Mid-size sedans don't get much love in Australia anymore, but offering practicality, driving enjoyment and affordability, here we bring two of the segment's best examples together...
Mid-sized sedans really do get a bad rap these days. Not so long ago, a Subaru Liberty was a genuinely cool family sedan with badge cred, not to mention the cache of a symmetrical all-wheel-drive system. Around that same time, you can assume the Kia Optima (if available) would have been a stylish alternative to the usual fare. Now though, the rush to SUVs has left the medium sedan segment trampled and unloved, much like an old laptop. The times, they are a-changin'…
In the shadow of that rabid SUV stampede though, and perhaps in spite of it, we’ve brought two compelling value stories within the medium sedan segment together to duke it out. The 2016 Subaru Liberty 2.5i Premium, and 2016 Kia Optima 2.4 Si are both sharply priced, generously proportioned and a none-too-subtle reminder of why Australians had such a long-running love affair with mid-sized sedans.
The arguments as to why buyers love SUVs are both lengthy and convincing, but there is almost certainly an element of keeping up with the Joneses, such is the curb appeal of most modern SUVs. There are also plenty of counter arguments to use against many of the nonsense reasons buyers ‘need’ an SUV. I’m pretty sure my mum managed to load my sister and I into the back seat of a sedan in the late '70s and early '80s, for example. Seems the modern parent can’t quite execute that manoeuvre though, not according to the SUV-buying rationale anyway.
Even within the Subaru stable, we’ve universally loved the Outback SUV, but if you don’t need the jacked-up, high-riding pretension that comes with an SUV you’ll never use outside the urban confines, can the Liberty still come up with the goods? Likewise the Optima, a Euro-styled sedan that should, in theory, be among the most attractive enticements within the Kia portfolio, and yet it’s the Sportage and Sorento that shine brightest.
Most recently, we’ve given the Liberty an 8.0 (in a Lifestyle context) and an 8.5 - depending on model grade - while the Optima has garnered an 8.5 in our two most recent reviews. This test is going to be close then.
I used the term ‘compelling value’ for good reason too, because both these sedans represent genuine value for money. So first up, let’s take a look at the numbers.
Pricing and equipment
In short, the value of these two cars is really hard to ignore. The Subaru Liberty, in 2.5i Premium trim, starts from $35,990 (before on-road costs) and our tester here, has only one option fitted, floor mats, so what you see is very much what you get.
The Kia Optima comes in two trim levels and this entry-level 2.4 Si starts from $34,490 (before on-road costs). We’ve put the range-topping GT model at the head of the class with the aforementioned 8.5 out of 10, but at this price, the fight might not be so easy for the South Korean contender.
Without options, the difference is a scant $1500. Here are the various standard equipment highlights for each model.
The Subaru Liberty is undoubtedly the better equipped of the two vehicles, especially in terms of standard safety kit, which includes the clever EyeSight driver assist system with adaptive cruise control.
Standard gear includes 18-inch alloy wheels, electric sunroof, full-size alloy spare, high-beam assist, power folding and heated side mirrors, LED positioning lamps, rain-sensing front wipers with de-icer, rear privacy glass, self-leveling and dusk-sensing LED headlights, heated front seats, choice of black or ivory leather, eight-way power seats (driver with dual memory and lumbar support), smart key and push-button start, multi-information display unit, six-speaker infotainment, MP3/WMA/iPod compatibility, 6.2-inch touchscreen, Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity, voice command recognition, auxiliary jack and USB input.
The Optima gets electric power steering with three driving modes (Normal, Sport and Eco), 17-inch alloy wheels, full-size alloy spare, rear-view camera, parking sensors, lane-departure warning system, autonomous emergency braking, high-beam assist, dusk-sensing headlights, static cornering lights, cloth trim, six-way adjustable front seats with two-way lumbar support adjustment for the driver's, front and rear 12-volt power outlets, USB input, six-speaker infotainment system with MP3 compatibility, satellite navigation with traffic information, 7.0-inch colour touchscreen, Bluetooth phone and audio streaming and rear air vents.
Engines and gearboxes
The Subaru Liberty is powered by – surprise, surprise – a 'boxer' engine. With a capacity of 2.5 litres, the four-cylinder horizontally-opposed lump makes 129kW of power at 5900rpm and 235Nm of torque at 4000rpm.
It’s backed by Subaru’s 'Lineartronic' transmission – a fancy name for a CVT – and the good news is, this CVT is one of the best we’ve tested. Subaru has often maintained a focus on driver engagement, and the idea of a 'Subie' being heavily diluted by a rubbish gearbox doesn’t sit well with us. This CVT however, doesn’t come anywhere near that.
The 'boxer' engine claims to use 7.3 litres of unleaded fuel every 100km on the combined cycle. On test, we saw 9.8L/100km. The Liberty runs a 60-litre fuel tank, meaning owners will get a theoretical touring range of 772km, with a 50km safety margin factored in.
