Wheels pitches 10 of the biggest sellers in the medium-to-large car segment to see which is the best of the current crop. Here’s number 9, the Subaru Liberty.
Can’t wait to see the final score? Jump to the verdict now.
CHOOSING a new Subaru used to mark the happy coincidence of logic and lust, and that was before you even reached Subaru WRX territory. Near to offering the complete package, Libertys of old delivered personality with reliability and safety, intertwined with sportiness and a penchant for slippery surfaces (thanks to full-time AWD).
In a homogenised age in which characterful all-rounders are rare, these qualities might have seen a modern-day Liberty prevail, just as they helped earlier generations conquer COTY in 1994 and ’98. But while all-wheel drive and a flat-four engine continue in today’s Liberty, the boxer’s off-beat charm has vanished, and the symmetrical all-paw chassis’ talent is buried.
Long-gone is Subaru’s signature frameless door glass, along with the Euro sleekness of the fourth-gen Liberty (2003-09), replaced by an A-pillar quarter window, huge rear-view mirrors and an unfashionably small sunroof that give the sixth-gen car a subtle blue rinse. All-wheel drive remains a USP, however, and the payoff exists in the delivery of any-surface purchase at one end of the dynamic envelope, and inherent handling poise at the other.
However, you have to pare back the layers to unearth that chassis talent in the 2016 Liberty 2.5i Premium. The worst offender is gluggy steering that, until you press on, removes any sense of front-end eagerness. Which, with the horizontally opposed engine’s modest weight sitting low in the chassis, does actually exist.
While the Europeans have mastered effortless, flexible, efficient and swift low-capacity turbo fours for every occasion – take the Volkswagen Passat’s sterling 1.8 as a prime example – the Liberty still suffers from a typically Japanese lack of engine diversity, or of one standout powertrain. The 129kW 2.5 is a modest performer, yet it only delivers average economy (10.0L/100km on test). The punchy 3.6-litre flat-six alternative, meanwhile, loves a drink.
To its credit, Subaru’s CVT helps wring the most from the flat-four, though it’s not a stirring experience and Liberty remains clearly the tardiest of the group, taking 9.2sec to reach 100km/h from rest and 6.3sec to cover 80-120km/h. In everyday urban driving, the smooth CVT is almost indistinguishable from a conventional auto, and in more challenging conditions it’s nice to have shift paddles and a manual gearlever plane, even if the transmission can be reluctant to select an artificially stepped lower ratio.
Whether you’re working the boxer manually or leaving the CVT to its own mapping, though, there’s no escaping the Subaru’s relative gutlessness, along with its numb steering, as a buzz-killing double-act.
Then there’s the ride, which, while innocent enough on smooth-ish urban surfaces, proves noisy and jiggly on any average coarse-chip country road. It’s enough to irritate over time, and to take the shine off the touring experience, once a Liberty strong suit.
At least the cabin itself is welcoming, with plenty of room in all directions and terrific vision, though you sit ‘on’ the Liberty, not ‘in’ it. And despite its obvious build quality, it somehow lacks the sophistication of the fast-improving Koreans.
The $36K 2.5i Premium, the least-expensive car here, splits the $30K Liberty 2.5i and the $42K 3.6R, and gets a dose of desirable kit over the already well-specced base car (see breakout). But despite its undeniably strong value equation, a core lack of spirit, unexciting wrapping and a lack of ride polish seals second-last place for Subaru’s former star.
Liberty with egality
Even the entry-level Liberty 2.5i offers compelling value, with dual-zone climate control, automatic headlights and wipers, a reversing camera, 18-inch alloys, seven airbags, no-cost metallic paint and Subaru’s Eyesight active safety suite, which includes AEB, lane-departure warning and adaptive cruise. To this the Premium adds a smart key and start button, leather trim, heated power-adjustable front seats with memory for the driver, an upgraded infotainment system with sat-nav, electric sunroof, high-beam assist, blind-spot monitoring, lane-change assist and rear cross-traffic alert systems.
Want to compare the field? Check out all the Family sedan finalists.
Engine: 2498cc flat 4, dohc, 16v
Power: 129kW @ 5800rpm
Torque: 235Nm @ 4000rpm
Transmission: CVT automatic
Dimensions (L/W/H/W-B): 4795/1840/1500/2750mm
Cargo capacity: 493 litres
Tyres: Dunlop SP Sport Maxx 050 225/50R18 95W
Test fuel cons: 10.0L/100km
0-400m: 16.7sec @139.9km/h
3yr resale: 57%
Plus: Price and equipment; grip and handling poise
Minus: Lack of charisma; dull steering; irritating ride