Subaru Legacy Liberty Outback 2003-09

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Subaru Legacy Liberty Outback 2003-09...


Subaru Legacy / Liberty / Outback 2003-09


Quick Summary

Great to drive, with reasonable reliability at low mileages & excellent safety. However, these cars often don't age well.

How Reliable?

Good, but see 'what goes


wrong' below ☛

How Safe?

Excellent. See our safety summary below ☛☛



ALSO CONSIDER: Something more practical at high mileages, like a Toyota Camry.

$6000–$25,000 $2000–$15,000 (for used car dealers add around 30%, incl GST)

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$11,500­–$45,000 $10,000–$42,000 (for used car dealers add around 30-40%, incl GST)

SUB MODELS: the Legacy and Liberty are the same car with different badges. Legacy is the international name, Liberty the Australian name. The Legacy/Liberty was offered as either a four-door sedan or a five-door station wagon. The Outback is the SUV version of the Legacy.

• Some of this wording is shared with other reviews.


apan is a very conservative society and exports most of its vehicles to cultures that it does not fully understand. Therefore, changes come slowly and cautiously. Also, Subaru is, and always has been, a small carmaker with very limited budgets, with potential bankruptcy always lurking somewhere in the background. Before Subaru, four-wheel drive was mainly for offroad use and was rarely employed on an everyday car. The Leone – which offered the option of four-wheel drive motoring for the same price as a conventional car – saved Subaru in the early 1970s. The Leone model was sold worldwide for an extraordinary 23 years before finally being retired in 1994. How-

ever, long before the Leone expired as a model, its shortcomings were obvious: it was too small, underpowered and unsafe for Western car buyers. Thus, the 1989 launch of the Legacy (Liberty in Australia) ushered in a new era for Subaru. The Legacy was larger, had more power and was far safer than the Leone. However, it was still a bit small and a bit gutless for many Western buyers. This took Subaru a long time to grasp: side streets in Japan are often little more than well-sealed cart tracks; large cars are heavily taxed and would not fit into many carparking spaces. With time, the message got through and Subaru’s designers went back to the drawing board once more. They enlarged the existing vehicle, gave the engines more power and made the Legacy a nicer car to drive. As Subaru’s designers became more aware and more confident, this process of ongoing improvement continued. Thus, the Legacy, with each generation, grew larger, more powerful, more comfortable and more safe. Aside from power and comfort, handling improved noticeably on this version of the Legacy. The rear suspension was vastly improved over the previous version, making the Legacy far better at cornering and giving it much better stability overall. Subaru did make a few blunders: due to the fact that Subaru couldn’t afford to produce a new body for this vehicle, they recycled the old one: thus,the width of the Legacy was kept to a Japanese standard: 1.7 metres, meaning that the rear seat is too narrow for three large adults. Subaru’s styling has often been questionable, but you can’t fault most of the engineering. The Legacy’s interior has a

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designed-by-an-engineer-rather-than-anartist feel about it. The choice of interior plastics appears to have been made by some accountant somewhere; Subaru clearly never consulted any Western carbuyers before they went ahead with production. In reality, we suspect that Subaru had used up so much of its budget designing the mechanical parts of the vehicle that there simply wasn’t enough money left to do a decent job on the interior. Not that it matters, to most Subaru owners. Next to Apple Mac owners, Subaru owners are among the most loyal consumers on the planet, coming back for more, generation after generation. They have learned to trust their vehicles, and a budget interior doesn’t seem to bother them much. The Legacy’s front occupants are welltreated, although the seats aren’t all that easy to adjust. When adjusted, the lowslung seats are comfortable and the driving position is very good for the average driver. However, the steering wheel adjusts for height but not reach, so very short or tall drivers may feel less at home. There’s just enough legroom in the front and not enough in the rear. The interior is well built and reasonably nicely thought out, although – thanks to the lightweight design and the quality of the plastics – squeaks and rattles are common. Upmarket models were re-powered by a 2.5 turbocharged engine, introduced to solve emissions problems without sacrificing power. The new engine, while frugal, was inclined to drink oil. These engines have also given more than their fair share of other issues as well. The problem with all the recent Subaru engines is that they’re a very old design that has been constantly

