The Holden Commodore and Ford Falcon were long the default options for families wanting a bucketload of space, a sporty drive and a powerful six-cylinder engine. And let’s not forget the somewhat less inspiring Toyota Aurion, too.
Sometimes forgotten though, and somewhat pushed off to the side, is the mid-sized Subaru Liberty — especially in 3.6R guise, which teams a meaty six-cylinder engine with all-wheel-drive prowess.
So we grabbed the 2016 Holden Calais V and 2016 Subaru Liberty 3.6R and hit the road to see which makes the better family sedan.
Pricing and equipment
Priced from $47,990 (before on-road costs), the Holden Calais V V6 sits atop Holden’s six-cylinder line-up. It offers Holden’s most luxurious fit-out (sans the Caprice, which is now only available with a V8) and is teamed with the local manufacturer's trusty naturally aspirated 3.6-litre V6 engine.
Producing 210kW of power and 350Nm of torque, the hearty V6 is mated to Holden’s impressive six-speed automatic transmission and consumes a claimed 9.0 litres per 100km on the combined cycle - despite the Calais V weighing in at 1704kg.
It comes loaded with features, including heated leather seats, dual-zone climate control, a nine-speaker stereo, 19-inch alloy wheels, a rear-view camera with front and rear parking sensors, semi-automatic parking, keyless entry and start, cruise control, electrically adjustable front seats, satellite navigation, a head-up display, automatic headlights and windscreen wipers, and an electric sunroof, among others.
Safety features include six airbags, stability control, forward collision alert, rear cross-traffic alert, lane-departure warning, blind-spot monitoring and a hill holding function.
Priced from $42,490 (before on-road costs), the Subaru Liberty 3.6R is Subaru’s equivalent high-spec sedan offering. While it sits in the medium category, compared with the well-and-truly large sized Calais, it manages to hold its own thanks to an all-wheel-drive system and a naturally aspirated six-cylinder engine, in addition to sharp pricing.
Under the Liberty’s bonnet is a horizontally-opposed 3.6-litre 'boxer' six-cylinder naturally aspirated petrol engine producing 191kW of power and a Calais-matching 350Nm of torque. Despite its lighter weight of 1605kg, the all-wheel-drive Liberty 3.6R claims a slightly higher combined cycle fuel consumption figure of 9.9L/100km.
Standard features include leather seats, dual-zone climate control, automatic windscreen wipers and LED headlights, a 12-speaker stereo with a subwoofer, a rear-view camera, radar cruise control, electric driver’s seat (front row heated), steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters, satellite navigation, keyless entry and start, an auto-dimming rear vision mirror, and an electric sunroof.
Safety features include seven airbags (with driver’s knee airbag), autonomous emergency braking (AEB), lane-departure warning, blind-spot monitoring, and rear cross-traffic alert.
Both vehicles are quite well equipped for their respective price tags, with the Liberty offering the most bang for buck.
Stepping into the Calais, things feel familiar. That’s not such a bad thing. The interior is well presented with the Calais V picking up stylish dashboard lining highlights, sumptuous leather seats with heating (for the front row) and masses of leg and headroom in the second row.
It still surprises us just how big the Calais is inside, with plenty of room to fit three adults abreast along the second row. The boot is equally as cavernous, offering 496 litres of cargo capacity.
Build quality and fit and finish within the Calais' cabin is pretty good. The materials used make the car feel like it’s worth its price tag and the overall ambience is warm.
Touch points within a cabin often set the tone for a vehicle, and in the Calais' instance, it performs well on this front. Suede-esque material on the dashboard is home to a 'Calais V' stitched insignia, while the seats are comfortable and feel high quality.
The centre console is well laid out with buttons for semi-automatic parking, parking sensors and the electrically actuated parking brake.
Strangely, the Calais doesn’t come with a folding second row, which means the only access to the boot is via a ski port. Thankfully, the boot is massive and offers a huge aperture to make loading items in quite easy and straightforward.
The infotainment system is driven by an 8.0-inch MyLink infotainment system that features satellite navigation and internet music streaming abilities. The infotainment system’s voice recognition is great, clearly picking up phone contact names and commands on each attempt.
Stepping into the Liberty offers a very different experience. The cabin feels smaller than the Calais and is finished with soft-touch materials at all its touch points.
The doors, centre console and seats are coated in a soft leather material that offers padding for a more luxury feel. The steering wheel too feels nicer in the hands, with a number of controls within easy reach.
