The Japanese are known for their exacting standards of quality, their technological achievements, their Kaizen approach to improvement, and their slightly left of centre quirkiness.
No industry epitomises these traits more than the Japanese automotive industry, and no Japanese manufacturer more so than Subaru.
After a rough few years, and a 5th Gen turkey that was both overdone and underdone in equal measure, Subaru is back, with a brand new ‘evolution’ of the Liberty, sporting svelte looks, more features, loads of tech, and a (much) lower price.
Is it any good?
I hope so, because the one I’m testing is the one I bought a little over 3 years ago.
This is one of the areas where the Subie designers have copped a bit of flack over the past few years. The 5th Gen was affectionately dubbed “Jelly bean” by a number of motoring journos. I’ve never really understood why, but it’s fair to say that the new generation has ditched some of the sugar in favour of a sleeker, more elegant silhouette, at least from side on. The car is deceptively low for a mid-sized family car, and the wheel arches are filled out quite nicely by the 18 inch alloys, wrapped in 225/50 Dunlop rubber. Can’t say I’m entirely sold on the design of the alloys, but they've grown on me.
The front has taken on a much more muscular appearance. A new chrome ringed grille is flanked by some nicely sculpted headlights (featuring LED low beams / halogen high beams), leading down to the lower front bumper, with a quite aggressively sculpted lower lip, just below the fog lights. I really like it.
Moving to the rear of the car, remove the badges, and I could be looking at any number of the Liberty’s direct competitors. It’s part Toyota Camry, part Hyundai Sonata, and that adds up to all bad. It’s not hideous, by any means, it’s just a bit ‘every car’. Thank god for those twin pipes!
Overall though, the new Liberty is, exterior design wise, quite a departure from the model it replaces. Style is subjective, and while the Liberty may not be as sexy as say, a Mazda 6, it’s certainly distinctive, at least from the front, and I quite like it.
I don’t know about you, but when I’m researching, testing, and buying a new car, this is probably the 2nd most important consideration. You spend all your time here, so it has to look good, feel good, and provide all the functionality you need for your drive.
Thankfully, the Liberty ticks most, if not all, of the boxes here….to varying degrees.
Gone are the days when you need to press a button on your key fob, or even take it out of your pocket, with the Liberty 3.6R sporting keyless entry. It takes a little bit to get used to this black magic, and I still find myself rustling around in my pocket for the key fob, only to suddenly remember that I no longer need to.
Once inside, the Liberty doors shut with that reassuring ‘thud’ you only get from a car that is well put together. The car immediately plays you a ‘Welcome’ jingle, and it’s quite clear you’re in a Japanese car. The tune is very bright, and very upbeat. I’m sure it won’t be for everyone, and I’ll take it or leave it, but thankfully it can be switched off.
The first thing you’ll probably notice about the Liberty, particularly if you’ve driven any of the previous models, is just how spacious it is inside.
The front of the cabin offers ample room for my 6 foot 6 inch frame, to the point where I had to bring the front seat forward to find the best driving position. The leather clad front seats offer good under thigh support, and the seat backs are high and definitely wide enough for the average Aussie. The driver’s seat also offers electronic lumbar support, and 2 seat position memory function, in addition to 6 way electronic adjustment, and heated bums for both front occupants.
My only gripes with the seats (and they’re relatively minor ones) is that the motors driving the adjustments can be a bit noisy, and that they don’t provide a great deal of lateral support during hard cornering, meaning that you’re relying on the door trim to keep you inside the vehicle during ‘spirited’ drives, but more on that a little later.
The rear seats offer more of the same. Leather, comfort, and plenty of space, along with flip down cup holders in the centre arm rest, which is a nice touch.
Adding to the sense of space, the side mirrors have been moved from corner of the ‘A’ pillar and the window sill onto the door itself, which has allowed Subaru to put in another smaller ‘window’ where the side mirror would normally be. It’s amazing how a small change like this can add to perception of space in the front, particularly when combined with the standard sunroof in the 3.6R.