updated to wring out the maximum power and fuel economy. There’s a limit to how far you can go with this, and many of these engines are at that limit. Later versions offered a 2.0 diesel version that offered impressive fuel economy and reasonable performance. Subaru also introduced a feature called Subaru Intelligent Drive (SI-Drive), fitted to all turbocharged models and the 3.0 model. In theory, SI-drive allows the driver, via a dial on the centre console, to play God with the operation of engine and automatic transmission. By simply turning the dial, you can choose between economy and two sports settings. Like most other systems of this kind, SIdrive works best on paper and worst on the road. It’s a silly gimmick; when you select ‘economy’ you use less petrol and you get less power. However, you can easily achieve exactly the same result by simply driving less aggressively. Moreover, the claimed fuel economy improvements aren’t always there; most of the time the so-called improvements show up on the fuel economy display rather than at the gas station. All fuel economy computers tend to be a bit optimistic, but the Legacy’s one seems to be more optimistic than most where SI-drive is concerned. Rather more successful is the six-speed manual gearbox, which makes good use of the engine’s power and, if driven gently, returns passable fuel economy, even on larger engines. The automatic transmissions aren’t perfect. Because they’re set up to give maximum fuel economy, they’re often in conflict as to when to change gear. That is, they are torn between the desire to change gear at the appropriate time, and the desire to

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wring out the maximum amount of fuel economy by changing earlier or later than the driver needs. This programming often produces indecisive gearchanging, which may be a pain to live with for some drivers. Some of these transmissions also gave problems from new. On the road, the Legacy’s handling is typical of a good four-wheel drive: tenacious grip coupled with mild understeer. In English, this means that, although the Legacy will stick to the road like glue, even on loose road surfaces, it will want to keep going in a straight line on corners. You learn to adapt your driving style to suit this reality. Understeer aside, the Legacy handles okay. The ride is too firm on performance models and a bit inadequate on cheaper models. Upmarket, non-performance models offer the best overall ride. The steering is direct and firm across the range.


Like many modern SUVs, the Subaru Outback is a mostly-urban vehicle with slight offroad pretentions. It isn’t and never has been, a genuine offroad vehicle. The Subaru Outback is a slightly modified version of the Legacy wagon. It’s natural turf is city streets and gravel roads. Other than being slightly higher off the ground, having

a butch styling combined with a slightly heavier suspension, the Outback is no different to a Legacy station wagon. The Outback arose out of Subaru’s desperate need to cash in on the SUV craze of the 1990s. Subaru was financiallychallenged at the time and couldn’t afford to build a genuine SUV, so they invented a pretend one. A large part of this vehicle’s success arose from America’s extraordinary but brief fascination with rural Australian culture that followed the release of the first two Crocodile Dundee movies in the 1980s. Unsurprisingly, the actor who played Crocodile Dundee – Paul Hogan – was chosen as Subaru’s spokesman in America, and the vehicle was given a title that spoke of rugged rural Australia – the Subaru Outback. In fact, this name was something of a con: few Australians ever drove one of these vehicles offroad in the true outback. Nor should they; as a car to drive round town and take down dusty roads, the Outback does just fine. You rarely see one crossing the Simpson Desert, which speaks for itself, really. It’s not that the Subie can’t cope in sand or dirt highways; quite the opposite. It’s a great vehicle for muddy dirt tracks and dusty backroads. What the Outback can’t cope with is ravines, rocks, logs and rivers. In serious offroad situations it’s common for the water to come right up over the bonnet of a vehicle during the crossing. Light vehicles can easily get washed downstream. Water can also get sucked into the engine, wrecking it instantly. Sudden dips can easily mean a vehicle gets stuck in the bottom of a V shaped ravine, both ends jammed, with the wheels spinning hopelessly. Large rocks and logs will not only shipwreck a low vehicle like the Outback, but they’ll

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often seriously damage the underside of the vehicle in the process. Serious offroad situations require a serious offroader, such as Toyota Land Cruiser or Nissan Patrol, which are purpose-built to cope with ravines, rocks, logs and rivers. Serious offroaders also tend to have winches to pull themselves out of trouble, something your rarely see on an Outback. Still, offroad prowess is rarely relevant to buyers of SUVs. Outbacks are sold and used as city station wagons. This is a task they perform well, although their loadcarrying space is not huge.


