2018 Subaru Liberty 3.6R review

Subaru has equipped its Liberty sedan with various upgrades for 2018, as the company bids to take on the new Toyota Camry and other key rivals in the shrinking mid-sized-car battleground.

Strong hopes will be pinned on this updated 2018 Subaru Liberty. The well-established sedan, now in its sixth generation, was the only major loser in a record sales year for the brand in 2017. The Liberty dropped 42 per cent year on year in a sub-$60K medium-car category that dipped 20 per cent.

The brand’s famously loyal customers were probably savvy enough to note that an MY18 model was impending. There are certainly enough changes to warrant the wait.

First, the styling. The grille bars swap from black to chrome to match the surround, the Subaru Liberty 3.6R flagship model we’re testing (along with the 2.5i Premium) adopts new multi-function LED headlights that can peer around corners and feature adaptive beam control, the front bumper features sharpened profiling and revised fog lights, and the rear bumper switches to a diffuser-style look that emphasises the dual tailpipes.

There are also new-look 18-inch alloy wheels across the range, featuring a five-twin-spoke rim design.

The Liberty’s interior literally gets some extra gloss – with the introduction of shinier black panels. This includes the centre stack, which is now more distinctively defined with a chrome-surrounded trapezoid shape – mimicking a tablet device, according to Subaru.

Taking centre spot is a larger touchscreen – up from 7.0 to 8.0 inches for the 2.5i Premium and 3.6R – though most of the shortcut buttons either side are familiar. (The 2.5i gets a 6.5-inch display.)

It incorporates a TomTom navigation system, and new-for-2018 is smartphone mirroring with the Liberty adopting Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The screen’s response to touches is good without quite fitting the ‘instantaneous’ description. Owners also get an Apps button directing to a screen where they can customise their mirrored applications.

A Harman Kardon audio system continues as an exclusive for the 3.6R, which helps to justify the $6500 gap to the 2.5i Premium along with the bigger engine and a third driving mode (Sport Sharp).

There’s also a new arrangement for heating-ventilation controls, with buttons switching from silver to black and dials remaining for temperature control. A new-look steering wheel – still three-spoked but with smarter buttons and toggles (more gloss black) – completes the revised cabin.

The touches may be relatively subtle, though the glossy-black additions combine well with the brush-effect plastic on the centre console, chrome touches, soft materials in key touchpoints, and leather upholstery to create a fairly dapper cabin.

It’s practical, too. Storage up front remains excellent through well-sized door and console bins, centre cupholders, and a compartment ahead of the gearlever that houses AUX/USB ports.

Rear-seat occupants are also looked after with large door bins, map pockets, an armrest with smart-looking fixed cupholders, and two USB ports that now join the vents on the back of the centre console. Knee space remains plentiful – we’re years past the days of the handsome-but-cramped fourth-generation Liberty – and head room is fine if not generous.

These days, of course, you have to buy an Outback if you want a ‘Liberty’ wagon, yet the sedan isn’t bereft of practical touches.

Boot access isn’t high but it is wide – helped by the hydraulic struts and hinges being tucked neatly outside of the boot aperture. And cargo space is still good (if slightly squeezed by the wheel arches), and the rear seats split-fold 60/40 to a near-flat position. And – shock! – a full-size spare sits under the floor.

And the satisfying thunk of closing one of the Liberty’s doors is a regular reminder of Subaru’s renowned build quality.

Subaru’s EyeSight system moves into its third generation for MY18, featuring a higher-resolution camera that’s quicker and better at recognising objects – namely vehicles. There’s also a longer and wider field of vision, helping to improve the adaptive cruise control system and lifting the autonomous emergency braking system’s maximum operating effectiveness from 30km/h to 50km/h.

Lane Keep Assist also expands the list of driver-aid tech, giving the steering a ‘nudge’ back towards your lane if the camera detects you wandering out of markings without indication.

Vision Assist continues to include blind spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, and lane change assist, and for 2018 adds a front-view monitor (to help check for traffic when nosing out of parking spots or intersections) and side-view monitor (to assist parking and help avoid the kerbing of wheels!).

