DYNAMIC MOJO IS MISSING
The Liberty is safe, comfortable, good value, upgraded ... and unloved
I f you regard the SUV as a device useful only for transporting pets, plants and flatpack furniture and you have no need or desire for any of those, then you’re in luck. There are some excellent sedans on the market but, so powerful is our obsession with the SUV, the car makers can’t give them away.
The only sedans posting decent numbers now are the Toyota Camry and Mercedes-Benz C-Class and even they’re doing it tough, with sales of both down about 25 per cent this year. The Commodore is down more than 50 per cent.
It’s crazy, because these are fine cars at sharp prices, each representing better value than a comparable SUV, and a much more enjoyable, efficient, capable drive as well. The same goes for the sedan we’re testing today, Subaru’s Liberty 2.5i Premium.
At $36,640 (plus on-roads), Premium specification adds $6400 to the base Liberty 2.5i but you pick up a swag of worthwhile safety, luxe and infotainment tech in the deal, including leather, power adjustable and heated front seats, eight-inch touchscreen, navigation, sunroof, keyless entry and SI drive, with Intelligent (code for economy) and Sport driving modes.
So you’ve got a fully loaded five-seater on the road for about $40,000.
Factor in superb Made-in-Japan fit and finish quality plus Data Dot security identification, full-size spare on an alloy wheel and, until June 30, a five-year/unlimited kilometre warranty (the usual Subaru coverage is three years) and Liberty Premium is a highly attractive, no-options-required proposition.
So are a couple of Liberty’s rivals, notably the Toyota Camry Hybrid SL and Holden Calais, both priced at $40,990.
To recap, the family sedan may be unloved but it’s not for lack of trying.
That’s precisely the brief here and in most respects it’s well met.
You perch on a plush pew that’s adjustable for height and angle. The backrest features adjustable lumbar support but has minimal bolstering, so upper body support isn’t great when cornering. This is a distinctly un-sporty car, so it’s not really an issue.
Tall drivers enjoy generous space and driving position adjustment. It doesn’t impinge on rear passengers, who can stretch out and relax on a high, firm and supportive bench. Two USBs and vents are provided.
Low window sills and light-toned rooflining add to the cabin’s spacious, bright feel, so kids will be happy, too.
Subaru’s stylish, formal dash, illuminated analog instruments and touchscreen infotainment are easy to read and navigate. Voice control works most of the time and extends to reading emails and messages.
Ride comfort is fine in most conditions, save for the occasional whack when the front end cops a big hit.
In the Premium, safety specification includes the twin camera-based EyeSight tech (adaptive cruise, autonomous emergency braking) standard on the base model, supplemented with radar-based Vision Assist (blind spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alert).
It’s upgraded for 2018 with higher-resolution front cameras, faster image processing, LED headlights that turn in response to steering inputs and have automatic beam and brightness adjustment, front and side view cameras and lane keeping.
For 2018, Subaru has overhauled the 2.5-litre/ CVT/all-wheel drive combination, with many new internal components, transmission ratio and software changes aimed at improving responsiveness, refinement and fuel efficiency.
It’s done all this without managing to improve performance, which remains sedate. Around town, the CVT responds smoothly and promptly when you prod the pedal and effectively masks the 2.5’s lack of accessible torque.
When strong, sustained acceleration is required at highway speeds, the transmission wastes revs, like a slipping clutch, and the car bogs down unless you select Sport or Manual shift modes, in which it operates like a conventional seven-speed automatic.
The Liberty is overdue for turbo power. The 1.6-litre engine in the Levorg would do nicely.
As with the Outback tested a few weeks ago, the Liberty was also once a class frontrunner in handling, particularly with its permanent allwheel drive, but newer rivals have now caught up.
Roll in corners is minimal but on rough country roads at speed the front end feels mushy and poorly controlled, regularly running out of travel on broken surfaces, diving under brakes and bouncing on undulations. Overassisted steering is vague on centre, lifeless and imprecise in corners.
In the Nineties and Noughties, the Liberty was one of the best handling cars on the road. Today, its decidedly un-taut dynamics are nothing special compared with front-drive rivals such as Calais and Camry.
Subaru owners are bit like Aldi shoppers. They buy into a cult. It makes them happy. Who are we to argue?
The Liberty has long had a reputation as one of the safest, best engineered cars in the business. I like the security of AWD and the price is right.
ALTERNATIVES HOLDEN CALAIS FROM $40,990
The ZB Commodore is dying in the showrooms and resale values are horrendously low, so there are better places to park your money. The car itself is a good thing, with 2.0-litre turbo petrol or diesel/nine-speed auto/front-wheel drive.
TOYOTA CAMRY HYBRID SL FROM $40,990
Pick of the class, with strong, refined performance, unbeatable fuel economy, comparable (but not quite as comprehensive) safety specification, luxurious ride and much improved handling. Low running costs, too.