Leg and headroom up front is excellent, but the second row is slightly compromised in terms of knee and legroom. It’s not as cavernous as the Calais, but that’s only to be expected given the 4795mm-long Liberty is around 200mm shorter than the 4964mm-long Calais. It does, however, feature 60:40 split-folding rear seats.
At 493 litres, the Liberty's boot capacity is only down three litres compared with the Calais' 496 litres.
The 7.0-inch infotainment screen is smaller than the Calais', and can be a bit fiddly to use at times. The menus and buttons on the touchscreen are quite small, and hitting them accurately while on the move can be tricky.
Thankfully, the Liberty makes up for this with a cracking sound system. The 3.6R's standard 12-speaker harman/kardon unit impresses, with a meaty subwoofer further kicking things along.
It offers the usual audio connectivity options, such as Bluetooth, two USB ports and internet music streaming capability. It also features a voice recognition system that works well, but isn’t as sharp or accurate as that in the Calais.
While it may not come into play around the city, the two cars being tested here have very different headlights. The Calais' halogen low beams offers fairly poor coverage in dark areas. Its high beams are better, but still nowhere near the league of the Liberty's setup.
The Liberty comes with self-levelling LED headlights that project far into the distance. The Liberty’s high beams offers further throw and work a charm in the country where it’s important to have a wide and strong light spectrum.
Both cars may offer leather seats with front seat heaters, but it’s the Liberty’s cabin that feels more cost, which is a feeling that could also be influenced by its smaller size.
With a drive route designed to extract the most from these two family haulers, we put both cars through a back-to-back test loop that included around 25km of city and highway driving, before veering off the smooth blacktop for some mixed-surface country miles.
With tyre pressures checked against manufacturer recommendations and air conditioning in both cars set to 22 degrees Celsius, the city and highway loop revealed near-identical fuel usage figures.
The six-speed automatic transmission in the Calais didn’t offer any efficiency gains over the Liberty’s continuously variable transmission (CVT), with both recording 8.0L/100km over the 25km city and highway run.
The Calais felt smooth and planted through the city and on the highway. The steering offers plenty of feedback and the electrically-assisted steering rack helps place the car in tight city streets.
Visibility out the front and rear is excellent, with vision only hampered by a giant A-pillar and relatively small wing mirrors. Thankfully, the Calais is fitted with an impressive rear-view camera and also comes with semi-automatic parking and front parking sensors as standard.
The ride almost perfectly soaks up shoddy city roads and feels equally at home at speed on a smooth highway. It misses out on radar cruise control, but does come with forward collision alert and a lane-departure warning, as well as blind-spot monitoring.
Throttle response is excellent and brake pedal feel is communicative around the city. It makes it easy to get through gaps in traffic, with just a brief stab of the throttle getting things moving.
Almost as if they were cast from the same mould, the Liberty rides just as nicely through the city and on open highway stretches.
While it matches the Calais in terms of engine displacement, the use of a CVT makes it feel a little lethargic when called upon. There is an immediate surge from the naturally aspirated six-cylinder engine, but it runs out of puff fairly quickly and ends up just screaming without much forward movement.
Subaru offers three driving modes via its Subaru Intelligent Drive (SI-Drive) technology, which tailor throttle response depending on your needs. The 'I' (Intelligent Drive) mode is for normal driving, while 'Sport' and 'Sport Sharp' allow the vehicle to respond to inputs much quicker.
The Subaru’s steering rack is slightly quicker than the Calais', which means it’s easier to manoeuvre through traffic. While it doesn’t have a semi-automatic parking feature, the rear-view camera is good and helps make parking a breeze.
Unlike the Calais, the Liberty comes with steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters that allow the gearbox to simulate gearshifts. It’s a fairly redundant feature given the CVT whips through its power and torque band most impressively without user input.
The Liberty lifts the stakes with more standard safety equipment. Forward collision alert with autonomous emergency braking teams with radar cruise control, a lane-keep warning, blind-spot monitoring, and a handy mode that buzzes if the car in front has moved off while you are stationary.
These features come courtesy of Subaru’s renowned EyeSight system that uses two windscreen-mounted cameras to monitor the road ahead for other vehicles and obstacles.
The Liberty feels smaller than the Calais on the road both in terms of placement and interior room, but it certainly doesn’t feel overly small. Visibility is also excellent, which is an added bonus.
