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Pre-Owned Performance - Subaru Liberty (Legacy) RS

A scorching performer, the Liberty RS is now the best value 1990s performance car on the market!

By Michael Knowling

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Prior to the Liberty (Legacy) RS turbo, Subaru Australia had never enjoyed the experience of distributing a genuine performance car. Of course, there had been the 4WD turbo RX and Vortex, but neither could crack 10 seconds for the 0-100km/h sprint - although they were very reliable. The RS was the gun version of the first Liberty series released in 1988 and discontinued in 1994. Badged as a Liberty in Australia, the car is elsewhere known as the Legacy. The RS (Rally Sport) model was aimed squarely at world rallying, with many of its components and concepts carried over to the dominating Impreza WRX.

Chassis

Set up as the high performance car in the Subaru line-up, the RS is quite firmly sprung in comparison to the naturally aspirated models. However, it does retain the hereditary suspension layout consisting of MacPherson struts at each corner, and front and rear sway bars (although all of these were higher-rate). Combined with the constant all-wheel-drive, the car is close to being completely foolproof in its handling. The rear differential uses a limited slip centre, the front diff is open, and there is also a front-to-rear LSD which varies its split depending on available grip. The large four wheel disc braking performance was okay back when the RS was released but the arrangement can give problems when the car is modified. Anti-lock brakes were an option on the RS and usually found on cars also fitted with a sunroof.

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Available as either a sedan or wagon, the styling of the car is nothing too wild - a "Q-car" as it was often described. To avoid corrosion, 78% of the body weight was galvanised, while PVC, corrosion resistant wax and seals are used in other design areas. All RSs sport exclusive alloy wheels, bonnet scoop, driving lights, and black skirts all 'round.

Engine

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The Liberty is powered by a 2-litre, quad-cam, 16-valve, intercooled turbo flat four with full engine management. Its basic design is very similar to today's WRX, however the RS uses slightly different cylinder heads and valvetrain, an 8.0:1 compression ratio, water-to-air intercooling and an IHI RHB52 turbo. Direct-fire ignition (ie a coil on top of each plug) is used. A total of 147kW (200hp) was credited to the RS's engine at 6000rpm. Torque was also very strong for a two-litre with 260Nm (192ft/lb) at 3600rpm. However, there is a lack of turbo-assisted torque at low revs - around 3000-3500rpm is needed before any real boost pressure developed. The engines are extremely durable - the one in my own car has just passed 180,000 kilometres (112,000 miles) without as much as a turbo overhaul. All Australian-delivered Liberty RSs came with a 5-speed manual gearbox, while some other counties also saw the optional 4-speed auto version.

Performance

In factory trim, the 1355kg (2990lb) RS sedan claws its way to 100km/h in 6.8 seconds and passes the quarter mile beams in 14.9 at 148.7km/h (92.5mph). Note though, that if the car isn't properly launched, it will bog down and add maybe a second to that time... Its top speed is still pretty quick today at a sunny 230km/h. And despite having 147kW, the car still returns around 11-12 litres/100km - and this improves to about 10 litres/100km with the fitment of a 3-inch exhaust and inlet mods.

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Around corners, the RS displays minor understeer (an inherent trait of constant AWDs) which can develop into plough understeer if the driver isn't careful to get the turn-in over early. Because the car has some turbo lag, the throttle should be squeezed prior to the apex and this will enable full-boost to blast the car out of the corner with total traction. Any understeer will be lost and the car becomes wonderfully neutral. It will only oversteer when being 'trail-braked' or when it is being driven on a loose surface.

Going quickly around corners in the wet is also one area that lets the Subaru's constant all-paw traction shine though - virtually any 2 wheel drive car will simply be left behind.

Modifications

The RS Liberty responds very well to the traditional turbo-car mods. A 3-inch exhaust from the turbo back comprising a high-flow cat, muffler and perhaps a central resonator will give the car about an extra 15% more power and slice an easy half a second off its 0-100 time. The intake system can also be modified to good effect. The standard resonating chamber leading into the airbox should be removed and replaced by a large diameter duct. The entrance into the side of the airbox should then be enlarged to suit the large diameter duct.

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Boost can then be increased to around 1 Bar (14.7psi) in a variety of ways. A pneumatic bleed and restriction on the wastegate line is the cheapest method, but you could also fit a pressure regulator, a different chip, or a full electronic boost control system. In any case, a boost-cut defence bypass mechanism will need to be installed. After these three mods, expect around low-5s for the 0-100km/h sprint and a high 13s over the quarter. Depending on your budget, a twin-turbo 206kW engine from the current model Japanese Legacy could go in, a turbocharged 2.2 or 2.5 litre Liberty engine could be built, or the standard engine could be extensively modified for about 350-400hp.

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A set of sticky tyres improves the car's handling limits massively. With the standard Michelins, the car squeals obsessively and begins to slip laterally quite early - although very predictably. Having tried a set of Yokohama A008-RSs we can vouch that the car handles and grips phenomenally well with these semi-race tyres - to the point where the body lean becomes excessive - a big statement considering how firm the RS's suspension setting is.

Buyers' Guide

Released in Australia in early 1992, the earlier Liberty RSs came with no ABS, while models from late 1992 had them as an option. The RSs were officially discontinued in late 1993 but some vehicles were still being sold in March 1994. All versions came with a practical and luxurious interior. It boasts a Momo leather wheel and gear knob; power windows, mirrors and aerial; air conditioning; cruise control; and comfortable sports seats. Cars optioned with the power sunroof suffer from severely reduced headroom, which would be a problem for 6 foot-plus drivers.

Sold new for around A$37,000, the average Liberty RS now sells for approximately A$20,000. Many have been used as highway cars and so the purchase price of higher kilometre examples is only marginally less. The cheapest we've ever seen was about A$16,500.

The gearbox and clutch is the area that lets the car's reliability down considerably. Due to the car's massive traction and high peak torque, the clutch can easily become worn after only a short amount of performance driving. A 100% total solution to this is yet to be seen by us. Many RSs suffered from excessive tappet noise. One officially sanctioned dealer fix for this problem was to replace the RS items with WRX heads and pistons. If this swap hasn't been carried out, it is very important that regular oil changes are performed if the hydraulic lash adjusters are to stay quiet.

Performance of Intended Role

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Subtly styled and with little pretence, the Liberty RS was aimed more at the drive-fast-on-Sunday executive or family man. It has a roomy boot, good fuel economy and (considering the car's performance) cheap parts prices. In standard form it has good ground clearance meaning that it is also happy negotiating the odd weekend rutted track - and you can get to that track pretty damn fast too! In very high speed driving the frameless glass windows create wind noise, and in constant urban driving the lack of low-down torque and slightly lumpy gearshift can become tiresome. However, those are very minor quibbles.

Summary

The Liberty RS is the best fun-per-dollar of any 90s car (Galant VR4s are arguably on-par). Its scintillating performance and tenacious grip make it a superb open-road blaster that can then be driven sedately and enjoyed for its comfort. Five-star value for money.

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