The boot, again, offers loads of space (493 litres), which is more than a VFII Commodore. As mentioned in many other reviews of the car, the opening to the boot is quite small, but it’s not something I’m yet to have an issue with. I do have a slight issue with the boot lid itself, which is obviously made of aluminum, and feels quite flimsy when being closed. Nitpicking? Definitely.
The soft leather clad steering wheel sits ahead of two electric blue ringed instrument clusters which flank a central information display, which contains the usual information (digital speedo, instant/avg fuel consumption, current driving mode, odometer), as well as a display for Subaru’s suite of safety technologies, a.k.a. “Eyesight”, which we’ll discuss in more detail later on.
The steering wheel itself is a plethora of buttons. In addition to the usual stereo, and bluetooth phone controls, the new wheel also allows you to scroll through the functions that show on your information display, and make changes to this, access the voice control functionality, set the predetermined distance for the adaptive cruise control as well as control your set speed when cruising, and change driving modes. Throw into the mix a couple of flappy paddles behind the steering wheel, and you have yourself a wheel to rival a Formula 1 car! Even the bloody park brake is a button!
Thankfully, Subaru have also taken some of the buttons away, with rain sensing wipers, one touch lane change indicators, and auto headlights, all standard, regardless of the model you choose.
While they may have gone a bit button crazy on the steering wheel, it’s clear that Subaru have listened to customer feedback when designing the interior of the 6th Generation Liberty. (Mostly) gone are the hard cheap plastics of the previous model, replaced with soft touch rubberised plastics, and a shiny mirror-like piano black plastic surrounding the gear selector and the new 7 inch touchscreen navigation system, which looks great when clean, but has a knack of attracting a lot fingerprints in a very short amount of time. It’s also been a struggle to see the screen on a couple of occasions in bright sunshine, making using the reversing camera next to useless. Thankfully, this has only been a problem on the brightest of days, and only on particular angles, so I can’t complain too much.
The new navigation system is simple and intuitive to use, pinch to zoom enabled, and as responsive as it should be in 2016. It’s also voice command enabled, allowing you to bark commands without having to type in suburbs and streets, and attracting yet more fingerprints. It’s actually very good at dealing with the Australian accent, from all reports, is not something that can be said of some other voice enabled systems.
There are some downsides to the system. Firstly, it doesn’t allow you to input destinations, other than previously used ones, while you’re on the move. This is undoubtedly done for safety reasons, but as my partner in crime pointed out, this is a family car, one that usually sees one of us sitting in the passenger seat, perfectly able to input destinations quickly, and safely without distracting the driver. The second frustration is that the MY15 Liberty shipped with maps from 2014, meaning that, a month in, I’ve already encountered a couple of streets that didn’t exist, and a couple of slower than usual routes due to new roads missing from this version of the maps. Subaru will happily sell you updated maps (for about $300) but, given I purchased late in 2015, I would’ve expected a free map upgrade at service when the new maps become available. Other than those small negatives, the system is a pleasure to use.
The navigation screen also contains the information, and settings for both the car, the screen for the standard reversing camera, and the audio system, which in the case of the Liberty 3.6R, is a 12 speaker Harman Kardon system. I’m no audiophile, but it’s easily the best standard stereo I’ve had in the 5 cars I’ve owned. Plenty of volume, with not a lot of distortion, plenty of bass, and seemingly plenty of distinction between high, mid, and low notes. Even over the Bluetooth audio connection with my phone, I’m noticing subtleties in live songs that I’ve listened to for years. I like it. A lot.
Connectivity is also an area where Subaru been busy. In addition the aforementioned Bluetooth, allowing two phones to be connected simultaneously, the Liberty provides a single disc CD player, two USB ports (with charging capabilities), and a 3.5mm jack, meaning you’ll never have to hit the road without your favourite tunes. It also remembers your last audio source, and will immediately revert to this whenever you get back in the car. Simple, seamless, and easy.