Legacys and Outbacks – all versions – remind us of one of those Hollywood action heroes – good-looking, strong and vigorous. The sort of friend you’d like to hang out and be seen in public with. However, when you look back a decade later they don’t seem to have aged very well. Perhaps in the Legacy’s case you can blame the previous owners. Perhaps not. There’s no doubt that if these vehicles have not been maintained carefully then both the engines and transmissions will give grief at an early age. However, even well-maintained cars are not immune to problems. Automatics on these cars were never great, although later versions were a definite improvement. Subaru was forced to upgrade these transmissions time after time, but outside of Japan they would only upgrade the transmission if the owner complained. Typical problems are transmissions that shift abruptly and with

a thump or a bang, lack of acceleration and a refusal on the part of the transmission to change down when the vehicle is going between 40-70km/h. Regardless of how well the transmission is serviced, expect it to need a full and expensive overhaul every 100,000km. The rest of the car should be perfectly reliable until about 150,000km. We know of vehicles that have done three times that mileage without problems, but there’s no guarantee. Bear in mind also that these vehicles are reasonably complicated and many jobs on the engine require that the whole motor comes out. Even owners who have maintained their vehicles to the highest of standards have sometimes discovered, the hard way, this fact: like Hollywood action heroes, these vehicles are best enjoyed while they’re young and vigorous. Often, old age isn’t kind to them. See also our comments on ‘Diesels’, ‘Turbochargers & Superchargers’ in the links page that follows this review, and on Subaru at the end of this review

Fuel system problems Legacy models built between 24 April 2003 & 14 April 2004 (only 12 vehicles affected) • The fuel tank may leak around the fuel pump when full. If the problem has been fixed in Japan there will be white paint on the bolt securing the fuel tank onto the vehicle body. VIN numbers: BL5-002001 – BL5-018656; BP5-002005 – BP5-046175 Search ☛ RJ-1342-2

Engine problems

• These engines require that the antifreeze gets changed religiously, or the interior of the motor will be eaten away by corrosion.

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• Rattly engines which leak oil probably warn that the end is nigh. • EJ20 two litre Subaru engines (and some others) are rapidly developing a bad reputation for premature big end bearing failure. Subaru is claiming that the problem is lack of maintenance, but we know of a number of cases where the buyer was careful and thorough and it still occurred. The problem is worst on the twin turbo versions: these engines are equipped with the short skirt pistons which also wear badly. The symptom of the big end problem is a distinct knocking when you start the car from cold and the symptom of the piston wear is a rattle when cold. The above two problems seem to strike at around 150,000km. • Overheating can destroy your engine! See our article ‘Keeping it Cool’ in the links page that follows this review. • EJ25 2.5 litre DOHC engines are well known for blowing head gaskets. • See our general head gasket warning at the end of this review. •Timing belts and belt tensioners need replacing every 100,000km (or five years, whichever comes first) or they may break, causing severe engine damage. Timing belt replacement can be expensive. • See our article ‘A Question of Timing’ in the links page that follows this review. • The 3.0 engine uses a timing chain, not a timing belt. A noisy chain probably indicates a tired or badly maintained engine. We have a few reports of these chains breaking at quite low mileages, causing massive engine damage. • See our article ‘A Question of Timing’ in the links page that follows this review. • Turbochargers rarely last as long as the engine they are bolted to, and they ain’t cheap to fix • The crankshaft oil seal leaks • The crankshaft pulley nut strips out, caus-