The Kia Optima gets a 2.4-litre four-cylinder engine with 138kW at 6000rpm and 241Nm at 4000rpm. It's also front-wheel-drive compared with the all-wheel-drive Liberty. Where Subaru has opted for a CVT, Kia has instead gone with a conventional six-speed automatic. Not as snappy as the turbocharged GT engine, the Si platform does offer value and efficiency for Kia buyers who can’t stretch to the dearer variant.
The engine uses a claimed 8.3L/100km on the combined cycle, and on test we returned an identical (to the Liberty) 9.8L/100km. The Kia gets a larger 70-litre tank to counteract the increased fuel use, and therefore gets a theoretical touring range of 793km, with the same 50km safety margin taken into account.
So while each vehicle claims a different official fuel figure, over our test cycle at least, the pair's real-world numbers were identical. This means fuel usage figures are just as close as everything else with these two then.
Like the Optima, the Liberty has a profile that errs more on the side of a coupe than a sedan. The slope to the rear section of the roof is sharper, more swoopy and less ‘three-box design’ than boring sedans of old. The Liberty probably has a little bit more curb appeal in this specification, thanks to its larger 18-inch wheels and tyres.
While beauty is very much in the eye of the beholder, it has to be said that the Optima is not quite as attractive in Si guise as it is in range-topping GT trim. That’s not to say this more affordable model isn’t a good-looking medium sedan, because it is, but the 17-inch wheels and chubbier tyres detract a little from the more purposeful style of the GT. The wheels and tyres should ensure it rides beautifully though.
Look at the two side-on and they are very similar in proportion and execution. Both have sloping rear rooflines that swoop down toward the front edge of the boot, and both have that coupe look to them. There’s nothing boring about either vehicle, it has to be said, and both look more stylish than sedans of old ever did.
There’s almost no difference between the audio clarity of either system here on test. The Subaru’s works well, but doesn’t feel quite as intuitive or look as modern in its execution as the system in the Kia. In terms of sound clarity, both are at the better end of the scale.
The Kia system is - as we’ve noted with most recent Kias - particularly easy to pair with your smartphone. It’s quick, easy to work out and reliable once paired. Likewise the connection with the Liberty, which isn’t quite so easy to work out, but equally reliable once paired.
The satellite navigation systems in both vehicles are accurate and easy to work out, but we prefer the appearance and mapping design of the Kia. The traffic updates within the Kia system are also excellent.
The Bluetooth phone connections of both vehicles were crystal clear, and cleverly laid out steering wheel-mounted controls means using the phone is easy too. Both USB inputs are buried under trapdoors which is a great idea in theory, but the size of the storage bin won’t accommodated a large smartphone in a cover – a minor annoyance.
Once inside the cabin, the Liberty is the more premium feeling of the two vehicles for a number of reasons. The leather trim is beautifully executed, and the general appearance and feel of the plastics is at a higher level than in the Optima. The Kia makes do with cloth trim and plastics that don’t feel as premium throughout. The Liberty also has electric seat adjustment with two-position memory for the driver’s pew.
The Liberty’s touch points, such as where your elbows rest on the console or door linings, are soft and padded, and the seats are comfortable. We reckon the Liberty has a really impressive level of trim quality at this price point.
The sloping roofline combines with the shallow lower section of the rear door aperture to make getting in and out of the second row a little tricky. The door is broad at the hip point too, meaning you need to be able to open it right up to easily get in. Once you’re in, there’s plenty of knee room behind the driver’s seat, and comfortable seat bases as well. The Liberty also gets heated front seats, again a solid addition at this price point.
Strangely, the second row gets a decent fold down armrest, but no USB inputs or 12-volt power outlets. There are air vents however, well-presented cupholders, bottle holders and storage pockets in the door.
The Liberty’s boot is generous and hides a full-size spare beneath the floor. The second row seats fold flat but don’t have remote releases from the boot opening – you’ll need to reach into the cabin to drop them down. The hinges have gas dampers and are external, so they don’t eat into boot space, and while the aperture is good, it could be taller.
The Optima’s cloth trim can’t compete with the leather of the Liberty, but the cabin is otherwise tastefully executed and built to a high standard. The plastics are harder and more basic, but the design and layout is definitely classy.
The Optima doesn’t get electric front seats, instead relying on manual adjustment, but the driver does get electric lumbar support. While the plastics are harder in general, the touch points are still padded, ensuring the Optima cabin is comfortable.
The Kia’s second row is nowhere near as compromised as the Subaru’s in terms of entry and egress, and once in, there’s more knee room and head room too. The seat bases are comfortable and sculpted, and second-row occupants get air vents. They also get a USB input and a 12-volt charger, both lacking in the Subie. Like the Subaru, the Kia’s back doors have good-sized bottle holders and storage.
