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First drive: Subaru's hot new Liberty trio

Grand Tourer: Turbocharged 2.0-litre GT remains the Liberty flagship, now available as a manual and joined by a 3.0-litre six-cylinder sedan and wagon.

Subaru, in the midst of a sales surge, introduces three new Liberty models

13 Aug 2004

IMPRESSIVE July and year-to-date sales for 2004 underpin Subaru’s introduction of three new versions of its medium-size Liberty model – 3.0R six-cylinder wagon and sedan, and a manual transmission Liberty GT.

With July sales for the Inchcape-owned importer 16.5 per cent ahead of June and, on year-to-date sales, a running rate that is a healthy 18.6 per cent ahead of 2003, Subaru is on target for 32,000 sales by the end of the year.

This is in a market that has, for many car-makers, showed signs of softening as a federal election looms and loan interest rates are on the increase.

Only a handful of importers operating in the segment have improved sales and only one – Honda – has bettered Subaru’s percentage gains over 2003.

The relatively new (August 2002) Liberty, which is running at 58 per cent ahead of last year – and the Outback – are the star performers for Subaru, although sales across the board are up for the company.

A surprise has been the acceptance of the Liberty GT, originally forecast at 50 sales a month but currently doing more like 140 a month.

Significantly, Subaru says the Liberty is becoming more of a presence in the prestige market, where it is able to hurt Europeans such as Saab and Volvo, and is also taking some sales from market leaders BMW and Mercedes-Benz.

A pointer to this is that, although Liberty prices start at just a little more than $30,000, one third of sales are above $50,000.

With this realisation in mind, Subaru has just broadened the Liberty product line-up to introduce a six-cylinder engine – previously only available in the slightly beefed-up H6 Outback – and a five-speed manual version of the GT into the range.

The six-cylinder version enables Subaru to target what it sees as viable competition from Germany. It points to significant price and equipment advantages over, for example, Audi A4 and BMW 3 Series, which become even more marked if six-cylinder variants are taken into consideration.

A maybe slightly cheeky point, but a relevant one nonetheless, is that Audi’s less powerful, all-wheel drive A4 V6 is priced at more than $35,000 above the 3.0R auto Liberty.

The Subaru engine – a reworked, more powerful version of the horizontally opposed, three-litre six-cylinder H6 first seen in the H6 Outback four years ago – is the motivating force behind the new Liberty 3.0R models.

Its installation into both sedan and wagon versions creates a second line of high-performance Libertys, supplementing the 190kW Liberty GT (which has just become available, exclusively for Australia, in five-speed manual form to supplement the existing five-speed automatic).

The new H6 engine builds substantially on the original 154kW six-cylinder. It is available in either six-speed manual transmission (3.0R-B) or as a five-speed sequential auto (3.0R) and has already been seen in auto form in the latest Outback H6. The six-speed manual is essentially the same transmission used in the Impreza WRX STi.

Although the capacity remains unchanged at 2.999 litres, the adoption of variable valve timing, as well as Honda VTEC-style variable valve lift, helps overcome the relative torpor of the original.

The power (up 17 per cent to 180kW at 6600rpm) and torque (up five per cent to 297Nm at 4200rpm) enable the 1.5-tonne Liberty, in manual form, to scorch through the standing 400 metres in 14.9 seconds, even though Subaru says the new engine is more economical and more environmentally friendly.

The auto and manual versions, be it sedan or wagon, are set up differently to better match the perceived preferences of buyers.

The 3.0R-B manual’s suspension has been given a thorough, locally tuned Bilstein workover with inverted struts up front and a set of 18-inch alloy wheels with 215/45R18 tyres. The automatic uses a slightly softer KYB-shocker suspension with smaller 17-inch alloys and the same 215/45R17 tyres as the GT.

2 center image As premium Libertys, the 3.0-litre cars come with full leather upholstery, power front seats, climate control, Momo steering wheel, sunroof, trip computer and a 13-speaker sound system with in-dash, six-stack CD player.

The manual version adds the bigger wheels (like the auto, incorporating a full-size alloy spare), alloy floor pedals and is trimmed in black, rather than the auto’s ivory leather.

With all Liberty models claiming a five-star ANCAP rating, the six-cylinder models – and the GT – come with dual front airbags, as well as front side airbags and full-length curtain airbags.

Only the auto version however gets Subaru’s stability control system (Vehicle Dynamics Control) but all, of course, have ABS brakes and all-time four-wheel drive with a viscous-coupled centre differential.

The Liberty range generally has been given a slight spruce up, with speed sensitive wipers now standard across the range, as well as double pretensioners for the driver’s seatbelt and a shift-lock mechanism on all auto versions.

Liberty pricing is generally carry-over from before, with some models actually tagged at slightly less.

2004 Subaru Liberty prices:

Manual Automatic
2.0i sedan $30,990 $33,490
2.0i wagon $32,990$35,490
2.5i sedan $34,990$37,490
2.5i wagon $36,990$39,490
2.5i Safety Pack sedan$37,490$39,990
2.5i Safety Pack wagon$39,490$41,990
2.5i Premium Pack sedann/a$42,990
2.5i Premium Pack wagonn/a$44,990
GT sedan$52,990$54,990
GT wagon$54,990$56,990
3.0R sedann/a$50,990
3.0R wagon n/a$52,990
3.0R-B sedan$51,990n/a
3.0R-B wagon$53,990n/a


THERE is very little connection, in a primeval sense, with the latest Subaru H6 engine and its Outback-only predecessor.