ing crankshaft damage. This is a very common problem and generally occurs not long after the vehicle has had its timing belt replaced. Some engine shops can repair the crankshaft in place, but if there’s not one nearby the whole engine will have to come out. • Fuel pumps die with age, and are VERY expensive to fix. Liberty GT (2007-2008MY), Impreza WRX (2008MY, not including STI models) & Forester XT (2009MY), built before 10 November 2008 • The turbo charger oil supply pipe may be deformed and vibration during normal driving could casue the pipe to crack and leak engine oil. VIN numbers: not disclosed. Details @ Legacy 5-speed manual turbo models built between 24 April 2003 & 31 March 2004 • The timing belt tensioner may allow the belt to move and become damaged. If the problem has been fixed in Japan there will be white paint on top of the timing belt cover. VIN numbers: BL5-002044 – BL5-018374; BP5-002137 – BP5-041689 Search ☛ RJ-2175-0

Gearbox & drivetrain problems

• Constant velocity (CV) joints are prone to wear. Drive the car in a tight left, then righthand circle and listen for the telltale knockknock-knock sound. Also check behind the wheel for split CV boots and grease leakage. If the boot is split, CV failure is not far behind, and this CV is a moderately expensive repair. • Clutches are the weakest link in the power transmission chain . Try accelerating hard after changing from first to second while driving uphill. If the car doesn’t speed up but the revs keep rising, there’s a problem. • Manual gearboxes are prone to problems from around 150,000km onwards. Symptoms of impending doom include jumping out of second gear and crunching when changing in and out of third. Difficulties shifting may also be worn shifter bushings. • The differentials on these cars will quickly seize if the vehicle is run with tyres of different heights.

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• Rear differentials blow and may be expensive to fix • See our general automatic transmission warning at the end of this review. Automatic Liberty 3.0, Liberty GT 2.0/2.5 & Outback 3.0����������������� models built between 2005 & 2007 • Transmission may slip due to a leaking oil cooler hose. This is also a fire hazard. VIN numbers @

Steering & suspension problems

• Steering racks AND PUMPS are prone to failure at very high mileages. Especially watch out for oil leaks from the steering rack, because this not only signals that the unit needs rebuilding, it may cause it to fail a safety check • Suspension bushes are prone to wear • Suspension struts are prone to wear • Check for uneven tyre wear. It may mean that this car has clipped a curb while parking, or there may be hidden accident damage. If there’s uneven tyre wear, insist on a four-wheel alignment before proceeding. • The rear springs are prone to sagging if the vehicle has been overloaded.

check for rust underneath is essential, especially in the front crossmember, around the wheel wells and in the front of the bonnet Worldwide recall of Legacy models built between 24 April 2003 & 21 March 2005 • The rear doors may open while driving. If the problem has been fixed in Japan there will be black paint on the latch of the rear door lock. VIN numbers: Search ☛ RJ-1462-0 and RJ-1514-0 not disclosed, search ☛ R/2005/116

Interior problems

• Air conditioning is often dead & may be uneconomic to fix • Electric windows die with age • Central locking dies with age. The key remotes are also prone to dying of old age. Make sure that they work and make sure you get the spare as well, or budget for its replacement.

Brake & safety problems

• See our general airbag and ABS warning at the end of this review. • Heavy disc wear is common, especially at the rear. REAR DISCS ARE BOTH DIFFICULT AND EXPENSIVE TO REPLACE Worldwide recall of Legacy models built between 24 April 2003 & 14 April 2004 • The rear stabiliser may interfere with rear brake callipers and cause brake fluid to leak. VIN numbers @ Search ☛ RJ-1342-1 Search ☛ R/2005/117

Body problems

• Many Legacies have been pranged, and not always fixed properly. You should always have the vehicle professionally checked, but also check for uneven tyre wear, wheel wobble when driving and especially watch for a tugging towards one side of the road as you drive • Many Legacies have been used to tow boats, so a

ANCAP crash tests, Australia

2004-on models. The version with side airbags did even better.

