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Liberty keeps in character

Driving ambition: The Subaru Liberty and Outback's AWD format survived in the new generation, despite suggestions that it be dropped to save weight.

Subaru chief engineer reveals struggle to keep the Liberty’s trademark AWD

Subaru logo14 Sep 2009

SUBARU insists that its latest Liberty had to grow to match key rivals while toeing the line with changing consumer expectations.

Speaking at the launch of the fifth-generation model in country Victoria last week, chief project engineer for the EZ5 series Liberty/Outback, Takeshi Tachimori, told GoAutoNews that buyers liked the old Liberty’s driving characteristics but, with each successive change up until the latest model, they found the interior dimensions increasingly too tight.

This was all that Subaru needed to hear to spring into action, since it wanted to break the mould anyway after 20 years of producing variations of the same theme, and so designing the new model to be larger and roomier as well as better felt the right way to go.

The ultimate aim is to increase global sales, as Subaru seeks to “make more friends” who then stick with the brand and continue to buy its vehicles.

“Our goal is to attract a broader range of customers while retaining existing customers,” Mr Tachimori said.

“Now the Liberty is a true midsized competitor on every level.”

2 center imageLeft: Subaru Liberty engine cradle. Below: Subaru chief engineer Takeshi Tachimori.

Unsurprisingly, Mr Tachimori revealed that the Toyota Camry and the US market Honda Accord served as the packaging benchmarks for Liberty number five.

However, maintaining and improving the old models’ driver-focussed steering and handling, while retaining much of the Subaru’s unique character traits proved to be more of a challenge, particularly as reduced fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions were also high on Mr Tachimori’s agenda.

This is why Subaru has been working so diligently on its Lineartronic CVT, since the double-digit percentage point economy gains – combined with lower emissions compared its conventional four-speed automatic predecessor – mean Subaru did not have to abandon all-wheel drive for a lighter front-wheel drive configuration.

Yet there were factions within the company who pushed for just FWD to maximise overall efficiency – even when Mr Tachimori’s team provided data indicating that the CO2 differences between an equivalently specified AWD and FWD Liberty was just three per cent – or five grams per kilometre for a vehicle producing 160g/km.

“These numbers might seem small but for an engineer these are quite big numbers to achieve.

“I had engineers coming up to me saying ‘why don’t we sell a FWD model since it is very hard to achieve a three per cent CO2 reduction’?” he explained, adding that it was a battle to finally gain AWD approval.

But the desire to match the competition for refinement and comfort forced Subaru to walk away from its one-time trademark frameless door windows for more conventional sash-sealed ones – a process that started with the 2007 Impreza and carried through to the third-generation Forester released early last year.

Sealing their fate, so to speak, was the fact that the Liberty’s demographic has been ageing since the series commenced in 1989, to the point where many buyers are now middle aged. And conventional doorframes allow for a wider opening arc to facilitate entry and egress – a plus point to customers of an older demographic.

“After 20 years, the first-generation Liberty owners are now in their 50s, so Subaru had to change things on the new Liberty. Otherwise, it was going to be like the same old situation (in terms of tight packaging),” Mr Tachimori said.

The much-heralded engine cradle, too, aids comfort, by helping to quell noise, harshness and vibration, acting as a damper while providing a solid foundation for the running gear and front suspension. The result is improved steering feel and ride control.

But it almost never saw the light of day due to the high cost of development and application, Mr Tachimori admitted.

“It took a very, very long time to convince management because it was so expensive.” Adding pricing pressures, too, were the implementation of more lightweight materials throughout the engine, exhaust, rear platform and body structure.

So to keep a lid on development costs, all three of these model lines share mechanical components. Mr Tachimori estimates the figure to be between 20 and 30 per cent.

Finally, building the current model Camry at a Subaru plant in Japan has provided first-hand experience at reducing manufacturing-related costs as well as some leeway in negotiating cheaper pricing from some outside suppliers since small items such as starter buttons and the satellite navigation system are shared with Toyota.

“The Mk5 Liberty is the biggest change in the model’s history,” Mr Tachimori reiterated.

“We knew we wanted to make it different to all the previous models, but more importantly we wanted to make a huge leap away from the fourth-generation Liberty.

“The target audience outgrew the compact old Liberty even though they knew it was a good driving car.

But even though we decided to change the packaging and make it a little bigger, we kept the handling.”

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