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The rise and fall of the Subaru Liberty over 31 years: Part one

With the recent departure of the Subaru Liberty from Australia, we take a look at its history in Australia.

The Subaru Liberty is no more for the Australian car marketplace. It departs just one month shy of its 31-year anniversary in our market, having been first introduced to us Aussies in October 1989.

First, a bit of trivia. Why in our market was it called the Liberty and not Legacy, you ask?

Well, the marketing boffins at Subaru wanted to respect Legacy Australia – a charity that provides assistance to the dependants of Defence Force members killed or injured in service to our country. With that in mind, they christened their new medium-sized sedan Liberty instead.

The only other distinctly different name it ever wore was 'Aska', when it was badge-engineered and sold as an Isuzu in markets other than ours.

All six generations of Subaru Legacy made it to Australia under the Liberty badge. It was a lucrative and highly successful product for Subaru, and at one point represented 60 per cent of its yearly sales figure.

To go one bigger, between October 1989 and September 2020, the humble Liberty made up 14.9 per cent of Subaru's total volume over that time period.

Incredible to think, now we're sitting here at its wake discussing the better times.

READ: Subaru Liberty axed from Australian line-up

It was most certainly a right place, right time fairy-tale for the marque. Prior to this, in the 1980s, Subaru had a run of success with the agricultural Subaru Leone sedan, and later with the all-wheel-drive L-series wagon. Those cars were great for those times, and brought the brand a heap of fans and kudos with regional Australia, who more often than not used their Subarus as part farm hack, part daily driver.

A particular shout-out goes to the L-series wagon, which was lauded by country folk nationwide. It was this very model that began to lay the foundations for the grip-laden wagon theme the brand became synonymous for throughout the 1990s and 2000s with the Liberty range.

The later car's success didn't just ride on the coat-tails of its forefather, however. During the 1990s, metro-dwellers requested a better option. Those regional towns had long roads, too, and those folk lusted for a more comfy, less utilitarian 'L series' approach to motoring.

From here, the last Leone/L-series split up into two products – the smaller Impreza and larger Liberty. Both of these products went on to have a powerful influence on our new car market, but today we'll focus on the recently departed.

Let's take a look at some of the highlights across its life.


Generation one: genesis

October 1989 kicked things off for the Subaru Liberty.

In its debut year, the range was simple. Two trims and the option of two transmissions, manual and auto, across all grades. A wagon body type was unlocked by stepping up to the top-line GX model, and the only all-wheel-drive car in the range was a GX wagon.

Looking back now with a modern-day lens, the range was actually simple and easy to navigate.

1989 Subaru Liberty LX sedan manual front-wheel drive$22,995 (MLP)
1989 Subaru Liberty LX sedan auto front-wheel drive$24,495 (MLP)
1989 Subaru Liberty GX sedan manual front-wheel drive$24,940 (MLP)
1989 Subaru Liberty GX wagon manual front-wheel drive$25,775 (MLP)
1989 Subaru Liberty GX sedan auto front-wheel drive$26,440 (MLP)
1989 Subaru Liberty GX wagon auto front-wheel drive$27,255 (MLP)
1989 Subaru Liberty GX wagon auto all-wheel drive$27,495 (MLP)

Despite those prices first appearing affordable, the Subaru Liberty was actually quite expensive. A contemporary Mitsubishi Magna GLX sedan, with a manual transmission, started from $17,609 before on-roads. You could even jump into a Toyota Camry SE wagon for $19,221, a huge $6554 cheaper than the comparable Liberty wagon.

Those high prices didn't stop the Liberty marching on to success, however. In 1992, back when Billy Ray Cyrus topped the charts with Achy Breaky Heart, Subaru Australia sold 8857 copies of the Subaru Liberty, which represented 60 per cent of its total sales. That figure of 8857 is the highest count that the Liberty ever reached in its near 31-year lifespan in our country.

Interestingly, 1992 coincides with the start of the best thing about the Liberty – turbocharged wagons. 1991 saw the release of the RS Turbo sedan, but it wasn't until a year later when we were graced with the fire-breathing wagon version.

The RS Turbo was an instant hit with a performance-hungry Aussie car market. Its induction type was not new news, as turbochargers had been popularised by cars like the Mitsubishi Cordia Turbo, and even Subaru's own Leone Turbo, from way before.