In actual road smashes the driver of a smaller (lighter) car is far more likely to die than the driver of a larger (heavier) vehicle it collides with. (A Daihatsu Move weighs about 815kg and a Range Rover weighs about 2500kg. This vehicle weighs about 1200– 1400kg, depending on the model). See also our general comments on ‘Four-wheel drives & Safety’ in the Safety section (see the links page that follows this review) and our general comments on safety in that section.

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VIN PLATE LOCATION: Right inner guard behind wheel arch ENGINE TYPE & SIZE: (petrol) • 2.0 EJ20 HO 1994cc DOHC MPI, some turbo. • 2.5 EJ25 HO 2457cc DOHC MPI, some turbo (VVT on turbo versions). • 3.0 EZ30 HO 3000cc DOHC MPI (diesel) • 2.0 1998cc DOHC MPI turbo RECOMMENDED FUEL/S: • 2.0 & 2.0 turbo Premium • 2.5 Regular • 2.5 turbo Premium • 3.0 Premium

PROPER SEATBELTS THROUGHOUT: Yes PROPER SPARE TYRE: Yes, except for Legacy GT models which have spacesaver only. ANTI–SKID BRAKING (ABS): • LEGACY all models except (previous) 2.2 LX wagon • OUTBACK standard all models AIRBAGS: • LEGACY GX & RX dual standard • GTB & RSB driver only • LX wagon not available • OUTBACK Ltd dual standard • SUV not available ELECTRONIC STABILITY CONTROL (ESC): Outback Ltd 3.0R, and Legacy GT. Other models no. REVERSING CAMERA: No SUITABLE FOR TOWING? Yes TOWING CApacity: unbraked 710-750kg, braked 1500-1800kg

HOW MUCH FUEL?: Realistic urban averages: (petrol) • 2.0 12.3 litres/100km • 8.1 km/litre • 23 mpg • 2.0T 15.6 litres/100km • 6.4 km/litre • 18 mpg • 2.5 12.8 litres/100km • 7.8 km/litre • 22 mpg • 2.5T 17.5 litres/100km • 5.7 km/litre • 16 mpg • 3.0 15.6 litres/100km • 6.4 km/litre • 18 mpg (diesel) • 2.0 7.4 litres/100km • 13.6 km/litre • 38.5mpg HOW GREEN? (petrol) • 2.0 J/K • CO2 emissions (g/km) 148-212 • 2.5 K • CO2 emissions (g/km) 200-210 • 3.0 L • CO2 emissions (g/km) 229-290 (diesel) • 2.0 K • meets Euro Standard IV • See our article ‘It’s Not Easy Being Green’ in the links page that follows this review.

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2) The rest of the review is there to explain why we make our recommendation in the ‘Quick Summary’ section. Don’t be surprised if we make a negative recommendation: we try and steer buyers away from vehicle purchases that are likely to end in tears. 3) Buying a car is a complex and confusing process. For this reason we recommend that you calm down and read our supporting articles as well as the review itself, so that you can see where we’re coming from. 4) We especially recommend you click on the blue link below to read our article: ‘How to Use These Reviews’. 5) If you’re buying secondhand, we recommend you watch our free video: ‘The Five Minute Car Check’. 6) There are a number of really useful supporting articles available free from our website. You can access these by simply clicking on the name of the article on the ‘links’ page that follows the review. 7) If you’re still horribly confused: contact us, but please have some compassion for our overworked support staff: most of the answers you need are already supplied within this review and the free articles on our website.



ubaru is the car division of Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd. Fuji also manufactures aircraft, trains & ships, among other things.

mythology Pleiades. Subaru’s logo of six stars comes from the Taurus constellation and is also a reference to the six companies of the Fuji group.

Started in 1917 as the Nakajiama Aircraft Co, the company changed its name to Fuji Sangyo Ltd in 1945, when the American occupying forces split the group into twelve independent companies. Six of these were later to regroup as Fuji Heavy industries Ltd. and gradually diversified into manufacturing such things as motor-scooters, bus bodywork & gasoline engines.

