Improvements all-round for the Subaru Liberty make it more enticing for buyers. But it's not all roses, Matt Campbell finds.
The 2015 Subaru Liberty marks a quarter of a century of the mid-size model’s nameplate in Australia, and the brand has wound back prices to lower than they were a decade ago in order to celebrate.
With the base model 2.5i version of the new Subaru Liberty now priced at $29,990 plus on-road costs, the company has matched what it was asking buyers to pay for a Liberty in 2002.
Further to that, the flagship six-cylinder model – the 3.6R, now from $41,990 plus on-road costs – is the most affordable big six Liberty ever from Subaru.
The prices have been reset courtesy of a range of factors, including a favourable exchange rate, soon-to-be-confirmed free trade agreement, and fiercer competition in a market that is declining.
But while the mid-size segment is dipping off, it’s still one of the toughest parts of the market in Australia to fight in, so Subaru has added more gear.
The new-look model gets a bunch of enhanced standard specification across the range, including 18-inch alloy wheels, reverse-view camera with touchscreen media, dual-zone climate control, adaptive cruise control and an updated version of the brand’s EyeSight collision prevention system. You can read more about the specification levels of the 2015 Subaru Liberty here.
All of that kit is fitted to the sub-$30K base model, which has a list price lower than equivalent entry models such as the Hyundai i40 Active, Ford Mondeo LX, Honda Accord Euro, Mazda 6 Sport, Kia Optima Si, Toyota Camry Altise or Volkswagen Passat 118TSI.
So - lower price, more equipment and arguably better looking. This thing’s off to a good start.
The good news continues inside the cabin. Subaru claims the interior is significantly improved for the new-generation Liberty, and from the driver’s seat of the entry-level 2.5i model, we tend to agree.
The aforementioned touchscreen media unit takes pride of place on the dash, and it is rimmed by simple menu buttons. The colour display is crisp, as are the onscreen menus, and the Bluetooth connectivity was faultless in our car.
There’s no sat-nav in the base model – you need to opt for the 2.5i Premium (from $35,490 plus on-road costs) for that, along with a sunroof, heated front seats with electric seat adjustment, leather trim, smart key entry and push-button start and LED headlights. Plenty of gear to be had there compared to its key rivals.
The plastics covering the upper and lower dashboard and the tops of the door trims are all soft to the touch, while things such as the thick padding on the armrests and centre console bin lid add a new level of nicety to the Liberty’s cabin.
As is the case in the Outback, there are some little reminders of the previous model Liberty – the leather door-trim liner and squared storage pockets, for example – but if you’ve never sat in the previous one, we’re confident you’ll still find the new model a comfortable place to be.
The seats are big and while they lack some support under the thighs, they are good for long-distance driving. The rear chairs, too, offer good comfort, with excellent leg- and shoulder-room, while only tall humans will be left wanting for head-room.
The boot has increased in volume, now “almost equal to a Commodore” but still smaller than a Camry or the cheaper Skoda Octavia at 490 litres, up from 476L. It is a deep boot space but the opening is quite shallow, and could make loading awkwardly sized objects difficult - though it does get 60:40 split fold seats. We also found the lack of a boot release button on the lid of the 2.5i extremely annoying.
Under the bonnet of the 2.5i is a carryover – but rejigged – four-cylinder ‘boxer’ engine with 129kW of power and 235Nm of torque, mated to a continuously variable transmission (CVT) automatic with drive sent to all four wheels.
The 2.5-litre engine is energetic enough, though it responds best as the revs rise above 3000rpm. That CVT has been fettled to make it feel more like a conventional auto, with pronounced steps between the ‘gears’ – and it is indeed one of the best CVTs we’ve sampled.
What was perhaps the most impressive aspect of the 2.5i was the fact it isn’t noisy. Previous Liberty models have suffered from considerable vibration and noise intrusion from the engine under hard throttle, but the refinement of the updated 2.5i is a big step forward.
However, it can’t match the fuel consumption of some its main competitors with a claimed use of 7.3 litres per 100 kilometres – about 10 per cent higher than the likes of the Mazda 6 2.5-litre petrol. We saw in the 8s on our test car’s trip computer during mainly country driving.
Buyers will likely be impressed with the base model’s 18-inch wheels (which are identical on all grades) but there’s a payoff when it comes to the comfort of the ride in the 2.5i – which is to say, that the ride is quite uncomfortable.
While its firmness does make it feel slightly more, dare we say it, ‘sporty’ to drive – and its improved steering with better feedback and quicker turn-in response assists in that regard – it is not a sports sedan.
The wheels tend to pick up most of the little rubbish bits of the road and transmit them into the cabin, making for a frustratingly fiddly ride on country back roads. It also proved quite clunky over larger bumps on the road.
There’s a saving grace for those who prefer a smoother ride, and it comes in the form of the range-topping 3.6R.
Despite sitting atop the same 18-inch wheels wrapped in 50-profile Dunlop SP Sport tyres and weighing in at 1605 kilograms (or 103kg more than the base model), it proved more controlled and considerably more comfortable thanks to the extra mass, chiefly over the front axle.
Again, it can’t match the likes of the Mazda 6 or Holden Commodore for all-around competence in terms of a trade-off between comfort and road-holding, but the all-wheel drive and new torque-vectoring systems help counteract understeer, meaning it feels quite surefooted. Those Dunlop tyres also help in grip terms.
That car’s engine also proved more delightful to use, with its 3.6-litre horizontally-opposed ‘boxer’ engine offering smooth progress while, once again, keeping things impressively quiet inside the cabin.
It pumps out 191kW (at 6000rpm) and 350Nm (at 4400rpm), so like the 2.5i it prefers to rev than rely on low-end punch. But we found it comfortable to saunter along some Victorian b-roads, and when we did plant the right foot it responded with vim.
It also gets an updated CVT in place of the previous slurry five-speed auto, which offers better response and similarly pronounced ‘shifts’ that can be heard and felt by those inside.
While the buy-in price of the Liberty will turn heads, it remains one of the dearer cars to own, based on the company’s indicative capped price service scheme.
Buy the 3.6R and you’re looking at an average of $1032 per year to service the car, and it requires maintenance visits every six months or 12,500km, whichever occurs first. The 2.5i is more affordable, but still high, at $865 per annum. It also requires six-month/12,500km maintenance.
All Subaru models are covered by a three-year, unlimited kilometre warranty.
The high cost of ownership is, however, one of the biggest chinks in the armour of what is otherwise an impressive mid-size sedan.