The interior overall is just a really nice place to spend time. The controls are well laid out, intuitive, and responsive. The use of high quality materials around the cabin, as well as the solid build quality, provide a sense of luxury, missing from some of the Liberty’s direct rivals. This feeling is further enhanced by the new navigation system, as well as new information screens and graphics, and the kick arse quality sound system with numerous connection options. Combined, they present a compelling proposition, all without even turning the key or, in this case, pressing a button.
On the road
Pressing that button though, is pretty important, especially if you a) want to actually go somewhere, b) get there relatively quickly, and comfortably, and c) have some fun while doing it.
There’s always been a sense of occasion when firing up a Subaru. The 6th Gen Liberty is no different.
Foot on the brake and hit the starter button. speedo and tacho needles rocket from one end of their respective scale to the other, followed by the 191Kw / 350Nm 3.6 Litre flat six thrumming to life, settling into a very smooth, sedate idle. It’s an extremely muted experience in the cabin, but sounds a little more purposeful from outside. If you’re looking for more aural theatrics, this definitely ‘aint the car for you.
If, however, you’re looking for a comfortable, relatively rapid, reasonably frugal, sure-footed cruiser, that can swallow ks and corners with relative ease, regardless of the weather conditions, then read on.
The Liberty’s road manners are pretty rock solid. Highway work is dispatched without fuss, and the car doesn’t fidget or jump around over the potholed, weirdly cambered, uneven stretches of poorly maintained black stuff we call the Mitchell Shire road network. There can be a bit of intrusion into the cabin when running over coarse chip bitumen, or when hitting a particularly large bump, but these are rare occurrences, and never something that forces you to shout at your passengers to maintain a conversation. If you’ve got no one to talk to, just crank the stereo a couple of notches, and/or get some new friends, and it’s no longer a problem.
Alternatively, you could just give the big Subie a boot full and hang on. The horizontally opposed flat 6 is mated exclusively to a Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT), which is normally a polite way of shortening ‘a whole lot of uninspiring whining noises, not dissimilar to the spin cycle of a washing machine’.
Somehow though, Subaru have managed to dispense with the whining, and add in some artificial transmission steps. The result? Under normal levels of acceleration, the CVT just does its thing, with barely a hint of white good. Under harder acceleration, the artificial ‘steps’ make it feel like a normal slushbox. It has three modes to choose from ‘I’, for Intelligent, for normal everyday driving, ‘S’, for Sport, which changes the behaviour of the CVT and throttle response for when you’re feeling, well, sporty, and ‘S#’, for Sports Sharp (no it does not let you tweet from the drivers seat!). This mode is for the mountainous twisties or when you’ve had a bad day at work). It even has manual mode, complete with flappy paddles, which seemed to work quite well when you’re on it, or at least it did in the loaner I had prior to purchase! 🙂 Oh, and it’ll do 0-100 in a respectable 7.2 seconds. No rocket ship, but no slouch either.
I do have one minor complaint with the CVT. When reversing out of a car park, and going from R to D, there can be some hesitation, and a clunk from the transmission. I understand from my research on various forums that this is normal behaviour from the CVT, but does detract slightly from the otherwise luxurious feel of the car.
Well sorted handling has always been a Subaru hallmark, and while it’s clear this new Liberty is both carrying some heft, and not definitely no WRX, it feels agile, and light on its feet. Unfortunately, this feeling of lightness extends to the steering, and it’s something that I’m struggling to get to grips with. There is literally zero feel, so I have no way of knowing what the front wheels are up to, resulting in way too many micro corrections, even when on a quick trip to the supermarket! It’s my only major gripe with the car, and while I’m sure it’s great for parking, it’s a blemish on an otherwise stellar car, and cements the fact that the Liberty is no longer the left of centre sports tourer it may once have been.
