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Liberty and equality

A decade ago you would have refuted any association between the Japanese carmaker and the driving habits of the rich and famous.

But this week Subaru put its foot firmly on a higher rung in the ladder of motoring excellence with the launch of three $50,000-plus Liberty models.

The Liberty – released in October in its newest guise – has had a whopping 58 per cent leap in sales for the six months to July this year, compared with the same period in 2003.

Subaru Australia managing director Trevor Amery is delighted, though a bit surprised.

"Buyers are firmly favouring premium versions of Liberty," he said.

"We're selling 140 GT (turbocharged, $50,000-plus) models a month. That's beyond our wildest expectations. When we released the new Liberty range last year we forecast GT sales at 50 a month.

"Now, one in three Libertys we sell is more than $50,000."

Two of the new Subarus released this week are six-cylinder models, with the 3-litre engine borrowed from the top-level Outback wagon.

The third is a 2-litre 190kW turbocharged GT with a manual gearbox that will add another string to the higher-performance bow to sit alongside its automatic transmission version.

There are two versions of the six-cylinder model – dubbed the 3.0R and 3.0R-B – which are available as a sedan or wagon. The Liberty GT comes only as a sedan and even then is by special order.

Subaru plans to find 100 new buyers of the 3.0R and 3.0R-B each month, luring them with a vast array of features, the grip of all-wheel-drive and the silkiness of a brilliant 180kW flat-six engine.

Prices start at $50,990 for the automatic-only 3.0R sedan and an extra $2000 for the wagon.

The 3.0R-B – the B stands for the Bilstein suspension system – is manual transmission only with the sedan at $51,990 and the wagon at $53,990.

The GT manual sedan will be $52,990 and another $2000 for the wagon.

Standard fare is impressive, starting with full leather (black only in the 3.0R-B and ivory in the 3.0R); a 13-speaker McIntosh sound system; front, side and curtain airbags; electric sunroof; ABS; cruise control; electric adjust front seats; Momo steering wheel; 17-inch alloys (with a real spare tyre); and DataDot and immobiliser security.

The 3.0R-B adds 18-inch alloys, Bilstein sports suspension, a six-speed manual gearbox and aluminium pedals.

Mr Amery said the Libertys represented incredible value against competitors such as Audi, BMW and Volvo.

"If you put it against an Audi A4 automatic, the price is about the same, but the Audi misses out on all-wheel drive, leather, the curtain airbags, sound system, and is only 94kW – 84kW less than the Liberty.

"If you use an Audi quattro as the base and option it up with the same features as the Liberty 3.0R, the Audi would cost $91,700 – $40,000 more.

"The same exercise with a BMW will cost more than $90,000."

Mr Amery said Australian car buyers were becoming increasingly aware of the high cost of buying a car purely because of its badge.

"But we now see evidence of people questioning badge prices, especially when the pricing is close," he said.

On the road, it's the quietness of the engine that first grabs you, then the smoothness of the engine as the revs wind up – quickly – around the backlit tachometer dial.

It'll start pumping gobs of torque from 3000rpm, then push easily to the 7000rpm redline.

Just as impressive as the three-litre six is the five-speed automatic. With sequential change – plus a Sports mode that ensures up-changes are strung out to the maximum revs – the box's ratios suit the engine's revvy nature.

Though you'd initially think them the same, the three versions displayed different personalities when driven along part of the Targa Tasmania course.

The 3.0R-B sedan, with its STi-derived six-cog manual box, eats the road on its 18-inch wheels. The engine is willing, the first four ratios of the gearbox are close and the Bilstein shock absorbers give a firm, controlled ride.

Subaru resisted fitting sports seats to the 3.0R-B and for good reason – the car remains easy to get in and out of, is comfortable and the subtleness of the seating suits its prospective market.

Drivers note that the steering is light, perhaps a tad vague, and though the disc brakes are all big and ventilated, they feel a bit soft underfoot when braking hard.

The handling is confident, with moments of a slight feel of understeer that's corrected by some passive rear-wheel steering. By comparison, the automatic version comes with VDC – Subaru's stability control – and lacks the firmness of the Bilsteins.

Then the wagon version of the 3.0R automatic displays the middle ground. It feels surer than the sedan through the bends, taking handling cues from the 3.0R-B.

Drivers should appreciate that these cars are strong performers with an excellence of build that's starting to fade in the Europeans.

Above all, from commuting to country touring, the Liberty has a flexibility and forgiveness that'll make you feel like a million dollars – and all for just $50,000.

The Sunday Times, The Daily Telegraph

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