However, the Liberty RS Turbo dialled things up and firmly stuck it to the 'never late in a V8' crowd.

1991 Subaru Liberty RS Turbo 1991 Holden Commodore SS (VP)
2.0-litre flat four-cylinder, quad overhead camshaft design5.0-litre V8, pushrod design
147kW @ 6000rpm165kW @ 4400rpm
260Nm @ 3600rpm385Nm @ 3600rpm
1251kg tare mass1399kg tare mass
117.5kW/t power to weight ratio117.9kW/t power to weight ratio

It marked the first time we saw the turbocharged 2.0-litre 'EJ20' engine, which was vastly far ahead of their previous attempts at flat-four turbos. It was complete with all sorts of fancy trickery, including a space-age water-to-air intercooler for good measure.

Despite being down on torque compared to the contemporary Ford and Holden muscle of the time, it matched their efforts with regard to power to weight ratios – a hallmark of early Japanese performance cars.

Off to a good start, then.


Generation two: Liberty goes up-market

The second generation, launched in 1994, saw hot performance models go on hiatus in Australia. What this new generation did bring, however, was a significant step in terms of design maturity as well as interior quality.

Subaru tasked the exterior design to Olivier Boulay, who had just departed from a managerial design role at Daimler-Benz. This quest for European equivalence was evident in Subaru's approach at the time. It wanted to see itself grow to become the premium offering from the land of the rising sun, and Boulay's appointment spoke to that ethos.

This particular generation of Liberty is one of my personal favourites from a design standpoint. It has aged incredibly gracefully, too, with its sharp, connected rear tail-light design remarkably coming full circle and back into fashion now. Think Kia Sportage or Lexus products to name a few.

In actual fact, testament to the quality of Boulay's design is the fact that the third-generation car simply continued with this design, arguably looking more like a facelift than an all-new model, which it actually was.

It's a clever, awfully European-themed design that moved the Liberty up in the world of perceived quality. It had already established itself as a genuine contender for the hot medium-sedan segment, but began to be seen as the discerning choice for an Australian motorist to make. In lieu of the turbocharged model, a new 2.5-litre 'EJ25' model debuted in 1996, three years after launch.

As the brand grew, the prices fell.

1994 Subaru Liberty Heritage auto all-wheel drive$44,490 (MLP)
1995 Subaru Liberty Heritage auto all-wheel drive$47,740 (MLP)
1996 Subaru Liberty Heritage auto all-wheel drive$41,990 (MLP)
1997 Subaru Liberty Heritage auto all-wheel drive$41,490 (MLP)
1998 Subaru Liberty Heritage auto all-wheel drive$41,490 (MLP)
1999 Subaru Liberty Heritage auto all-wheel drive$41,490 (MLP)

Naturally, the local importer was making in-roads with the Japanese head office. What helped the cause equally so was that the exchange rate was falling in favour of Australians. In July 1995, a dollar bought 60.9 Japanese Yen. As of January 1997, it bought 91.6 Japanese Yen. You do the math.

It was also a time when marketing really began to shape the brand, as it matured in our market and found its stride.

Subaru began to tie up its marketing and advertising sponsorship events with its products, creating many special editions along the way. A natural tie-in with snow and ski resorts of the era saw cars like the Subaru Liberty 'Ski FX' come to light as limited-run trim grades across the second-generation car's life.

One that stands out in particular is the Subaru Liberty RX 'Bilstein Edition'. This example had, what the model name suggests, a set of trademark yellow Bilstein dampers under each corner, leather seats, and an excellent-looking body kit. All of these parts were pilfered from the Legacy GT-B turbo, which we sadly never received here in Australia.

This particular special edition is as close as you can get to a second-generation car looking, and driving, like the forbidden-fruit version.

From here, Liberty goes big.


Generation three: all-wheel drive and twin turbos

Now in its third generation, Subaru decided to take a leaf out of its Impreza playbook. Over in the smaller category where the rally star played, the WRX version began to form somewhat of an infamous image. They were being stolen left, right and centre, and later being used in organised crime events, particularly in Sydney.

As a consequence of this, insurance became expensive. Many potential owners were being put off by those two points. The local subsidiary went as far as to install keypad immobilisers developed by a local brand called 'Brandt' in order to help quash both issues.

