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2011 Jeep Liberty Sport 4x4 Review - VIDEO ENHANCED


PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)
2011 Jeep Liberty

DRIVING DOWN THE ROAD WITH CAREY RUSS

SEE ALSO: Jeep Buyers Guide


By its specification the Jeep Liberty should be called a crossover. After all, it's built with rigid, car-like unibody construction, with independent front suspension. A solid rear axle is the only (alleged) concession to SUV status, but there's more. Your basic crossover is front- or automatic all-wheel drive, and not meant for off-pavement use more serious than an improved fire road that's really traversable by any car with adequate clearance and traction.

The Jeep Liberty is a rear-wheel drive machine in 4x2 trim, with off-road dual-range four-wheel drive for the 4x4 models. Add eight inches of clearance, skid plates under the appropriate bits, and, well, the Liberty is a Jeep. Not a crossover. It can go places that most mere crossovers can't, or shouldn't, and has all of the comforts and conveniences expected in a contemporary mid-size crossover -- plus Jeep offroad abilities.

Introduced for 2002, with a slightly larger second generation debuting in 2008, the Liberty gets mostly minor tim differences this year. No surprise there, and typical for mid product-cycle years. But in honor of Jeep's 70th anniversary, there are 70th Anniversary models of both the Sport and upscale Limited trim levels, offered in both 4x2 and 4x4 form. The Jet package, introduced for this year, is also offered for those models. The mid-level Renegade carries over from last year, in 4x4 form only.

All have the same powertrain, a 3.7-liter V6 with 210 horsepower and 235 lb-ft of torque matched to a four-speed automatic transmission with electronic control and tow/haul mode. With the towing package, a Liberty can tow 5,000 pounds - more than its own weight, and more than any crossover that comes to mind. There are two four-wheel drive systems, both dual-range: Command-Trac II®, a part-time system with 2WD as the normal mode and 4WD lock and 4WD low for loose surfaces and low speeds and Selec-Trac II®, a full-time active system with 2WD, 4WD auto, and 4WD low that's suited to both pavement and off-road use.

The Liberty Sport 4x4 70th Anniversary Edition that I've spent the last week with demonstrates the difference between a mere crossover and a Jeep. As equipped - with leather, a good AM/FM/Sirius/hard disc/CD/auxiliary & iPod-compatible audio system, integrated Garmin navigation system, and more, it's directly competitive with any similarly-sized and -priced crossover. Until the road ends, or the mud and snow get deep, or you need to tow something larger than the 1000 to 1500 pounds that is the limit of most small crossovers. Then it's all Jeep.


Click PLAY to watch a 2011 Jeep Liberty playing in the snow

APPEARANCE: There should be no question as to the Liberty's manufacturer or heritage. If not quite the box it came in, it conspicuously lacks the effete curves and studied non-truckishness of the newest generation of crossovers. Yes, the windshield is curved, not flat, but it's still at a much more upright angle than is the norm today. There are plastic fascias over the bumpers, and no place at the front to mount a winch -- but that sort of serious off-road use is the province of the Wrangler. And yes, there's a rubber spoiler under the front bumper, all the better to improve aerodynamics if only a bit for fuel economy. Most buyers won't test approach angle enough to do serious damage; those who do will be glad it's flexible rubber. The seven-slot grille and round headlights make the chrome "Jeep" script at the front of the hood redundant. The boxy body's edges and corners are rounded, but still boxy and vertical, with prominent fenders, trapezoidal wheel arches and a near-vertical tailgate.

COMFORT: That high, boxy shape means a comfortably upright seating position and excellent headroom for all passengers. And plenty of storage space behind the rear seat if necessary, and the 60/40 rear seat fold and fold-flat (forward) front passenger seat mean maximum cargo versatility even without using the roof rack. The near-vertical windshield and consequent short dash mean even more space as nothing over that is wasted. That also means no glare from the top of the dash. The Sport may technically be the "base" model, but not with the 70th Anniversary package, which adds leather seating and other fancier interior trim, heated and power-adjustable front seats, an upgraded audio system and more. So equipped, the Liberty is seemingly far too nice to take on to a dusty or muddy trail, but since it's a Jeep, no problem. Just wipe your boots before getting in.

