belies a brilliantly fit and active mind.

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