BUYERS GUIDE - SOFT-ROADERS
Subaru has a proud history in Australia and the company is responsible for starting the entire all-wheel-drive movement, despite Toyota’s totally incorrect claims that the RAV 4 was the first SUV.
Fuji Heavy Industries’ Subaru 4WD vehicles were introduced Down Under long before some Yank coined the tag ‘SUV’. The Leone 4WD wagon was released in Australia in 1975 and became an instant success. However, that’s history. Today, Subaru’s all-wheel-drive range is car-oriented and the modern vehicles have no chance of venturing where their ‘old-fashioned’ predecessors could go.
There’s no doubt that Subaru’s recent developments have made the vehicles more acceptable to a wider market, but this development has been done at the cost of individuality. Subaru styling used to be recognisably different, but now it’s pretty much the same as everybody else’s. (I walked up to a Mazda wagon in a car park during this test and couldn’t work out why the Subaru remote didn’t work.)
That said, there’s nothing apparently wrong with the way the Liberty is put together, with excellent fit and finish and lustrous paint. Equipment levels are also high, but we found the entertainment system and Bluetooth controls quirky and non-intuitive. For example, we could pair an HTC Desire phone to play music in the petrol Liberty, but not phone calls; in the Outback diesel we had the phone working through the media centre, but could not get phone music out of the stereo system.
Driving the petrol Liberty unladen was very pleasant, with low noise levels, good performance, slick shifting action from the six-speed auto and beautifully balanced handling. Vision was excellent in all directions and the seats were comfortable and supportive.
However, the Liberty didn’t like towing very much at all. With an Adria caravan on the bar the supple unladen suspension went very hard at the rear and there was noticeable nodding over undulations, despite the low, 90kg ball weight on our Adria test caravan.
The engine felt strained and downshifted to remain above 3000rpm on any incline or when we encountered a headwind. Fuel consumption dropped from a creditable unladen figure of 8.4L/100km to a thirsty 16.8L/100km.
We reckon the Liberty petrol would be best in front of a low-profile trailer such as a camper or an A’van.
For some odd reason Subaru put its relatively new ‘boxer’ diesel in front of a manual transmission only. There was no auto option in 2011.
The manual six-slotter had a triple-overdrive gearset, with rev-dropping fourth, fifth and sixth gears to drive down fuel consumption in highway cycle tests. That would be fine if you had a large capacity, or series-turbocharged, high-torque diesel in front of such a transmission, but the Subaru diesel was neither of these. That meant using the box as a virtual four-speed in town driving.
Nevertheless, fuel consumption in a combination of town and country driving averaged an excellent 6.8L/100km.
With an 1500kg Adria Altea caravan behind it the Subaru diesel performed very well, although we only visited sixth gear on slight downhill grades or at freeway speeds. Our reservations about transmission gearing didn’t materialise and we found it fine in hill starts and traffic situations: no clutch judder and no problem lifting off on steep gravel surfaces.
The Outback’s rear suspension felt more stable when towing than the petrol Liberty’s did.
Fuel consumption at 110km/h climbed to an expected 13.8 L/100km, which was quite respectable, but on secondary roads, at speeds around 80km/h, consumption dropped into the 10-11L/100km band, which was excellent. Many non-towing vehicles use more fuel than that!
The Subaru Liberty and Outback pair drove well, but the petrol donk felt strained towing and used plenty of fuel. The diesel was more relaxed and flexible, but would be better still with a five- or six-speed auto box.