Either way, this turn of events inspired Subaru to return with the gentleman's performance car in the third-generation Liberty. We'll come to that later.

Australia saw the new third-generation Subaru Liberty late in 1998. Again, marketing came to the forefront of the business, with a simple brand statement of 'all-wheel drive' taking over its television commercial end frames nationwide. With that saw the end of front-wheel-drive Subarus in general, in fact. From 1999, all front-wheel-drive models had been discontinued, which remains the case up until this very day.

The third-generation range, as aforementioned, continued on with the same styling efforts of the second generation. Inside, the interior continued to move up-market with a much more concise interior design that saw climate control and a double-DIN stereo integrated into one space, as opposed to being separated as before.

Gone was the archaic 2.2-litre engine, which had its roots in the first-generation car. All cars were now powered by either a newly introduced aspirated 2.0-litre 'EJ20' engine or a 2.5-litre 'EJ25' version. For the majority of its life, all third-generation five-speed manual-equipped wagons received a dual-range transmission, too.

At launch, only a wagon body type was offered, and in just three trims – GX, RX and top-spec Heritage. A Subaru Liberty GX wagon manual, with all-wheel drive, kicked off from $31,990 before on-roads.

1998 Subaru Liberty GX wagon manual dual-range all-wheel drive$31,990 (MLP)
1998 Subaru Liberty GX wagon automatic all-wheel drive$33,890 (MLP)
1998 Subaru Liberty RX wagon manual dual-range all-wheel drive$37,490 (MLP)
1998 Subaru Liberty RX wagon automatic all-wheel drive$39,390 (MLP)
1998 Subaru Liberty Heritage wagon automatic all-wheel drive$43,190 (MLP)

As one can see, manual transmissions began to drop off here, with the top-of-the-range Heritage model no longer offered in stick shift.

Later on, in 1999, the sedan was reintroduced into the range. This in turn lowered the entry price of the Liberty range by $2000, with a Liberty sedan GX manual entry model starting from $29,990.

Subaru Australia remained relatively stubborn with pricing, however, by continuing to maintain somewhat of a price premium over the Toyota Camry as it did some 10 years ago. The gap had closed slightly, with a 1999 Toyota Camry CSI manual costing $25,740 new. That makes it now $4250 cheaper, as opposed to $6554 cheaper, as was the case between the two in 1989.

The star of this generation, however, was the B4 version. Launched in Australia in 2001, it signified a return to performance form for the medium-sized Liberty sedan. At $55,130 new, it wasn't cheap, but it was stacked with plenty of performance.

2001 Subaru Liberty B4190kW / 320Nm$55,130 (MLP)
2001 Ford Falcon XR8 AU III220kW / 435Nm$48,240 (MLP)
2001 Peugeot 406 SV157kW / 285Nm$53,990 (MLP)
2001 Volvo S60 T147kW / 285Nm$66,950 (MLP)
2001 Volkswagen Passat V6 4Motion140kW / 260Nm$68,300 (MLP)

The B4 model was a special car indeed. Australia was the first market outside of Japan to homologate and then deliver these cars new out of its dealerships, believe it or not.

What made it significant was the twin-turbocharged version of the now familiar 2.0-litre 'EJ20' engine. This motor retains some charm, as it continued to demonstrate the overly complex methodology and engineering that the Japanese had become famous for putting into their cars much earlier on.

It utilised a sequential turbo set-up, where the first smaller turbo would spool up, and then cross over to a larger turbo that would carry on the show. There was a noticeable odd dip in the torque curve as this changeover happened, which did make its way into the commentary of the motoring press at the time.

Either way, interesting or not, it was discontinued, and more modern twin-scroll single-turbocharger set-ups were implemented on the brand's top-notch product afterward.

Here's a fun fact for you: in the back pits of the Subaru Australia storage facility lies a black, factory-imported Legacy S401 that was brought here new in 2002 for evaluation purposes. I was told that the brand did investigate bringing a few in as special editions, but sadly it never got off the ground. The car remains proof of the exercise, however, and last I saw it was looking a little sorry for itself.


In part two, we'll take a look at the fourth, fifth and sixth generations of the Subaru Liberty, and sadly where its downfall began.

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