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Jeep Liberty (2002)

SEE ALSO: Jeep Buyer's Guide

by Nick Hromiak

Jeep has long been known as the leader in 4WD vehicles and their Cherokee has been a forerunner in the sport utility vehicle market. But this aging sport ute has come up against new and better competition and that's why Jeep has decided to retire it.

In its place comes a new and improved breed of SUV that is eye-catching, affordable, and has improved capabilities and capacities over the long-running Cherokee.

Expected at dealers this summer, the 2002 Jeep Liberty appears to be the new benchmark for compact SUVs as it offers innovative features and ruggedness not available from the competition - which at this time includes the Ford Escape/Mazda Tribute, Hyundai Sante Fe, Honda CRV, Nissan Xterra and Toyota RAV4.

Liberty is all new from the ground up and has a slightly larger (104.3 vs 101.1) wheelbase than Cherokee. Built of uni-frame construction, Liberty is the first Jeep to offer rack and pinion steering. The rear suspension is comprised of a link-coil solid axle for a car-like ride. And unlike compacts using pressed or stamped steel control arms, Liberty uses cast iron lower and forged steel uppers coupled to a cast iron steering knuckle via permanently lubricated ball joints.

So what does this all mean? Ruggedness for one. Take a peek at the competition and even an untrained eye can see flimsy control arms fore and aft on most. The arms hang low on some models which prevents ample undercarriage clearance for offroading or deep snow.

Liberty's underpinnings are heavy duty and tucked up out of the way for a impressive 8 inches of ground clearance from the front axle and 9.6 for the 4x4 running gear with standard 16 inch tires. This allows Liberty to tackle steep off-road obstacles like the stream bank we negotiated during a media test drive event in Charlottsville, Va.

Approaching the steep embankment, my driving partner (Ken Gross of Playboy Magazine), and I faced the water at a 70 degree angle. Leveling off in the stream bed, Liberty's short rear overhang didn't hang up. And Jeep's Command Trac part-time system (full time Select Trac optional on Sport and LTD. models) offers a low range (in addition to 4Hi and 2Hi modes) for superb traction and additional braking on steep downhill treks. All gears are selectable by Jeep's famed dog leg console-mounted shifter. Available in Sport and Limited models, the new Liberty is offered with two powerplants. A new 3.7- liter, 210-hp V6 producing 235 lb.ft of torque for a towing capacity of 5,000 pounds, and a standard 2.4-liter DOHC, 16-valve I-4 rated at 150-hp and 165 lb/ft of torque for a tow capability of 2,000 pounds (with standard 2 1/2-inch receiver hitches). The peppy 3.7 is standard on Limited and optional on Sport. Power is transferred via a new 4-speed automatic transmission or 5-speed manual on the I-4.

With a cute Wrangler-type exterior appearance, the interior also features a snazzy design offering creature comfort items most folks want. Jeep holds a patent for a new rear gate/window design that swings to the left upon opening but more significantly has a nifty flipper glass that opens manually by partially depressing a unique pull latch, or by squeezing harder, the entire gate and window open together. A key fob performs the same operation as will turning the key in the swing gate. This is truly a handy feature which in itself will likely sell the vehicle. I should also mention that the gate mounted spare does not interfere with rear vision as it's mounted low on the door.

Nicely textured vinyl adorns dash and doors (rear seat access is easier than on Cherokee) and seats are done in cloth or optional leather on the LTD. Side curtain air bags are available for $390.

The rear seat splits and folds in a one-handed operation for an expansive cargo area. But I would like to see a place to stow the headrests which must be removed if the front seats are racked fully rearward.

In summation, Liberty offers an impressive ride both on and off road and is competitively priced at $18,500 w/4WD and 3.7L engine; and $23,300 for the 4WD LTD. Two wheel drive models begin at $17,035. EPA fuel mileage is rated at 16/20 mpg with the V6. This new addition to Jeep's line may infringe on Grand Cherokee sales, but more importantly, should entice buyers who are considering a competitive compact SUV.