SAFETY: Liberty passengers are protected by a sturdy unibody structure with front and rear crumple zones and side impact-protection beams. Advanced-design multi-stage front and full-length side curtain airbags are standard in both models, as are four-wheel antilock disc brakes with rough road detection for better off-road functioning, brake assist, all-speed traction control, hill start assist, hill descent control, Electronic Stability Program (ESP) and Electronic Roll Mitigation systems (ERM), and a tire-pressure monitoring system.

RIDE AND HANDLING: Befitting its off-road capability, the Liberty's suspension is tuned more softly than that of many crossovers, and features greater travel. This is not nostalgia for large American sedans of the past, it's what works best at low speeds over uneven terrain. Damping is good enough that it works well on smooth pavement, too, but that softness and the vehicle's high center of gravity does mean more body roll than a car when cornering. That should keep driver enthusiasm at reasonable levels and prevent undue acquaintance with the ERM system.

PERFORMANCE: With 210 horsepower (at 5200 rpm) and 235 lb-ft of torque at 4000 rpm, the 3.7-liter V6 engine has no problem moving the Liberty's 4,000-pound plus mass. It's an interesting 90-degree single overhead cam engine, with a balance shaft to counteract the vibration inherent in that design. Internal enhancements have reduced noise and increased low-rpm torque. Transmission choice is simple - four-speed automatic. It works fine, although there is some shifting on hills at highway speeds. That shifting is smooth enough to be of minimal concern. Unlike similarly-sized crossovers, the Liberty is available with true dual-range four-wheel drive for serious off-road or all-season use. The Command Trac system operates in 2WD (rear-drive) mode normally, with 4-hi and 4-lo for low-traction conditions. It lacks a center differential, so can only be used in low-traction situations. Selec-Trac II is a full-time dual-range system with a center diff meant for both on- and off-road use.

CONCLUSIONS: The Jeep Liberty provides a real 4x4 alternative in the mid-size crossover/SUV class.

SPECIFICATIONS

2011 Jeep Liberty Sport 4x4

Base Price $ 24,865

Price As Tested $ 27,510

Engine Type 90-degree single overhead cam V6 with balance shaft, cast-iron block and aluminum heads

Engine Size 3.7 liters / 226 cu. in.

Horsepower 210 @ 5200 rpm

Torque (lb-ft) 235 @ 4000 rpm

Transmission 4-speed automatic

Wheelbase / Length 106.1 in. / 176.9 in.

Curb Weight 4290 lbs.

Pounds Per Horsepower 20.4

Fuel Capacity 19.5 gal.

Fuel Requirement 87 octane unleaded regular gasoline

Tires P225/75 R16 Goodyear Wrangler ST

Brakes, front/rear vented disc / solid disc, ABS, ESP standard

Suspension, front/rear independent double wishbone / solid axle with trailing arm location and coil springs

Ground clearance 7.8 inches (front axle)

Drivetrain longitudinal engine, rear / part-time dual-range 4-wheel drive

PERFORMANCE

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon

city / highway / observed 15 / 21 / 18

0 to 60 mph est 9.8 sec

Towing capacity 5,000 pounds with trailer package

OPTIONS AND CHARGES

Customer Preferred Package 28Y (70th Anniversary)- includes: satin chrome/leather shift knob, 30GB hard drive, audio input jack, black lacewood center stack bezel, bright side roof rails, chrome bodyside molding, chrome license plate brow and molding, leather- wrapped center console lid, Jeep 70th Anniversary Edition trim, leather grab handle with satin trim, leather-wrapped door armrests, luxury front and rear floor mats, Media Center 430 CD/DVD/MP3/HDD audio, satin chrome steering wheel spokes, leather- trimmed bucket seats, driver's manually-adjustable lumbar support, heated front seats, 6-way power driver's and 2-way power front passenger's seats, memory for seat, radio, and mirrors, power windows with front 1-touch up & down, bright door sills by Mopar, 6.5-inch touch-screen display, leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls $ 1,505

Media Center 430N - adds Garmin navigation $ 395

Destination charge $ 745