SEE ALSO: Jeep Buyer's Guide
Long ago, utility vehicles were bought by fishermen, hunters, construction companies, oil companies, geologists, and others who spent major time outdoors, far from civilization. Rugged construction and mountain goat maneuverability were the main selling points; comfort, civility, and style were afterthoughts if they existed at all. The natural habitat of those vehicles was back of beyond, on two-track trails marked on topographic maps, not service-station maps. Jeeps were at the top of the list for buyers of such vehicles.
Fast forward to the present. Utility vehicles gained "sport" somewhere along the line, and became trendily popular. The new generation of primarily urban and suburban buyers likes SUV style and all-weather traction, but is unlikely to venture too far into the wild. And so there are plenty of new-generation SUVs that are basically all-wheel drive cars with increased ground clearance. Sometimes called "sport-cutes", they suit the new-age buyer well, but they aren't Jeeps.
There is a brand new Jeep that, at a quick glance, may look like a nouveau utility vehicle. It's called the Liberty, and features rigid car-like unibody construction, car levels of comfort, and plenty of style. But don't be fooled, the Liberty is a Jeep through and through. Although it has the style and comfort to appeal to new SUV buyers, it also has the ruggedness and off-road ability to appeal to traditional Jeep buyers.
The Jeep Liberty is available in trim levels ranging from inexpensive and youthful to near luxury. The standard engine is a 2.4-liter four-cylinder, with a 3.7-liter V6 optional. Several four- wheel drive systems are offered. I've just finished a week with a top-of-the-line Limited model with probably every possible option. With great style, carlike luxury and comfort to rival the Grand Cherokee, and a versatile four-wheel drive system for pavement or dirt, it's a Jeep that can please almost every Jeep fan.
APPEARANCE: The Liberty has the look of a cuddly toy. Retro meets modern. Influenced by Jeep's recent Dakar and Jeepster concept vehicles, the Liberty is gently rounded at the edges, with plenty of complex sculpting of the fenders and hood. Its seven-slot grille and round headlights are Jeep trademarks. With its distinctive styling and tall stance, the Liberty is the PT Cruiser of sport- utilitydom, and, bless the DaimlerChrysler parts bin, it even has inside door locks that look like the Cruiser's.
COMFORT: No buckboard. Leave the optional windows to the Wrangler set. The Liberty is as comfy as a car, and in fully- appointed trim like my tester, it comes perilously close to luxury. Also unlike the grizzled old prospector's mechanical mule, the Liberty has interior style. No flat, painted dash here, it's contemporary high style with multiple colors, textures, and material blending harmoniously. The sculpted dash features a pod with chrome-bezeled instruments. Aluminum trim surrounds the window lifts on the doors, the audio and climate controls on the center stack, and the shifter in the console, and adds brightness without distraction. It also brightens the steering wheel, which has cruise control buttons on the front of the spokes and easy-to-use audio controls on the back. The high roofline means great headroom front or rear, with buckets in front and a 60/40 split folding bench in the rear. There is more legroom than expected in the back. Numerous small storage spaces are found throughout the cabin, and the rear cargo area is easily accessed by the "swing gate/flipper glass system" with a flip-up backlight and side-hinged tailgate. Style has not caused a sacrifice of substance.
SAFETY: A safety cage surrounds the Liberty's occupants. Standard multi-level front airbags and available side curtain airbags provide extra protection. All seating positions have three-point safety belts.
ROADABILITY: Road? I don't need no stinkin' road... It may be cute, but, like all Jeeps, the Liberty was tested on the arduous Rubicon Trail during its development. Unlike previous Jeeps, it has an independent front suspension for more civilized on-road manners. It's a double A-arm design with coil springs and eight inches of suspension travel to soak up bumps on or off pavement. The rear solid axle is also suspended by coil springs, for better ride and control. The "uniframe" body-chassis structure ties all together with strength and rigidity for a quieter ride and improved handling on or off pavement. The Liberty doesn't quite feel like a car (hey, it *isn't* a car, it's a Jeep!), but it is far more comfortable in everyday use than the Cherokee was. Rack-and-pinion steering enhances control and road feel, and the turning circle is commendably small, an advantage when dodging rocks on the Rubicon or parking downtown.
PERFORMANCE: A 2.4-liter, 150-hp four-cylinder engine is standard, but my test Liberty was equipped with the optional 3.7- liter V6. This engine can be thought of as two-thirds of a Grand Cherokee V8, and was designed at the same time. It's an overhead cam design with a balance shaft for smoothness, and with maximum horsepower of 210 at 5200 rpm and 235 lb-ft of torque at 4000 rpm, it moves the Liberty quickly, especially at slow to medium speeds. The four-speed automatic transmission shifts quickly and smoothly. Unlike most "sport cutes", the Liberty is available with real dual- range four-wheel drive. The "Selec-Trac" system allows operation in two-wheel drive, full-time all-wheel drive, four-hi, or four-low modes to handle any situation.
CONCLUSIONS: The new Jeep Liberty combines style and substance.
SPECIFICATIONS 2002 Jeep Liberty Sport 4WD Base Price $ 17,960 Price As Tested $ 27,440 Engine Type single overhead cam 12-valve 90- degree V6 with balance shaft Engine Size 3.7 liters / 225 cu. in. Horsepower 210 @ 5200 rpm Torque (lb-ft) 235 @ 4000 rpm Transmission four-speed automatic (5 manual standard) Wheelbase / Length 104.3 in. / 174.4 in. Curb Weight 4115 lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower 19.6 Fuel Capacity 18.5 gal. Fuel Requirement 87 octane unleaded regular gasoline Tires P235/70 SR16 Goodyear Wrangler SR-A Brakes, front/rear vented disc / drum, antilock optional Suspension, front/rear independent double A-arm with coil springs / solid axle with multi-link location and coil springs Ground clearance 7.8 in to rear axle Drivetrain front engine, multi-mode four-wheel drive PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 16 / 20 / 17 0 to 60 mph (est.) 9.5 sec Towing Capacity 5000 lbs with V6 and tow group, 3500 lbs manual OPTIONS AND CHARGES Customer preferred equipment package 27B - includes: air conditioning; power windows, locks, and mirrors; remote keyless entry; roof rack; tilt steering column, interior trim upgrades and more $ 2,445 Trailer tow group - includes: Class III receiver and wiring adaptor $ 245 Security group - includes: alarm, sentry key, theft-deterrent system, cargo cover $ 250 Off-road group - includes: locking rear differential, skid plates, tow hooks, heavy-duty cooling $ 765 Antilock brakes $ 600 Side air bags $ 390 3.7-liter Power Tech V6 $ 850 Automatic transmission $ 825 Selec-Trac full-time 4-wheel drive system $ 395 Deep-tint sunscreen $ 270 Power heated foldaway mirrors $ 50 Power sunroof $ 700 Fog lamps $ 120 Engine block heater $ 40 Speed control and leather-wrapped steering wheel $ 300 AM/FM/cass/CD radio $ 225 6-speaker Infinity audio system $ 475 6-disc remote CD changer $ 415 Aluminum wheels $ 310 Customer preferred discount -($ 775) Destination charge $ 585