Once this fact has been accepted, it’s the Liberty’s other qualities that come bubbling to the surface. Despite the symmetrical All-wheel Drive now synonymous with all Subarus, it has so far returned an average of just over 8L/100kms, which is pretty impressive for a car with close to 200Kws under the right foot, that is yet to have its first service, and only has 3000kms on the clock. Admittedly, I don’t drive it like I stole it, but that’s because I don’t need to. The large amounts of torque on tap, and the CVT, provide me with smooth effortless acceleration, and that’s just fine by me. If it means I save some fuel in the process, well, that’s just a bonus. If torque is a consideration though, I’d recommend you test the 3.6R back to back with the 2.5 litre version, as the lower spec may leave you a little underwhelmed in this department.
The brakes are also very very good, and provide a strong, sure-footed, squirm free, fade free experience, even after multiple emergency tests in a row. It’s no track day hero but, and we’ve talked about this, if this is a priority, time to look at something like a Renault Megane RS.
So we’ve established that it looks ok from the outside, is a great place to spend some time on the inside, will return impressive fuel economy, provide effortless acceleration, pulls up well, and is sure-footed in the bends, despite zero steering feel. What’s left to discuss? Probably the most impressive part of the Subaru puzzle. Its safety credentials.
In addition to the now standard traction, and electronic stability, control, Subaru have further refined the innovative ‘EyeSight’ system first seen in the 5th Generation Liberty, and it’s bloody phenomenal.
Constantly monitoring the road ahead through two cameras mounted either side of the rear view mirror, the Eyesight system has the ability to not only detect obstacles coming into your path, alert you (the blue rings I mentioned earlier flash red, with ‘obstacle detected’ in the information display, accompanied by an alarming…err… alarm), and even automatically apply the brakes (think kangaroos at dusk, or run away ankle biters during the school run).
Eyesight also controls the lane departure assist, which uses the cameras to detect when you’re unintentionally out of your lane, flashing orange in the information display). It can get to be a bit of a pain, but thankfully it can be switched off, and disables automatically when you indicate to go round a corner, or overtake. In summary: great when you’re tired, potentially tiresome when you’re not.
The final piece of the Eyesight jigsaw is the Adaptive Cruise Control. Adaptive cruise has been around for a few years now, firstly in high-end Mercs, and BMWs, and has slowly filtered down to the less exclusive cars that most of us drive, and I have to say that the version that Subaru have engineered into the Liberty is a revelation. While the system deployed in the top of the line Mazda 6 I drove a couple of months ago was quite sudden, and aggressive in its application, the Liberty was extremely smooth and progressive (except in emergency situations), not only providing an uninterrupted relaxing drive, but also an air of confidence that the system is fully aware of the surrounding conditions. My one tiny complaint with the system is that you need to turn is on every time you get in the car, rather than just being able to reach the speed you want and hit ‘Set’.
Eyesight is so advanced that it provides a small glimpse into the future of motoring. The adaptive cruise will monitor the car in front and maintain the chosen gap to the car in front all the way to a standstill, without the need to touch the brake pedal. When the traffic moves off again, simply tap the ‘Resume’ button, and the car will accelerate away still maintaining the desired gap. I tested the system on a trip to Melbourne, and after setting the cruise control at 100km/h, I was able to tootle through various small towns and on to the freeway. In all it was about 50kms before I touched the brakes again, all the while maintaining the appropriate speed limit, simply by letting the drivers in front set the pace.
Subaru should be commended for EyeSight. It’s an amazing piece of kit that will undoubtedly save many lives. I hope it continues to trickle down the lower end models to be a future mandatory feature of all cars, much the same as three point rear seatbelts and more recently, Electronic Stability Control, have done.
Powerful, smooth, refined, luxurious, safe, and packed with useful tech. The 6th Generation Liberty is all of those things. While servicing is a 6 month/12,500km proposition, and will roughly set you back about $1000 a year, at just under $46,000 drive away (a $14,000 decrease over the previous model) the Subaru Liberty 3.6R is a bargain, and should definitely be on your shopping list if you’re considering an up spec Mazda 6, a VW Passat, Skoda Octavia, or even low spec Audis, and BMWs. Yep, it’s that good!