Subaru’s first big break came with the four-wheel drive

SUBARU Official name: Subaru Division, Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd

Formerly owned by: General Motors (20%).

More conventional cars started with the FF1 of 1966, formed after a co-operation agreement with Nissan. The trademark Subaru (correct Japanese pronunciation is Soo bar roo, not soo - ber ROO) is a Japanese reference to the character from Greek

Subaru also did well with small cars & vans and its performance models. Early ’80s Subarus had bad rust problems, and Subaru small cars a n d v a n s w e re deathtraps.

Owned by: Mainly Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd and Toyota (16.5%).

Subaru’s first car was a Fiat Bambina lookalike, the 360, in 1958.

Leone in 1974, which suddenly made four-wheel drive available for the everyday motorist.

Current situation: On the positive side, Subaru vehicles have an excellent reputation for performance, handling, reliability and safety. However, like the giant Panda, Subaru has become too specialised and is endangered by a changing environment. Subaru has a limited model range and is currently losing money; it’s a small fish in a hostile and overpopulated sea. Chances of survival: okay. Subaru’s alliance with Toyota will improve its chances considerably. In the end, Subaru may end up like Daihatsu – simply one of Toyota’s specialist brands •

In the early ’90s Subaru really got its act together on both fronts. Most modern Subarus give excellent crashtest results and rarely rust. Subaru’s rally cars like the WRX have made the brand famous among petrolheads. However, much of the technology that goes into Subaru’s racing vehicles is also present in its everyday cars. Subarus do not age as gracefully as their Toyota equivalent; a ten year old Toyota is often still in its prime; a ten year old Subaru is nearing the end of its trouble-free life. While they’re new, Subarus are among the most trustworthy cars available •



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Blown head gasket warning Modern engines work hard. Because of this, they tend to get hot and frequently ‘blow their top’, especially if the engine has been overheated or run without fresh antifreeze. Head gaskets may be very expensive to fix and if left unfixed you’ll probably end up broken down at the side of the road. Worse, blown head gaskets sometimes lead to total engine failure. The symptoms of a blown head gasket are mysterious coolant loss, sometimes accompanied by rough running and overheating, clouds of white steam coming from the exhaust, oil in the water, water in the oil, and/or white goo under the oil filler cap (see picture opposite). You should also lift out the oil dipstick. If the oil is the colour of the white goo in the middle of the oil filler cap in the picture, you have a cracked cylinder head and/or blown head gasket. You should also be suspicious about any vehicle with a heater that leaks coolant into the interior of the car. A leaking heater is sometimes a symptom of a head gasket problem. So is a blown or leaking radiator or its hoses.

ABS & airbag warning • Both the ABS (anti-skid braking) and airbag warning lights should go on and then off when you first start the vehicle. If this does not happen, the vehicle may require a major, extremely expensive repair immediately (if either the ABS or airbag warning lights do not go on at all, someone’s probably disconnected them to hide the fact that the ABS or airbag system is faulty). If either warning light comes on while you are driving, this may mean a serious malfunction in the vehicle’s safety systems, and the vehicle should not be driven, let alone purchased.

Automatic transmission warning • Automatic transmissions that do not shift smoothly during a test drive are probably not long of this earth. Also, with the vehicle at normal operating temperature (so that the engine is not idling too fast) put the handbrake on and try switching the gear selector between forward and reverse – this should happen quickly and smoothly without any clunk – if not, suspect big repair bills in the near future. Note: the advice below may not apply on some modern cars, because there may be no dipstick to check. For further information, see our articles on automatic transmissions and CVT transmissions in the links page (one page back). With the transmission in neutral and the engine running at normal operating temperature, lift out the transmission dipstick, wipe it clean, put it back in and then remove it again. The automatic transmission fluid should be a happy cherry red colour & should be within the marked area on the transmission dipstick – if it’s not, abuse and/or neglect is pretty likely and the vehicle should be avoided!

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