Reflecting on a brand's past is a great way to highlight progress. CarAdvice has previously compared iconic models such as the Jaguar E-Type, Peugeot 205 GTi and Mini Cooper S with their newest respective iterations. And within the Subaru family, we’ve looked closely at the WRX and its harder-edged sibling the STI. But of all the Pleiades-stamped models to come from Fuji Heavy Industries, one has long been the quiet achiever: the Subaru Liberty.
First launched in Japan in 1989 – under its overseas ‘Legacy’ moniker – here we have the all-new sixth-generation Subaru Liberty and its fourth-generation predecessor.
Why the fourth-gen? Well, at the time – late 2006/early 2007 – the all-wheel-drive mid-sizer was at a peak in its career in terms of styling, quality and dynamics. So much so, the Japanese sedan was doing an excellent job of knocking on the door of the likes of the Audi A4 and BMW 3 Series.
Despite its positive development and maturation, Liberty sales in Australia had in fact peaked years earlier.
According to Subaru Australia, the Liberty’s best-ever monthly sales figure was recorded in 1991 (1135 units), its best year on record coming in 1992 (8857 units).
Back in ‘06/’07, if you were after some performance bang for your executive buck, you had two options in the Liberty range: the turbocharged flagship Liberty GT or the naturally aspirated 3.0R. And sitting atop the 3.0R pile was the $52,490 spec.B ($54,490 in wagon form).
The particular example you see here – belonging to 31-year-old IT specialist Steve – is a six-speed manual MY07 3.0R spec.B sedan.
With its 3.0-litre horizontally opposed six-cylinder churning out 180kW of power at 6600rpm and 297Nm of torque at 4200rpm, it’s the perfect match for the new range-topping sixth-gen Liberty 3.6R.
Powered by a naturally aspirated 3.6-litre six-cylinder, the latest sports-slanted Liberty makes 191kW of power at 6000rpm and 350Nm of torque at 4400rpm.
Claiming a 6.9-second 0-100km/h time, Steve’s 1510kg Diamond Grey metallic fourth-gen 3.0R is 0.3 seconds faster than our 95kg heavier (tare weight) Lapis Blue Pearl 3.6R.
Impressively though, starting at $41,990, the new car is $10,500 cheaper than the original list price of its forebear.
And while self-levelling bi-xenon headlights and a five-star ANCAP safety rating led the way for the 3.0R in terms of tech and safety, the new 3.6R is at the cutting edge thanks to its EyeSight driver assist technology.
Relying on stereo cameras mounted inside the top of the windscreen, EyeSight comprises adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning, lane sway warning, lead vehicle alert, and several pre-collision management systems including autonomous braking.
Other notable standard equipment on the 2015 Liberty 3.6R is a reversing camera, dusk-sensing headlights, rain-sensing wipers, curtain and knee airbags, two ISOFIX child seat anchor points, and stability control. Oddly, parking sensors, front or rear, are amiss.
Both cars employ Subaru’s famed symmetrical all-wheel-drive system, however, the newer sixth-gen Liberty – only available with a continuously variable transmission (CVT) – trades the fourth-gen’s mechanical centre differential for an automatic active torque split setup.
Separated by around eight years – and the boxier fifth-gen Liberty that saw the departure of the always-cool frameless doors – there are still similarities between the fourth- and sixth-gen ‘Libos’.
Common to the pair are fog lights, wing mirror-integrated indicators, an electric sunroof, a single parcel tray-mounted stoplight and subwoofer, and – somewhat humorously – ‘DataDot’ stickers.
The rear-end ‘Liberty’ badge font remains identical, though, a single ‘joined’ item replaces the older car’s individual lettering.
Exterior styling of the Liberty has changed over the years, with the new car being longer, wider and taller than the old fourth-gen.
The new sixth-gen also rides on a longer wheelbase and features wider front and rear tracks. Interestingly, ground clearance has actually reduced 5mm – from 155mm to 150mm.
Keen-eyed Subey fans will have likely already spotted some subtle changes to Steve’s 3.0R too.
Arriving into his hands as-is three years ago, the spec.B sports a Jap-spec front grille and a non-standard exhaust system – the latter boosting the smooth 3.0-litre’s trademark note and doubling the model’s exhaust pipe count from two to four.
Jump inside either car and, again, the family resemblance is there.
Be it MY15 or MY07, you slide into a leather seat, adjust power mirrors, adjust a power seat, set dual-zone climate controls and select a drive mode via Subaru’s Intelligent Drive (SI-Drive) system – technology that made its Liberty debut on the updated MY07 model.
