Subaru Liberty RS Turbo - Buyer's Guide

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The Legacy sedan (renamed Liberty for Australia) that arrived in 1989 broke new ground for Subaru. It included a string of FIA international motor sporting records


Subaru Liberty RS Turbo

During a three-week enduro, three Legacy Turbo sedans lapped a banked oval in bone-dry Arizona to set 15 new endurance and speed records. They included the highest-ever average by a petrol-engined car: 223km/h for 100,000 kilometres.

Such pace and pedigree should have made the Liberty Turbo a strong seller in a country like Australia. The fact that it didn’t can be attributed to high pricing and a recession that struck just cars destined for Australia were rolling off the production line. The first arrivals were sedans, with a wagon added to the RS range in 1992.

The 2.0-litre EJ20 engine was 10 per cent smaller than the basic Liberty motor with its compression ratio reduced to suit a mild 0.7 bar of boost. Quad cams, 16 valves and a new exhaust helped the engine rev to 6500rpm, developing147kW at 6000rpm. Tuners, including Subaru’s own STi, easily extracted 200kW-plus if required.

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Locally-sold RS Turbos came with five-speed manual transmission. Legacy-badged versions had a four-speed automatic option. Some could still be floating around as private imports.

Like the basic Liberty, which was highly-regarded for equipment and finish, the RS came with electric windows and mirrors, a four speaker stereo and cruise control then added 15-inch alloy wheels, fog-lights and a boot spoiler. ABS brakes would become available as a $2000 option.

| Related: Subaru WRX & STi buyer's guide

Despite the risk posed by all that mechanical complexity and a drive-train being pushed pretty close to its limits, Subaru included the RS in its Three Year/100,000km Warranty programme.

While the wagon provided plenty of extra load space its structure added only 55kg to the sedan’s 1355kg. That was great for maintaining performance but wagon body rigidity suffered. Where the sedan was admirably squeak-free even in the rough stuff, wagons suffered from body rattles.

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Mechanical problems aren’t an issue with the EJ20 engine and transmission have plenty of relatives waiting at your nearest Japanese spares specialist. Unless a car is so perfect that you need to keep the original motor, a later substitute with a bit more power is preferable to scrapping a decent car.


Qualifying for ‘classic’ status involves ticking a few boxes relating to age, sporting pedigree and performance. The RS Liberty ticks most of them yet remains very affordable.

Cars selling at close to $10,000 seem generally in decent condition and a lot come with full history and copies of service receipts. Choose a car about which as much as possible is known to avoid turning your bargain buy into a very deep money pit.

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Wagons combine classic motoring with practicality but avoid those with trashed load areas. Turbos with towbars can be a worry too because extra weight being moved flogs the transmission.

Hoping to duplicate the Championship-winning performance of earlier Turbo models, Subaru Australia imported several Legacy sedans for sale to prominent rally drivers. One was comprehensively crashed very early in its career and the whereabouts of others is unknown. One rally-prepped LHD Legacy was advertised locally at under $40,000.

Value Range Liberty RS Turbo

FAIR: $3500
GOOD: $6500
EXCELLENT: $10,000

(Note: concours cars will demand more)

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Body & Chassis

After almost 30 years’ exposure to mud and rain, even well-built Liberty bodies may be starting to rust. Look at window surrounds, the bonnet lip, doors and sills. Underbody damage is likely too; check the lower front bumper and sills for crush damage. Liberty headlights weren’t much chop even when new and tarnished reflectors cut output to a glimmer. Be prepared to purchase some replacements which cost around $250 each including freight. If your RS is a wagon, make sure the cargo door struts can support its weight. Frameless doors rely on rubber seals to keep out wind and water and wind whistle reveals they are no longer doing their job.

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Engine & Transmission

Engines that are almost 30 years old will in all likelihood have been rebuilt at least once, so ask for receipts to see what’s been done and when. Cylinder heads leak oil and head gaskets may need replacement. Heat is the big enemy of turbocharged cars and the cooling system must work efficiently. Check as best you can all of the coolant hoses and budget for full replacement as soon as possible unless they have recently been replaced. Smoke of any kind indicates expensive work is imminent. Oil needs changing more frequently than the recommended 10,000km interval. The transmission will most likely clunk due to worn CV and universal joints but avoid cars with constant gear whine or differential noise. Clutch shudder is common, repair including parts costs around $1000.

Suspension & Brakes

RS Turbos struggled to stop even when the brakes were new and it’s unlikely any are still running with their original rotors. Unless you are addicted to authenticity, head to a performance brake place for some meatier rotors, uprated calipers and pads matched to your driving style. Bigger wheels might be needed. Suspension struts that creak and chatter over bumps need replacement. Steering in these should be razor-sharp and more than 20mm of free-play at the steering wheel means the rack and column joints need to be checked for leaks and component wear.

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Interior & Electrics

The seat cloth used in RS Turbos is of high quality and a lot of cars will today have original trim. The plastics suffer from sun exposure and even cared-for cars will likely have dash cracks. Controls including column stalks can literally crumble if the car has been exposed to high interior temperatures. Check carpets, especially in the back, for dampness and that the seats in a wagon lay flat when required. Repairing faulty air-con is costly and also check that the heater isn’t stuck due to a faulty control module. Power window switches and motors fail with age and cost $200-300 each to fix.

Subaru Liberty RS Turbo

NUMBER BUILT: 40,000 approx
BODY: steel, integrated body/chassis, four-door sedan or wagon
ENGINE: 1998cc horizontally-opposed four-cylinder with overhead camshafts and fuel injection
POWER & TORQUE: 147kW @ 6000rpm, 260kW @ 3600rpm
0-100km/h 6.9 seconds,
0-400 metres 14.9 seconds (sedan)
TRANSMISSION: five-speed manual
SUSPENSION: independent with struts, coil springs and anti-roll bar (f). Independent with struts, coil springs and anti-roll bar (r).
BRAKES: disc (f) disc (r) power assisted with ABS
TYRES: 205/60R15 radial

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