Auto High Beam swaps for Adaptive Driving Beam, which goes beyond the former’s simple auto-switching between high/low beam to automatically adjust the brightness and range of the LED high beam – with the same aim of providing better night-time illumination while avoiding dazzling other road users.

Speed-sign notification remains as a useful guide in Australia’s world of inconsistent limits, as does our favourite feature that alerts you when a stationary car ahead has moved off. (Not that us drivers should ever be distracted when stopped at traffic lights, but let’s be realistic…)

Such an expansive list can’t be matched by direct rivals such as the $42,690 Mazda 6 GT or new $43,990 Toyota Camry SL V6, while further on-road assurance continues to be provided underneath by an older style of driver aid tech: all-wheel drive.

We know from experience that it’s effective on slippery roads. On our dry test-drive day, it again confirmed the symmetrical system’s contribution to a smooth power delivery from the most powerful engine in the Liberty line-up.

The 3.6-litre horizontally opposed six-cylinder engine provides 48 per cent more power and 55 per cent more torque than the 2.5i’s 2.5-litre that also lies flat and low in the engine bay. Its 191kW and 350Nm outputs exceed those of the Mazda 6 GT (138kW/250Nm four-cylinder), though trail slightly behind the Camry SL V6 (224kW and 362Nm).

While the 3.6R is up to 103kg heavier than a 2.5-litre Liberty, the extra oomph is still noticeable – though with its peak torque not arriving until 4400rpm it similarly needs revs on board for best performance. It teams well with Subaru’s continuously variable transmission, and the 3.6R’s off-the-mark verve is a highlight.

Throttle response on the move varies depending on the drivetrain-altering SI-Drive mode chosen via steering wheel buttons. It’s okay in efficiency-focused Intelligent mode (I), slightly twitchy (with an undesirable on/off feel) in Sport Sharp (Sport #), but pretty much perfect in Sport (S) whether you’re navigating urban streets or country roads.

Subaru has revised the Liberty’s damper settings in a bid to curb body roll, as part of a range of minor engineering tweaks. There’s a sense of extra firmness compared with recollections of our last drive in a Liberty, though there’s still some welcome flex from the springs and the suspension resists becoming busy around town.

The Liberty feels underdamped on undulating country roads, however, and along with the unsettled ride the chassis can get upset by prominent mid-corner bumps.

And while the steering – tuned for improved linearity – is undoubtedly accurate, its gluggy response adds to the feeling the Liberty is not a driver’s car like the Mazda 6.

The brakes, revised for better feel and response, are encouragingly strong, though, and traction out of corners is predictably excellent.

A Liberty 3.6R would ideally be cheaper to run. Its six-cylinder is rather partial to 91 unleaded, especially around town. Its urban consumption is rated at a high 14.2 litres per 100km (not helped by the 3.6-litre’s lack of stop/start), while its combined figure of 9.9L/100km compares with 6.6L/100km for a 2.5-litre four-cylinder Mazda 6 or 8.6L/100km for a V6 Camry (albeit on recommended premium unleaded).

Servicing costs are also higher than the average. The 3.6R costs $2711.42 across Subaru’s three-year plan, with services scheduled every six months. The six-cylinder costs $429.76 more to service than the four-cylinder owing to an extra, interim check-up at three months.

A Mazda 6 GT costs $1581 to service over five years (with 12-month/10,000km intervals), and a Toyota Camry V6 just $975 for the same period.

Warranty is the three-year (unlimited-kilometre) industry average.

Still, the Liberty 3.6R remains competitively priced – tickled up by just $400 to $43,140 for 2018 despite the extra features and its AWD segment USP. It also remains considerably cheaper than its fifth-generation predecessor that cost more than $50,000.

If the 3.6R variant still isn’t the sports sedan it could (or perhaps should) be, the six-cylinder remains the pick of the Liberty engines and the flagship variant impresses with its upmarket cabin, excellent build quality, generally sound driving manners, and impressive array of technology.