Both get a leather-wrapped multifunction steering wheel with audio, cruise and ‘info’ controls – though the 3.0R’s is a Momo item – and both have a multifunction display in the instrument cluster for vehicle information and SI-Drive ‘mapping’.
And while the new 3.6R gets a little storage cubby hole at the base of its centre stack, the old 3.0R gets an identical space near the top of its centre stack, which would – had the car’s first owner ticked a $3490 options box – be home to a satellite navigation unit.
The fourth-gen’s 14-speaker McIntosh stereo with a six-stack in-dash CD player has been ousted in favour of a 12-speaker harman/kardon unit with Bluetooth phone and audio streaming capabilities and a seven-inch touchscreen.
Back seat passengers are fairly spoiled in either car. Apart from acres of rear legroom – up to 25mm more in the case of the sixth-gen – rear occupants get air vents, two map pockets (netted in the MY07, enclosed in the MY15), and two cup holders in a fold-down centre armrest.
Modernity shines on the 3.6R, however, with rear passenger door pockets added and the 3.0R’s centre-seat ski-port ditched in favour of a more conventional and far more flexible 60:40 split-fold rear-seat arrangement.
Possibly more a reflection on the increasing size of people than the increasing size of cars, the seats themselves have grown: the front pews now 10mm wider than before, the rears 10mm deeper. Boot capacity too has increased, up 60 litres to 493L – perfect for accommodating several sets of golf sticks.
Hitting the road, we first grab the gen four’s fixed, protruding key, slide it into its ignition barrel slot and turn it.
Riding on 18-inch wheels and model-specific Bilstein suspension, the firmly sprung MY07 3.0R sits nice and flat through bends.
On the busy side, major bumps are felt through the steering wheel, however, steering feedback is positively measured, with weighting remaining consistent.
Cementing this era Subaru Liberty’s place as a genuine sports sedan contender, though, is the engine and gearbox combination.
The icing on what is still an incredibly involving, engaging and communicative automotive cake, the gutsy ‘atmo’ 3.0-litre and slick and accurate six-speed manual band together to deliver loads of low-end torque and flexible power.
More than just a premium-feeling sedan, the old 3.0R is more akin to a grown up WRX – it entices and encourages you to want to drive it properly, harder and harder.
We swap keys to the 2015 Subaru Liberty’s boxy black plastic fob, jump in and push its engine start/stop button. It’s instantly quieter, more comfortable and more refined. It also feels far bigger.
There’s easily less road noise than in Steve’s Liberty and, apart from some wind noise coming off the A-pillar and driver’s wing mirror at 100km/h, it feels very luxurious indeed.
Using EyeSight does bring with it an abundance of beeps – it’ll beep when it detects a car ahead of you, beep again when they change out of your lane, beep if you near a lane edge, etc., etc. – but extended highway miles are a breeze.
The MY15 3.6R’s ride is soft and forgiving around town and on freeways, the larger capacity engine – with the aid of its CVT – offering smooth and linear power and torque delivery.
Now happily able to burn through a claimed 9.9 litres of unleaded fuel per 100km, time has also been kind to your wallet, with the older 3.0R demanding premium unleaded at a claimed rate of 12.4L/100km (a change introduced from MY10 Liberty and Outback 3.6R models).
Push the 3.6R, though, and cracks do start to appear.
Poor body control over mid-corner bumps sees the newer Liberty become skittish and unsettled. And while the standard 225mm-wide 50-aspect Dunlop tyres provide legitimate grip, when driven at pace, the sixth-gen simply can’t match the old fourth-gen for sheer dynamic agility and mid-corner stability.
Add to this the 3.6R’s lighter and more detached steering and, compared with its predecessor, the new car simply feels less exciting.
Driving these two particular Libertys back-to-back is very interesting. They are quite different beasts that were clearly built for very different purposes or with differing goals in mind.
Spend any time behind the wheel of the MY07 3.0R and it’s obvious that, with this model, Subaru sought to produce a mid-size executive sedan that offered comfort and practicality but, at the same time, some real sporting personality – possibly to the detriment of some elements of refinement.
The new Liberty is a completely different kettle of fish, no doubt built to a different brief. The new 3.6R is intended to be a vastly comfortable, highly specced mid-sizer that is easier and safer to drive than anyone in 2006/07 would’ve thought possible.
It’s softer, quieter, better equipped and better priced than the old car but that all seems to have come at the sacrifice of what the 3.0R represented: a genuine Japanese-built A4/3 Series rival.
Progress? Undoubtedly. But regardless of your view, it’s clear that, for Subaru at least, the game has most definitely moved on…
Click on the Photos tab for more 2015 Subaru Liberty 3.6R and MY07 Subaru Liberty 3.0R images by David Zalstein.