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What's Up With That?

November 30, 2001

Sacramento - Ever wonder if the "Car of the Year" award was something won by the largest advertiser in a magazine or the company that wined and dined the editors the most. If you did, you might not be far from wrong.

We, however, wonder about the folks at Popular Mechanics, a great magazine many of us have been reading for more than 40 years. Earlier this week the editors at Popular Mechanics gave the 2002 Jeep Liberty one of its 17 "Design & Engineering Awards." The magazine stated that the Liberty had a "unique" four-wheel drive system and "improved on-road holding."

On road holding? Maybe the editors at Popular Mechanics should be talking to the editors at Auto Week. In particular, they might talk with Contributing Editor and road test driver Pete Albrecht who on October 16 in testing the Jeep Liberty in a slalom test the magazine uses to test all vehicles, rolled a Jeep Liberty over, not once, but twice. The only redeeming feature was that it landed on its four wheels with damage to virtually every body panel.

Albrecht was testing the vehicle on a 490 ft. slalom course on a level parking lot, with cones set 70 ft. apart. He claimed he was going about 40 mph around the last cone when the vehicle suddenly rolled. "I remember rounding the seventh cone and thinking I had this one in the bag," he reports in the November 26 edition of Auto Week. The next thing I remember is an impact, and being tossed back and forth."

Auto Week says it is not unusual for a vehicle to spin out while it is conducting this test and in fact it is the goal to find the limits of a vehicle in a particular test. In this test, they typically measure G-forces and speed. Both Chrysler and Auto Week have studied the accident carefully and Chrysler claims that it has tested the Liberty repeatedly in tests similar to the one Auto Week uses and has not been able to replicate the circumstances. Despite some minor injuries in his first tumble in a Liberty, Albrecht got in another borrowed Liberty and in the first run was able to place the vehicle on two wheels in front of DCX inspectors who seemed quite surprised.

The bottom line is, DaimlerChrysler said it questions the validity of such "at-the-limits" testing. Auto Week doesn't challenge that, but the magazine has tested hundreds of vehicles in this very same manner over the last seven years, and this was the first time a vehicle rolled over. Auto Week asks, "What did this rollover prove? AW didn't set out to prove anything; there was an accident under extreme conditions that don't parallel those seen in daily driving. The incident demonstrates yet again that SUVs handle differently than do cars at the limits. It makes us nervous to see such SUVs driven as they typically are, like normal compact cars."

We ask the question, what are theses people at Popular Mechanics thinking about when they give a design award to the Liberty for its improved handling?