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First drive: Subaru Liberty evolution

Plenty of appeal: The Liberty has lost none of the driving appeal that separates its predecessor from many of its characterless rivals.

Subaru's much lauded Liberty is evolved, improved and here in September

27 May 2003

By GAUTAM SHARMA in JAPAN

SUBARU'S all-new Liberty, unveiled to the international motoring press in Japan last week, will have some big shoes to fill when it goes on sale here in September.

It was the first generation Liberty, launched in 1989, that pulled the Japanese car-maker out of the slump it was in at the time. The Liberty was a bigger, better car than its forebears and was largely responsible for reinventing the brand's perception in the eyes of the public.

The second and third generation cars - launched in 1995 and 1998/99 respectively - raised the bar again, making the Liberty a credible rival for entry level European prestige sedans.

Along with the Impreza and Forester, the Liberty has enabled Subaru to more than triple its local sales in the past seven years. The fourth generation Liberty has the task of maintaining the sales momentum of its ancestors - and its on-paper credentials suggest it has every chance of doing that.

Although only 10 per cent of its components have been carried over from its predecessor, the newcomer adheres to the elements that have made the current model a hit with buyers. Company executives say maintaining the Liberty's appeal as a driver's car was a key priority.

Australian-spec cars will be offered with a choice of three engines - a 2.0-litre SOHC four-cylinder, a 2.5-litre SOHC unit and a turbocharged 2.0-litre powerplant. All three engines will be available in both sedan and wagon variants. Japanese buyers can opt for a 2.0-litre DOHC engine, but this unit is not suited to our low-grade fuel so we won't see it.

Whereas the turbo model in the current Liberty line-up is known as the B4, the blown versions in the new line-up will be dubbed GT. What's more, the B4's twin-turbo set-up has been ditched in favour of a single turbo - a twin-scroll titanium device that minimises lag.

Transmission choices comprise a five-speed manual and four-speed auto in non-turbo versions, while the force-fed variants will be offered with the choice of a five-speed manual or five-speed auto. The latter features a sequential shift mode.

Naturally-aspirated models will ride on 17-inch alloys, while turbo versions will ride on 18-inchers wrapped in 45 series rubber.

Unlike the introduction of the current model, when the wagon preceded the sedan, the fourth generation Liberty will be available in both body styles from the outset.

The pseudo off-roader Outback will also make its debut simultaneously - albeit initially only with a 2.5-litre four-pot. The 3.0-litre H6 variant will join the line-up later in the year. It is suggested the six-cylinder model will be offered with a choice of five-speed automatic and six-speed manual transmissions.

So, what are the big changes to the Liberty? Subaru engineers say reducing weight was the focus of much attention. Result? The new model tips the scales at 100kg less than its predecessor.

But Subaru claims the real saving equates to 230kg as the new model should have weighed 130kg more owing to its slightly increased dimensions and greater equipment levels. The weight reduction was achieved partly by fabricating from aluminium the following components - suspension arms, bootlid, bonnet, bumper beams and steering support beam.

Subaru engineers say the biggest improvements evident from behind the wheel are in the areas of NVH suppression, handling and exhaust note - the latter thanks to a new twin-tailpipe system.

Front and rear track are up by 30mm and 25mm respectively, which is said to contribute to greater stability. Further handling and stability benefits are derived from mounting the boxer engine around 20mm lower.

Interior space is also improved, thanks to a slightly lengthened wheelbase.

Similarly, aerodynamic efficiency has been tweaked, the sedan cutting a smart Cd figure of 0.28, while the wagon's is a marginally less slippery 0.30.

There's no word yet on local trim levels and pricing but equipment levels are likely to be superior to the current model - front, side and curtain airbags will be offered - while pricing may rise slightly.

FAST FACTS:

(overseas specifications)
Engines:
2.0-litre SOHC four-cylinder
Power: 103kW at 5600rpm
Torque: 186Nm at 4400rpm 2.5-litre SOHC four-cylinder
Power: 123kW at 5600rpm
Torque: 223kW at 4000rpm 2.0-litre DOHC turbo four-cylinder:
Power: 206kW at 6400rpm (manual) 191kW at 6000rpm (auto)
Torque: 343Nm at 2400rpm Dimensions:
Length: 4635mm (sedan) 4680mm (wagon)
Width: 1730mm
Height: 1425mm (sedan) 1470mm (wagon)
Wheelbase: 2670mm
Weight: 1330-1440kg (sedan) 1350-1460kg (wagon)

DRIVE IMPRESSIONS:

THE venue for the pre-launch of the new Liberty range was Fuji International Speedway, a fast, flowing track at the foothills of Mount Fuji in Japan.

While it is not easy to form an accurate assessment of a road-going car at a racetrack, it says a lot for Subaru's confidence in the vehicle that it chose Fuji as the venue. If the new Liberty had any handling deficiencies, they would certainly be exposed here.

Immediately evident once on the move is that the newcomer has lost none of the driving appeal that separates its predecessor from many of its characterless rivals. The well-balanced chassis is nimble and responsive, while the communicative steering is nicely weighted and offers plenty of feedback.

Turn-in is sharp and while it is possible to get the tail out under hard cornering, it happens in a gentle, progressive fashion. The new Liberty is undoubtedly one of the most user-friendly cars to punt at the limit.

The turbocharged 2.0-litre engine that powers the flagship GT models has bags of grunt and lag is virtually non-existent. One of the gripes with the current B4 is the annoying flat spot that occurs between one turbo cutting out and the next one cutting in. This deficiency has obviously been rectified by using the single lightweight turbocharger, which spools up very quickly.

The non-turbo 2.0-litre engine is a smooth, willing unit but performance is not exactly startling. In any case, Subaru says most Australian buyers will opt for the gruntier 2.5-litre variant (which was not available to drive at the Japan launch).

The five-speed manual gearbox is not the slickest unit around - there's a typical Subaru notchiness to it - but the five-speed auto (offered with the turbo powerplant) is a smooth-shifting transmission.

The five-speed auto has a sequential mode but one could argue the shift is the wrong way around - you nudge the lever forward for upshifts and back for downshifts. It seems more intuitive the other way around but Subaru says it has conducted clinics and most prospective buyers prefer it this way.

Its styling retains some clear links with the current model but, while the basic proportions are carried over, the heavily revised face and derriere lend it a sharp new look. Its squared shoulders and clean, uncluttered lines appear to have been inspired by Audi. Most journalists present at the launch agreed the wagon looks better than the sedan.

The interior is nicely laid out and has a relatively high quality feel to it.

The seats are comfortable and supportive and there's enough room in the rear for most occupants (professional bastketballers excluded). The rear seats can be folded flat in the wagon to yield a large, flat load space.

We will reserve our final verdict until we get to drive the car on local roads, but GoAuto's first impressions are that Subaru has a winner on its hands.

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