The Subaru Liberty B4 has all the makings of a future classic
Its funky twin-turbo engine may still split opinions, but this underrated Liberty variant feels like a very unique slice of the early noughties.
When Subaru first brought out its third-generation Liberty (those of you anywhere other than Australia will know it as the Legacy) in 1998, it was a car seemingly universally lauded by critics around the world.
Here in Oz, the wagon took out the coveted Wheels Car of the Year title like the second-generation model before it had in 1994, while the RX sedan – a car that I personally own – was named the best mid-size car by the NRMA and RACV in 1999, and by Australia's Best Cars in 2000 and 2001. In its home market, it was named Car of the Year for 1999 by the Automotive Researchers' and Journalists Conference of Japan, too.
But one Liberty variant that remained noticeably absent from the award tour was, perhaps somewhat oddly, its highest-performing variant – the B4 you see here. Sold only in Australia in 2001 and 2002, its a car that I think has gone under-appreciated for some time now, which is one of the many reasons why I see it as a prime candidate to become a future classic.
Many classics have gone under-appreciated at launch before gaining fame over the years by way of them becoming harder to obtain, especially so in the case of cars from the era the B4 was birthed from where extensively modifying cars, particularly those from Japan, became so prevalent.
That's why it's incredibly refreshing to be able to get my hands on such a fine example as this one lent to me by a friend who reluctantly has it up for sale at the time of writing this, so if you fancy parking this stunner on your driveway, all the details for if you'd like to buy it are at the bottom of the page.
With many B4s having succumbed to being modified to the point of blowing engines and gearboxes, mechanically totalling them, or to simply having been neglected as maintenance is paramount with Subaru engines, a bone-stock example like this in near-showroom condition is rapidly becoming scarcer.
Although this particular car has over 212,000km on the clock, with just two owners thus far, it's clear that this is a car that has been babied for its whole life. Items like the original floor mats in such great condition and no more than an acceptable amount of wear on any of the cabin materials is testament to its owners' love for it.
A touchscreen head unit with a handy reversing camera is the sole change that has been made to it over the years, so there are no big rims, noisy straight-pipe exhausts, grotesque body modifications, or ECU tunes that work the engine to within an inch of its life to be found here – simply an incredibly well-maintained example of the breed.
With the B4 sporting so many branded touches to differentiate it from the regular naturally aspirated models most Liberty owners opted for, it's not like it needs modifications to make it feel special anyway, as model-specific BBS wheels and Bilstein suspension from Germany, a Momo steering wheel from Italy, and a bespoke seven-speaker McIntosh audio system from America that took a year to fine-tune made it feel like a far more special and international effort.
All of this functioned as the cherry added on top of what I think is probably one of the greatest designs in Subaru's history. Externally, the third-gen Liberty is timelessly attractive – refined and classy, yet distinctly sporty given how essential that rear wing is to its profile, it's a truly handsome car even today. Sure, I'm a little biased in that I have one myself, but I wouldn't have wanted one if I didn't hold it in such high regard, would I?
The interior is the real design triumph here, however, as not only does it complement the exterior perfectly on the styling front, but because the layout and ergonomics of it are top notch. The positioning of the controls, the legibility of the dials, the spot-on driving position and shifter positioning relative to it, and the incredibly spacious backseat make it a pleasure to spend time in, even if the front seats could perhaps do with just a tad more adjustment for those over six feet tall. Truth be told, it took Subaru all the way up until the launch of the current Impreza and XV in 2017 to make another interior this well-thought-out.
I should also note that the quality of the interior materials is absolutely excellent as well, especially for the period. All Australian-delivered B4 models came with a full perforated leather interior which, while visually polarising in its exclusively blue hue, feels right up to scratch with what BMW were doing at the time, which I say as a former E46 3 Series owner. It hasn't worn excessively over time, it should also be pointed out, which says a lot about its quality.
But while all Libertys looked pretty much the same – only the wheels and incredibly subtle bonnet scoop to feed its top-mounted intercooler set the B4 apart visually – and all came with similarly high-quality interiors, the B4 is a totally different beast when it comes to how it performed in comparison to the more regular models.
Powered by a 2.0-litre twin-turbocharged flat-four that produced 190kW at 6400rpm and 320Nm at 4800rpm, it has enough juice to help the 1495kg B4 sprint from 0-100km/h in 6.5 seconds, keeping it right alongside many modern hot hatches.
Aside from for a short time towards the end of 2002 when a four-speed automatic was briefly offered, a five-speed manual gearbox was the go-to for very nearly all Australian B4s including this one. This being a Subaru, all-wheel drive was standard as well, with the B4 sporting viscous limited-slip centre and rear differentials, and a base 60:40 torque split that varied depending on driving conditions and throttle input.
What makes the B4 so unique among Subaru's lineup is its twin-turbo engine that was first introduced for the Japanese market on the second-gen Legacy B4, in which it saw popularity at home due to its low displacement keeping it in a lower tax bracket while its performance was more in line with much larger naturally aspirated engines. It should be noted, too, that only right-hand drive markets like Japan and Australia received this engine due to a left-hook steering rack not being able to fit around some components of it.
