Subaru Liberty vs Outback and WRX

The Outback and Liberty are different cars on the same base.  Which is best for you?  Or maybe a WRX..

Subaru have long had a medium-large vehicle, and in roadcar form that was called the Liberty.  When fitted with larger tyres, a lifted suspension and some other minor offroad features, and in a wagon body then it’s the Outback.
As time moved on, the Outback and its peers in the softroader segment became better and better onroad, to the point where producing wagons like the Liberty simply wasn’t worth the effort because potential buyers opted for the softroaders like the Outback.  Wagons also became increasingly uncool, a trend by no means specific to Subaru.
Today’s Liberty lives on only as a sedan, but it still shares a lot with the Outback.  Sitting in both it’s hard to pick which car you’re in, with only a few clues such as the absence of controls like the Outback’s offroad X-Mode, and the lower ride height.  Otherwise, they’re very, very similar on the inside, and the outside, so read our Outback review for an idea of the Liberty’s interior.  We’ve also reviewed the Liberty a few times – have a look at Editor Bober’s 3.6R review, or Paul’s 2.5i review.  So in this post rather than recap what they’ve already said we’ll look at why you might want one Subie over another, starting with some specs.
You might think the Outback is bigger and heavier, right?  Yes..by 50kg, 1645 to 1702, about 3% difference.   Longer?  Yes, by a mere two fingers – 20mm, 4795mm to 4815.  Perhaps the similarity in dimensions are why the gear “ratios” in the 6-speed CVT are the same. 
The Liberty is lower, 1500mm to the Outback’s 1675mm.  The Liberty’s track – which is the distance between the centre of the tyres – is wider, 1580 on the front and 1595 on the rear, vs Outback at 1570 and 1580.  There’s probably wider offset rims fitted to the Liberty, and with a wheelbase (distance between front and rear wheels) difference of 2745 for the Outback the Liberty is slightly longer at 2750.  
Ground clearance for the Outback is 213mm, the Liberty 150mm – about 25mm of that is because the Outback’s tyres are taller – 255/60/18 with a diameter of 730mm, whereas the Liberty has 255/50/18 and a diameter of 680mm, so 50mm shorter.  The rest of the difference is because the Outback’s suspension is cranked up around another 40mm for offroad use.
The Outback is designed to do this. The Liberty is not.

How they drive

These specification differences do translate into different performance. The Outback does 0-100km/h in 7.6 seconds, the Liberty in 7.2 but it feels quicker as you’re lower, the throttle is sharper and the exhaust note is rortier. As ever, you simply cannot get a feel for how quick a car is simply by looking at the figure.  My favourite example here is the Toyota 86 which is slower 0-100 than a Range Rover Sport Supercharged, yet the former feels quicker than the later.
Around town, we find the Outback actually has the tighter turning circle, 11.0 metres vs 11.2.  Both have the same fuel consumption at 9.9L/100km on the combined cycle, but we found real-world the Liberty uses noticeably less than the Outback.  Aerodynamics is the key here, as the standard test doesn’t really account for drag.  Both have a small 60L fuel tank for 91RON petrol. 
The Liberty’s slightly lighter weight, wider track and lower ride height are complemented by road-oriented, stiffer suspension, but it’s only really stiff in comparison to the Outback.  Compared to a normal car it is very good, dispatches any bump you can find, is quiet, assured and not overly rough.  The Liberty won’t soak up bumps with the aplomb of the Outback – very little else does come to that-  but the Outback gives away some handling precision, not helped by its taller tyres.
On dirt there is no question the Outback is better vehicle.  That said, the Liberty handles loose or dirt surfaces with either assured control or happily controlled aggression, depending on your mood, and is much superior to the average roadcar.  The Liberty is more fun, even if the Outback has the better ride.
Both vehicles get Active Torque Split, which intelligently distributes torque (driving force) between the front and rear axles, giving both  a real sense of grip on all surfaces.  Subaru do AWD properly.
In 3.6R guise, the Outback and Liberty get SI-Drive which offers Intelligent, Sport, and Sport # (sharp) modes which change the automatic gearshift points as well as quicken throttle response but do not offer any extra power.  It might be my imagination, but the Liberty did seem tuned for quicker throttle response, with its Intelligent mode being about equivalent to the Outback’s Sport mode.
As far as practicality goes the cars are brilliant, and equal until the cargo area – when of course the Outback wins because it’s a wagon, not a sedan.  The Outback is also entirely untroubled by deep driveway entrance gutters, and like any roadcar the Liberty needs a bit of care although it’s no lower than anything else these days. Up top the Outback has roof rails, the Liberty just a roof.  Both vehicles will tow 1800kg braked, 750kg unbraked and have a maximum towball mass of 180kg.
A big difference is pricing Outback 3.6R is $47,990, Liberty 3.6R is $41,990.  That really reflects what the market will pay for either more than the quality or anything else.
So, Outback vs Liberty.  I think it’s a case of buy the Outback if you really need the space and the offroad capability, but if not, the Liberty is a much more entertaining drive, significantly cheaper, has a capacious boot and will still handle dirt roads very well indeed.  I certainly enjoyed driving the Liberty on road, whereas I found the Outback competent but boring – the Outback may be a wagon version of the Liberty in engineering terms, but it’s not in driving terms.  In the Outback I’d tend towards the smaller engines to save money and for better fuel efficiency, but in the Liberty I’d want that nice grunty six-cylinder.
The kindest comment on the styling was ‘nice rims’. But you know, some people like to fly under the radar. You can fly pretty quick in this car too.