The Optima also has second row seats that fold flat, but they can be dropped via switches in the boot. The Kia’s hinges are internal though, so the wider aperture doesn’t translate necessarily to more useable storage space given the hinges will need to close down into the boot.
The Liberty is immediately quiet and refined on the open road. There’s no nasty slurring or whining coming from the CVT, the engine is docile without being lazy and there’s an effortless ease to the whole driving experience. Interestingly, the Subaru has lighter steering at low speed than the Kia, and it is shod with Dunlop SP Sport Max tyres measuring 225/50/R18. The stop/start system isn’t too annoying either, and it fires back into life rapidly enough to efficiently get away from a standstill.
What you will notice around town in the Liberty is the tendency for the safety systems to fire off obtrusively when you don’t really need them to. This is especially the case with the collision avoidance system. Thankfully, the positioning of the switchgear makes disabling any of these systems easy.
Onto our mismatched, uneven, potholed city road loop and the Liberty is utterly unruffled. It dispatches sharp traffic islands between 30-40km/h easily and the sense of calm in the cabin is never affected by the road surface beneath the tyres. The Liberty simply glides along in comfort. Insulation from wind and road noise is impressive right up to highway speeds too.
You get the sense with the Liberty that you could hustle it along if the mood took you as well, something most family buyers won’t have time for, but there’s a solid, planted nature to the Liberty’s footing. The engine gets more enthusiastic as the revs rise and you can easily push the Liberty up to 100km/h quickly. Visibility is excellent, especially forward, although the sloping roofline does impinge a little on rearward visibility.
That minor visibility gripe is counteracted by the excellent rear-view camera, which is broad, clear and has markings, making reverse parking a breeze. While the Liberty is generously proportioned, it isn’t a big vehicle physically, so it’s perfectly suited to the city.
The Optima is also impressive once you move out into the traffic, with the slightly meatier steering only noticeable at low speeds. It was a factor that our comparisons editor Curt Dupriez picked up on as well. The Optima rolls on quality Continental Conti Premium Contact tyres measuring 215/55/R17.
The quality of Kia’s local suspension tune is immediately evident, with the Optima taking nasty surfaces in its stride, soaking up the initial impact and crucially, settling quickly too. Like the Subaru, the Optima will rarely ever be out of its comfort zone in terms of bump absorption.
The one-inch smaller wheels and tyres definitely cosset occupants more than the higher-spec GT model does, not that it’s uncomfortable, just that this Si variant is even more comfortable. Like the Liberty, the Optima is easy to position and manoeuvre, and despite plenty of room inside the cabin, it’s still very much a practical city car. Both vehicles easily squeezed into tight underground carparks in the CBD during our week-long testing.
The Optima also has a high-quality rear-view camera – mounted slightly more sensibly higher up in the console – and is easy to reverse park into tight spaces. The Optima is nearly silent when you’re driving over smooth hot mix, and the cabin is likewise extremely insulated.
You will hear a little bit more road noise as speed increases over coarse chip surfaces though, something that wasn’t quite so noticeable in the Liberty. The engine is never harsh either, unless you work it right up to redline where it starts to make a bit of noise. But at city speeds, it’s very quiet.
Both vehicles have excellent and smart radar cruise control systems that worked flawlessly in heavy motorway traffic. Both are easily controlled via steering wheel-mounted switches and both maintained speed up and down hills.
Warranty and servicing
The Liberty is covered by Subaru’s three-year/unlimited kilometre warranty. There’s also a three-year/75,000km capped-price servicing program from the Japanese manufacturer, with prices between $300.00 and $526.00 over that period. The Liberty requires servicing every six months or 12,500km, with the price over the first 75,000km totalling $2202.11.
Kia’s seven-year/unlimited kilometre warranty is quite simply the best in the business, and evidence the company stands by its product when serviced by experts. The servicing costs are capped up to seven years/105,000km and are quite reasonable. They are required every 15,000km and range in price from $331.00 to $769.00 for the major services. All up, over the first seven years, servicing costs are $3196.00.
As you can see by nearly every facet of this comparison – and by looking at the accompanying photos – there’s almost nothing separating the two vehicles. We reckon the Kia Optima is right at the top of the segment in GT trim, but just slightly behind in this specification, scoring an 8.0 overall.
If it was our money though, after this test, we’d be forking out for the Subaru Liberty. It’s incredibly sensible, engaging to drive, and worthy of an 8.5 in this value-for-money specification. Neither the Optima nor Liberty will disappoint, but the Subaru edges the Optima ever so slightly.
One thing is patently clear though: this segment shouldn’t be as unloved as it is. Both these vehicles are evidence that the medium sedan segment is versatile, useful and offers a surprising value equation too. Before you blindly rush to an SUV to be just like your neighbours, take a good look at one of these sedans.