Calling it a twin-turbo engine isn't strictly accurate, even if that is how Subaru billed it, as not only are the two turbos fitted to it both different – one is an IHI VF33, the other a smaller VF32 – but they run in a sequential 'two-stage' system in which the two turbos never actually work in unison. Rather, the VF33 is used as the primary turbocharger, helping feed the engine more air up until 4000rpm, at which point an exhaust control valve opens slightly to start staging the secondary turbo between 4000-4500rpm after which it channels all the exhaust gas towards keeping the VF32 spinning, hence shutting off the initial blower.
As you can tell, it's an incredibly complex system, and as a result of this complication, it does have some odd characteristics to it. Simply driving it around town, however, you won't notice any of them. In traffic, it feels almost exactly like my RX in stock form, which in a way can feel a tad underwhelming in what is meant to be a much more powerful model.
When you break free of the traffic and finally get a chance to open it up though, you start to really see what its all about, as even more so in this than notoriously laggy single-turbo Subarus, it's all about the top-end. When winding it up from lower revs, you can feel a slight gulf in the powerband during that 500rpm staging process – that being said, it didn't feel quite as dramatic to me when in lower gears as many people make it out to be, although in higher gears it is more clearly exacerbated – but once that second turbo is spinning, the power delivery is absolutely explosive.
The suddenness with which you get that massive surge of peak torque at 4800rpm is a real 'woah' moment, and it continues to charge towards its power peak as it climbs nearer to redline like a runaway Number Eight. Not only do the numbers look good on paper, but it manages to feel as punchy as any modern car once you finally get into it, even if the power delivery itself feels like that of nothing else.
But its uniqueness is something that I see as a real selling point. Some may criticise it for that flat spot in its torque curve, but there's no doubt that it makes the B4 feel more special as a result, even if it isn't technically a good thing. And anyway, with this being the second (and final) iteration of the EJ20TT engine, the whole operation was claimed to be significantly smoothed out compared to the second-generation B4, and during normal driving its smoothness and refinement is most impressive, although a lot of it can be chalked up to the characteristics of its boxer engine, which, unlike most four-cylinder power plants, is inherently balanced.
If there's a weak point in the drivetrain, it's the gearbox, and I mean it when I say weak. For those wanting to modify one of these to churn out more power, you can almost guarantee this notoriously fragile five-speed manual will be the first thing to go, but in a stock example like this, it should still be healthily operating with no issues, as it was in this example.
The gear change feels nice and tight for a car of this age and has an appreciably short throw, and although the clutch is tricky to master off the line due to its short travel and sudden bite point, it's perfectly configured for quick shifts when driving it with vigour.
And when you are giving it some welly up a mountain road, that Bilstein suspension works real wonders. It remains very composed and fairly flat for a car from this period, with only an acceptable amount of body roll when you really start to push hard into the bends. Of course, its low centre of gravity thanks to its horizontally-opposed engine helps keep it even more balanced as well.
Although the hydraulic power steering is fairly light on centre, it firms up appropriately when you really crank it, although it's still not quite as firm as some may hope for. The steering in all third-gen Libertys feels just like this, however, simply being characteristic of the period, and it does complement its relaxed, quasi-luxury feel.
What's hardest to put into words though is just how solid this car feels. Aside from the initial on-centre slowness to the steering, everything feels tight, direct, and organic. From the way it composes itself at speed to the quiet, rattle-free interior, there really is a clear Euro influence, but not so much of one for it not to feel as characterfully Japanese as it does at the same time with its out-there engine setup.
Most importantly when looking at the B4 today, however, is that it really does have all the hallmarks of what could become a future classic. Few markets received it when it was new – perhaps most crucially, the US was one that didn't – and those that did only had fairly limited numbers of them delivered. It's based on an incredibly common platform, too, making parts availability easier than for some such cars. There's also the aforementioned lack of recognition it received when it debuted as everyone swanned over the more normal offerings in the lineup, that has instead let it slowly let it build up a reputation for itself over the years.
But above all, the real reason this is a potential future classic is due to its inherent flaw that only gives it its character. That funky sequential turbo system might not be even close to the best way of doing things, but it's a clear talking point and gives an otherwise familiar and proven car an utterly unique twist and character.
Neither Subaru nor any other manufacturer is doing anything like this these days, and few others were trying it even back then at the height of Japanese automotive innovation, meaning if you want to experience this unique feeling, this is just about the only car you can get that from.
I truly enjoyed driving the B4, especially a clean and unmodified example like this one, but honestly, you'll need to go and drive one to tell whether you like its defining character flaw yourself, so I figure I'll just cap things off by saying this – in The Simpsons, the show's titular family are characterised by their flaws which is what makes them relatable and builds intrigue, but if the vanilla Flanders clan next door were instead the stars of the show, it'd have rendered it utterly un-noteworthy. If this B4 had simply come with the proven engine from a WRX, I'm not sure I'd even be writing about it right now.
This article originally appeared on drivesection.com on December 14, 2019. A massive thank you to my mate Luke for lending me this beautiful example of a B4 for the day. If you're in Adelaide and are interested in buying this thing, as it's currently listed for sale, send me a message and I'll be sure to pass on all the details. Also, if you're an Adelaidean with a classic or otherwise interesting car tucked away in the garage, be sure to reach out if you'd like me to put a piece together on it much like this.