Liberty 3.6R vs WRX vs WRX STi

Our test Liberty has a 3.6L engine good for 191kW.  In the past, Subaru have released performance versions of the Liberty that are kind of larger WRXes.  Is this 3.6R model such a beast?
The answer is complicated.  No, Subaru do not have a hot version of the Liberty, and a scan of their website does not link the word “sporty” next to “Liberty”.  Which is kind of odd because you would not believe what cars manufacturers attempt to claim are sporty (or sexy, come to that).  But it gets even odder because the 3.6R is actually pretty sporty and not a bad drive.  I just can’t work out car marketing people, I think I’ll stick to journalism.
Before we get to Liberty vs WRX, a word on the automatic WRX.  I have tested this car and have been distinctly underwhelmed by its performance and fun-factor.  The manual WRX is in my view a much, much better sportscar, and the WRX STi is a level up again for sheer love of driving.  But if you really want driver involvement from a Subaru there is only one choice and that is the BRZ, or its twin the Toyota 86.  This is to take nothing away from the auto WRX, or indeed Liberty’s impressive ability to cover ground at speed, but mere speed isn’t the mark of a sportscar, it’s the fun you have.  
Coming back to the WRX auto vs the 3.6R, a few stats to prepare for the conclusion.  For straight-line performance the WRX weighs 1562kg, power 197kW and can do 0-100 in 6.3 seconds.  The Liberty 191kW, 1645kg and 7.2 seconds.  In the real world, that’s no difference at all.  If all you want to do is get from A to B rapidly and safely quickly the 3.6R will do that just as well as the WRX, and is only a little less fun.  You do lose a bit of the the sports-car ambience you find in the WRX – trim, seats, steering wheel…all missing.   The base WRX doesn’t have great sports seats, like the Liberty, but the WRX Premium is an improvement on both. 
In order of driving fun – auto WRX, manual WRX and 86 (read: BRZ). If the STi were there it’d slot in between the BRZ and manual WRX.
On the other hand, compared to the WRX,  the Liberty is even more practical, mostly better specced, has more safety features like the Eyesight (autonomous emergency braking system and active cruise control) and is less flamboyant which appeals to the Q-car sort of person.   Where it gets interesting is the price comparison – WRX Auto Premium is $45,990 and the Liberty 3.6R is $41,990.  And the Liberty is bigger, 200mm longer, 1840mm wide vs 1795mm for the WRX, with a 10.8m turning circle vs 11.2 for the Liberty.  
But the Liberty has a six-cylinder engine that sounds better than the four-cylinder turbo in the WRX, and the CVT in the 3.6R seems more responsive and better-sorted than that of the Rex, a bit more connected.  In both cars, I like the way you can double or triple tap the paddles to skip-shift gears, say from 5th to 2nd, and if you floor the accelerator it won’t shift up until you reach redline. And with ESC off the car comes more alive and interesting.
Frankly, if you wanted a fast-ish automatic AWD sedan but aren’t bothered about it looking like a pure sportscar then I’d go for the Liberty 3.6R over the auto WRX.  It is just as quick in the real world on public roads, slightly less engaging to drive but definitely still up there on the fun factor so you look forwards to driving it, and it is more luxurious, practical and spacious.  It’ll even cost you less.
Might look a bit staid, but it’s a much better drive than you’d expect from a very spacious mid-sized car.
The Liberty is also a good choice for long-range touring because not only can it handle dirt roads, it runs on 91RON fuel and has a full-sized alloy spare – and it is increasingly rare to find roadcars that meet those three criteria.  The only drawback is the smallish 60L fuel tank.


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8 years ago

I really enjoy your reviews Robert. I own the Outback 3.6R and test drove the equivalent Liberty, as the Outback was not available for a road test at the time. I was initially a little disappointed in the driving experience of the Outback. It seemed softer somehow, slightly less responsive.

After three months of ownership, a few longer drives (including a trip from the Hunter Valley back to Sydney via the Putty Road), I love the Outback. Sure it isn’t as sharp, but the ride is lovely and it was a joy to drive on that bumpy twisty Putty Road.

You won’t go wrong with either car.

P.S. Interesting conclusion Liberty v WRX. Couldn’t agree more though. In addition, the interior quality and comfort of the Liberty is light years ahead of the WRX.

Robert Pepper
8 years ago
Reply to  Mark

Thanks Mark. Yes, all are fine cars. Ideally, I’d have an Outback for family weekends, the STi as a daily driver with the family runabout and the BRZ as a funmobile. The Liberty is kind of a compromise between all three.

8 years ago
Reply to  Robert Pepper

I had a MY05 Liberty GT manual wagon that was the best of all worlds – WRX performance, wagon practicality and Liberty looks. Then they went and changed it all …

7 years ago
Reply to  Phil

The wagon looked far better than the sedan in that shape.

Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper