Is this the best mid-sized Japanese sedan?
For too long we had hoped that Subaru would return to its roots and create aggressively styled vehicles with dynamic ability at their core. With the new Liberty, Subaru finally had the chance to deliver a complete package at a good price.
To find out if it’s more than just a pretty face, we spent a week test-driving a 2015 Subaru Liberty 3.6R around Brisbane, including a trip to the Girraween national park via Warwick. First impressions? It’s excellent.
First there’s the price, which at $41,900 plus on-road costs is a relative bargain for a car its size sporting a large and powerful engine, while delivering its might via an all-wheel drive setup. Not to mention it comes packed with plenty of standard features.
The price for the top-spec sixth-generation Liberty represents a $14,000 price cut from its equivalent predecessor, which is great for new buyers, not so good for those that coughed up the cash for the fifth-generation.
The Liberty, as far as we are concerned, is the start of a new chapter for Subaru. The interior is no longer (as) spartan, the CVT auto is no longer uninspiring and most importantly, it actually looks good from the outside.
Unlike the previous-generation, you don’t have to squint to like it, or come up with ridiculous lines like “it’s so ugly it almost looks good”. It just… looks good. It’s almost surprising that it looks good because Subaru designers have for the last decade or so appeared to be suffering from glaucoma.
In saying that, the female perspective in the family says that it looks a little conservative, but still much better than before.
With three adults, a three year old and a seven month old inside as well as a full size pram and a suitcase on top of a soft bag in the boot, we definitely expected the Liberty to be a cramped and a rather uncomfortable sedan for our six hour round journey. It wasn’t, and while the Outback may be the smarter choice for families with younger kids, the Liberty put up no obstacles in terms of practicality or interior space.
Our nanny fit comfortably between two full sized child seats and there was plenty of leg and knee room for all. That’s definitely not the case for some of its competitors.
In terms of its actual interior quality we found the Liberty to be top-notch, with well-integrated displays and high-quality materials throughout the cabin. It rivals the Mazda 6 in this regard.
The new Subaru Liberty range starts from $29,990 for the base model with a 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine coupled to a continuously variable transmission (CVT). The mid-spec Premium is likely the pick of the bunch if outright performance isn’t your thing, however the 3.6R is, in this tester’s humble opinion, the best mid-sized Japanese sedan on the market.
It does cost an additional $6500 on top of the 2.5 Premium and for that you really just get a bigger engine, dual exhausts and a harman/kardon 12-speaker sound system. Is it worth it? Yes, if you can afford it.
For your money you get 191kW of power and 350Nm of torque, an extra 62kW and 115Nm over the 2.5-litre. It also means a 0-100km/h time of 7.2 seconds, as opposed to 9.6s, which in the real world is an enormous improvement, most noticeable when it comes to overtaking on the highway or mid-gear acceleration from 60-80km/h.
Generally, a CVT is a horrible idea when it’s coupled with a decent engine but in the 3.6R’s case, it’s the opposite. Somehow, Subaru engineers have got this engine to actually work with a generally tedious transmission setup.
It seems to find itself in the right rev range more often than not and there’s none of that constant drone that you get from the CVT found in the Impreza and XV.
On the long Cunningham highway run from Brisbane to Warwick, we simply enabled the active cruise control, set the speed to 100km/h and let the Subaru do the rest. It flawlessly followed the car in front, managing its speed and dealing with any last minute lane changers with ease. For more than 90 minutes we didn’t touch the brake or accelerator pedal and the car, or the driver, never panicked.
There’s an unnecessarily large number of beeps to let you know the system is engaged, then another beep when it locks on to a car in front and then again when it loses it. But you’ll (eventually) appreciate its diligence. Although the lane departure warnings are a tad annoying, you can turn them off.
One feature that we did love and wished was on more cars is the alert that comes on when the car in front has moved and you’re still standing still. So if you’re sitting in traffic and checking Facebook (lets be honest, people do it) and the car in front moves, the Liberty will give you a buzz if you don’t follow soon after. It’s perhaps the most useful little feature and one other car companies would do well to copy.
Having emptied the car from nagging passengers, the Liberty and its test driver headed through the twisty roads of the Cunningham gap for a dynamic assessment. It’s important to note that from the get-go the new Liberty feels far more confident on its feet than the previous car. While there’s no denying the Subaru’s 1605kg kerb weight, the ease of manoeuvrability at high speed around bends is rather pleasing.
In terms of ride comfort we found the Subie to be generally well-mannered, if not just slightly on the firm side. Though this is not the case on the base model.
The all-wheel drive system works coherently with the engine and transmission tie-up, and though Subarus have a tendency to understeer under pressure, the new Liberty felt well balanced and composed when push came to shove.
It’s hard to argue with the advantages of all-wheel drive in any situation. Some will argue that it adds unnecessary weight, fuel usage and cost, but ultimately, given a wet road the Liberty feels like a different car to its competitors. Its safety benefits are worth the slight compromise.
Speaking of fuel, Subaru claims the Liberty will use 9.9L per 100km, which is somewhat optimistic if you’re having a go, but on our round trip to and from Brisbane it actually managed just 8.8L/100km and that was for a car that had just 2500km on the odometer.
So, what’s not to like? Well, there are some strange issues with the boot, we found it just didn’t want to open at times and we had to basically hold the key next to the boot itself to get it to authenticate when pressing the button (there’s not even a button on the boot itself on the 2.5 models). It’s basic, but it can get frustrating very quickly.
The seven-inch satellite navigation system is typically Japanese. Cumbersome and somewhat slow. It needs to rid itself of the six buttons around the screen and go for a rotary dial of some sort for better usability. It’s also not a fan of being in direct sunlight.
There was no issues pairing our iPhone 6 (iOS 8.3) and streaming music, though the Bluetooth microphone quality wasn’t all that great and forget about using Siri on the go. It has native support for Pandora but it would’ve been a great opportunity for Subaru to incorporate Apple CarPlay and Android Autos.
Then there’s the servicing cost and short intervals, which at every six months or 12,500km (whichever occurs first) comes to $1032 a year, while the 2.5i is slightly more affordable at $865 per annum. That doesn’t compare well with say, a Toyota Camry, but then again the Camry is about as inspiring as a dentist’s waiting room, so you get what you pay for.
Overall, we see the 2015 Subaru Liberty as the best Japanese mid-sized sedan when it comes to dynamic performance, interior practicality, active and passive safety features and general fit and finish. It’s not the cheapest in its class to own and run, but what it offers for the extra cost is well worth it.