Our country road loop of around 45km included some poor quality country roads, along with a few corners and a rutted gravel section. These conditions are typical Australian country driving conditions and should ideally help highlight why the Calais remains such a popular car with country buyers not interested in an SUV.
As we expected, the Holden beautifully soaked up bumps and offered incredible ride compliance, settling quickly following impacts. The steering feel remained sharp and accurate, while throttle response at highway speeds was excellent with minimal fuss from the gearbox.
A set of tight bends tested the vehicles close to the limit of their handling abilities. The Calais turned in nicely and moved on to body roll but found a neutral spot and then stuck to it as throttle was fed in on corner exit.
Despite sending all of its torque to the rear wheels, the Calais felt comfortable being thrown into corners, and traction loss didn’t become an issue until we became 'enthusiastic' with throttle inputs.
This really surprised us and highlighted how well the vehicle handles dynamically. It’s a brilliant marriage between suspension, damping and tyres that helps deliver such impressive results.
We immediately rotated into the Subaru and were surprised with the results. The Subaru’s steering rack is quicker, which means you don’t need to turn in as much as you do in the Holden.
The Subaru also sat flatter through corners, but was then let down by an intrusive stability control system and tyres that didn’t feel up to the task - the Liberty would push to understeer, which would cause the stability control to intervene.
We felt that if it had a stickier set of tyres it would bite down and take advantage of its all-wheel-drive system. In this instance, it didn’t feel any better than the Calais when the corners were attacked at the same speed.
That all changed when we hit gravel roads though - roads comprising smooth and rutted sections. Both cars performed exceptionally well when travelling at the signposted 100km/h speed limit.
It was in the corners, however, we saw the Liberty really begin to shine. You could literally tip it into a corner with a bit of a flick and then hit the throttle.
The symmetrical all-wheel-drive system would bite down and steer the Liberty directly through the corner with no fuss at all. At the same time, the Calais would be grappling for grip and the driver would continuously be fighting an ever-intervening stability control system.
Our performance tests revealed some interesting results too. In the 0-100km/h tests, the Calais V came away with a best time of 6.9 seconds, while the Liberty took 7.7 seconds. The tests showed that both cars had an equal 60-100km/h time of 3.6 seconds, indicating that it’s the CVT that holds the Subaru back off the line.
In the opposite direction — 100-0km/h — the Holden took top honours, with an impressive stopping distance of 36.7m. The Liberty took 41.6m to stop in the same test.
At the end of our drive loop (inclusive of performance testing) both cars yet again had identical fuel consumption figures, a match at 12.3L/100km apiece.
It was genuinely difficult to separate the two during our drive loops. Both vehicles offer an engaging drive with neither totally trumping the other — not what we were expecting.
It’s important to also look at towing capacities. Both these vehicles offer similar towing capacities, coming in at 1800kg for the Liberty with a braked trailer and 750kg with an unbraked trailer. The Calais on the other hand offers 2100kg of braked towing capacity and 750kg of unbraked capacity. That means that each car could potentially tow a sizeable camper trailer or a small caravan with relative ease.
Warranty and servicing
While the Liberty 3.6R may cost $5500 less than the Calais V up front, it presents with the higher servicing costs. The Subaru Liberty requires servicing every six months (or 12,500km), and over a period of three years, it costs $2625.43 to service.
The Calais, on the other hand, requires servicing every nine months (or 15,000km) and costs $956.00 over a three-year period to service.
Both manufacturers offer a capped-price servicing program and come with three-year warranties — the Subaru allowing unlimited kilometres during that period and Holden allowing 100,000km.
Both cars accept 91RON regular unleaded petrol, which means they will cost around the same to run daily too.
We went into this test expecting the Subaru to be the dynamic leader, with the Holden offering the ride and size equaliser.
What we found was that the Calais — despite its size and age of its chassis — still has what it takes to tackle this great country of ours. Equally, the cheaper Liberty is just as well placed to haul the family and tackle country roads.
It’s not often we do this, but we would recommend both vehicles equally. The Subaru wins on price, but with the current situation with local manufacturing, if you're keen on the Holden, you’re unlikely to be paying sticker prices. The Subaru is also then let down by higher servicing costs.
Both vehicles perform exceptionally well with their respective drivetrains and offer high levels of comfort and luxury without astronomical price tags.
These two vehicles should both be on your shopping list if you’re fortunate enough to be one of those buyers not suckered in by the SUV hype.
Click the Photos tab for more images by Tom Fraser and Paul Maric.