THINGS are beginning to hot up in the mid-size sedan kitchen.
For some time it has been the domain of the dowdy and utilitarian. But the crowd is building as car makers fight for territory in wide-ranging segments.
Holden recently released its Malibu to replace the infamous Epica, while a reinvigorated Mazda6 reached showrooms late last year.
European and Korean offerings have also joined the battle in recent times, but the Japanese are holding firm as segment leaders.
Toyota's Camry has been a firm favourite, yet Subaru has also enjoyed steady sales with its Liberty range.
With generous interior space, all-wheel drive technology and an excellent reliability reputation, it's a formula which has led to strong buyer satisfaction.
Functionality comes to the fore across the Subaru range.
Like its stablemates, you step inside the Liberty and the layout makes sense. The buttons are easily read, and you don't need to dive into the glovebox to explain various buttons.
The Premium model has a dark colour scheme, the black leather trim and console finishes are broken up by a horizontal metallic strip across the dash along with modern brushed metal inserts on the console which also flank the stereo/air con controls.
For the pilot there are two larger gauges, tacho on the left and speedo on the right, while centrally placed is a digital read-out which has a real-time fuel economy meter.
Unlike many other modern day vehicles you don't need a digital speedometer because the analogue offering is nicely legible. When you fire up the cruise control it does provide you with an exact speed.
Cabin space is particularly good for four adults courtesy of good leg and knee room. Some rivals have steeply raked exterior lines which reduces head room but the Liberty is more traditional in its styling and those in the back are thankful.
There are also vents in the rear seats for added comfort.
On the road
Nothing is complicated or hard work about the Liberty driving experience.
Direct steering, reasonable acceleration and all-wheel drive grip deliver predictability.
Sprint times of just less than 10 seconds for 0-100kmh are proof this is not a souped-up sedan in sheep's clothing, with constant power delivery rather than neck-snapping. Those wanting extra punch would be better served by the turbocharged GT variant.
There are paddle shifters on the steering wheel and drivers who want a more rapid ascent up steep inclines or need quick overtaking acceleration response are best rewarded by their use.
What do you get?
This premium model has some nice standard gear which doesn't dictate a visit to the options shop. Complementary items include 17-inch alloys, sunroof, dual zone climate control, black leather seat trim, Bluetooth phone connectivity with audio streaming, hands-free SMS reading functionality and voice command, eight-way power seat with lumbar support as well as a six-speaker stereo which is iPod/MP3/DIVX and WMA compatible.
The big player in the medium car game is the Toyota Camry. Its range-topping model is the SL ($39,990), while also worth considering are the Mazda6 GT ($43,220), Hyundai i40 Premium ($42,990), Volkswagen Passat 118TSI ($38,990), Honda Accord Euro Luxury Nav ($43,140) and the new Holden Malibu CDX ($31,990).
Accommodating two adults in the back can be done with ease, three is tight.
The Liberty has some thoughtful storage spots for smartphones and other devices up front, along with two drink holders in the middle, and you can also drop a wine bottle in each door.
Functionality is impeded by no split-fold function of the rear seats.
We achieved 7.4 litres for every 100km courtesy of a couple of highway stints, which is actually less than the official average.
Servicing is every six months, whereas much of the competition has annual maintenance schedules.
Premium models have some nice external kit, like fog lamps and 17-inch alloys along with body-colour bumpers, but there is nothing flashy about the Liberty.
Subarus have a habit of doing a lot of things well, and the Liberty is no different.
This 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine is honest but doesn't have the firepower to surprise.
And that's what many buyers in the segment want. Reliable A to B transport with in an easy to use and conservative package.
WHAT MATTERS MOST
The good stuff: Reliable reputation, easily navigated cabin, simple to drive.
What we'd like to see: Split-fold rear seats, some extra funky factor.
Warranty and servicing: Three years, unlimited kilometres warranty. Initial lubrication service needed at 5000km or three months. Servicing at 12,500km or six months.
Model: Subaru Liberty 2.5i Premium.
Details: Five-door large all-wheel drive sedan.
Engine: 2.5-litre four-cylinder boxer petrol generating maximum power of 127kW @ 5600rpm and peak torque of 235Nm @ 4100rpm.
Transmission: Continuously variable automatic.
Consumption: 7.9 litres/100km (combined average).
Bottom line: $39,490.
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