Where the first horizontally opposed six-cylinder to appear from the company in recent times was a smooth, silent type that didn’t offer much in terms of muscle, the new one growls with a raw, restless energy.

Its migration into Liberty sedan and station wagon models broadens Subaru’s high-performance, upmarket image.

With a bump in peak power output from 154 to 180kW and a torque figure that has lifted from 282 to 297Nm, the new H6 engine creates a Subaru with an almost-BMW edge.

In fact, the new, variable valve timing, variable-lift camshaft engine is capable – in manual transmission form - of accelerating the Liberty so hard that it matches the performance of supercars of yore such as the E-Type Jaguar and the legendary Falcon GTHO Phase Three.

Subaru’s claim of 14.9 seconds for the standing 400 metres is an almost devastating time for a regular road car, even at a time when turbocharged, four-wheel drive super sedans are almost boringly common.

The fact that the H6 Liberty is naturally aspirated makes it eminently more forgiving to drive too.

Hooked up to the six-speed manual transmission borrowed from the Impreza WRX STi, the new Liberty 3.0R-B is a rorty, throaty high-performance sedan with definite overtones of Europe in both its presentation and road manners.

At $51,990, the manual transmission version of the updated Liberty is $1000 more expensive than the four-speed auto version. But that buys you larger, 18-inch wheels – up from 17 inches – Australian-tuned Bilstein suspension and various subtle dress-up items like black leather seats in lieu of ivory and aluminium floor pedal facings.

It does miss out on the electronic stability control that is standard on the auto, which is maybe a little strange, but at the same time it’s consistent with the performance focus of the 3.0R-B which suggests that, in the final analysis, the skilled driver always knows best.

First impression of the 3.0R-B is of an eager, sweet-sounding engine and a sense of immense accelerative capabilities

But with constant four-wheel drive always working for it, the six-cylinder Liberty is unlikely to be found in a compromising situation.

Subaru’s "symmetrical" 4WD system splits the power 50-50 between front and rear and uses a viscous-coupled centre differential to help ensure drive is always available at the appropriate wheels. There is no problem delivering the H6 engine’s power and torque to the road.

An interesting side benefit of the electronic engine management is that, in the manual version, the H6 is able to vary torque output and help prevent stalling. In real-world terms this means a sometimes strange feeling clutch, but at least it appears to do what is claimed.

First impression of the 3.0R-B is of an eager, sweet-sounding engine and a sense of immense accelerative capabilities.

The six-speed transmission is set up with a close set of ratios in the first four gears and wider spacings in fifth and sixth aimed at reducing engine noise and helping fuel economy at cruising speeds.

It shifts quite smoothly, with nicely judged weighting and no problem separating the third-fourth and fifth-sixth planes, as is sometimes the case with manual six-speeders.

The engine’s flexibility combines with this to provide a ready surge of power when it’s needed. Passing slower cars on the open road is a swift, quickly disposed-of business.

The Bilstein suspension and larger wheels give the 3.0R-B a firmer ride than the less aggressively set up 3.0R auto, but the ride is still relatively absorbent and quiet, certainly quite acceptable to the type of buyers Subaru plans to attract.

And the body feels tough and taut, with no discernible movement between the frameless windows and the door seals. The doors shut with a solid, reassuring thump.

There is a feeling that the steering could be a little sharper, but this sensation is minimised by the grip of the 215/45 tyres that ensure it always tracks with determination. Further testing will reveal whether the 3.0R-B tends towards the gradual oversteer that can be provoked in the Liberty GT.

The brakes feel good too. Ventilated discs are used at the front and rear and the system incorporates electronic brakeforce distribution that operates pre-ABS to maximise stopping power.

The 3.0R-B interior feels quite upmarket, with power seats for both driver and front passenger and a general tactility that is removed from the stark efficiency of Euro cars, yet remains tasteful and restrained.

The three-spoke leather Momo steering wheel has become something of a Subaru performance signature and there’s an easy to find and use cruise control lever on the right. The column adjusts for height only, not reach.

In the 3.0R-B - there’s also a welcome freedom of fake wood grain (which does make a subtle, forgivable appearance on the sides of the console in the 3.0R auto).

The sound system is a killer McIntosh installation with 13 speakers (woofers, a super-woofer, tweeters and mid-range squawkers) and an in-dash, multi-CD changer.

As you’d expect, the air-conditioning is climate control - although it doesn’t have the two-zone setup that is becoming increasingly prevalent today - and there’s a reasonably comprehensive trip computer that now registers fuel consumption in litres per 100km.

The closest thing to a shortcoming in the Liberty is a slight tightness in the cabin. It’s okay but doesn’t feel particularly wide and the back-seat legroom is adequate rather than generous. It’s about the same size inside as a Mazda6 or Honda Accord Euro.

But for sheer engine punch without any turbocharged downsides, the naturally aspirated Liberty 3.0R-B provides a highly competent, quality drive experience that justifies Subaru’s subtle but remorseless shift upmarket.

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