After nearly two decades of tackling trails, the boxy, iconic Jeep Cherokee
was replaced by the cuter, more civilized Liberty in 2002. In the three years since that time, the sport/ute has proven its capability to many of its predecessor's devout followers, most notably through the introduction of a bolder, more muscular Renegade model. In a marketplace dominated by car-based mini-utes, the Liberty remains true to the Jeep
faithful, with rigid construction and low-range four-wheel-drive.
Outside, there are plenty of elements to differentiate Sport, Limited, and Renegade models. The grayish-black plastic fascias and trim pieces slathered on the Sport have been a Jeep feature since the '80s. For the $4,000 premium attached to a Limited model, Jeep will go to the effort of painting each and every body panel and replace stock 16-inch wheels and tires with a 17-inch set. Fashion-conscious buyers will want to upgrade to chrome rims to complement the chrome adorning the grille and headlight surrounds. While all Liberty models featured a front-end freshening for '05, the range-topping Renegade was made even more distinct with a flat hood, body-color grille, and updated foglamps, tow hooks, and fender flares. The roof-mounted light bar is now optional.
Visually, the interior is quite pleasant, even a touch upscale in certain models, and much more civilized than the old Cherokee's or current Wrangler's. However, despite a 2005 freshening, the dash and door panel plastics don't match the finish and tactile quality of those in import competitors. Front perches are a bit on the small side, which may be an issue for larger drivers. There is an impressive list of stereo/electronics options, including Sirius satellite radio, Infinity speakers, a six-disc in-dash CD changer, Bluetooth, and navigation. We advise avoiding the navigation system, which for $1,500 gives you a screen barely larger than a mobile phone's. A notable new feature for 2005 is white-on-gray gauges.
With the rear seats in place, a Liberty will carry a modest 31 cubic feet of cargo, accessible through a split rear hatch with an upward-swinging top window and a side-swinging lower tailgate section. The setup is easier to use than that of a Honda CR-V, which has a door that swings toward, rather than away from, the curb, but most drivers likely would prefer the one-piece, upward-swinging liftgates of the Chevrolet Equinox and the Nissan Xterra, which are simpler than the Jeep's and easier to use in tight parking spaces.
Like nearly all of its competitors, the Liberty comes with standard ABS and dual front airbags. A tire-pressure warning light also comes standard on Limited and Renegade models, and more safety-concerned drivers can upgrade to a full pressure monitoring system. If money is a factor for you, we suggest passing on that system and instead opting for the optional front and rear side-curtain airbags. This added security seems important, since seat-mounted side airbags and a stability-control system are both missing from the options list. Although Chrysler promises that every SUV it produces will have Electronic Stability Control (ESP) by next year, side airbags and stability control both are now standard on the Honda CR-V, as well as the smaller Hyundai Tucson and Kia Sportage twins. Nissan and Toyota entries also offer a higher level of safety gear; only GM and Ford are similarly lacking in safety features.
Until now, only the biggest of the big SUVs offered diesel engines as an option. The Liberty changes that by offering a more earth-friendly diesel engine borrowed from Jeep's German parent company. Achieving 26 mpg in highway driving, the 2.8-liter four-cylinder turbodiesel averages an extra six miles per gallon of fuel as compared with its gas-powered counterpart. On the power front, the 160-horsepower diesel is noteworthy for its V-8-grade 295 lb-ft of torque. While the diesel is available exclusively with a five-speed automatic transmission, gasoline models--both the 2.4-liter/150-horse inline-four and 3.7-liter/210-horse V-6--now come standard with a six-speed manual, with a four -speed automatic optional. Choosing a transfer case can get tricky for some buyers, as both Command-Trac and Selec-Trac are offered. Command-Trac, a part-time 4WD system, is ideal for buyers who would rather engage the front wheels themselves, or for those who seldom require four-wheel-drive capability. The more expensive full-time Selec-Trac system will appeal to buyers living in more demanding climates, or those who don't want to worry about whether or not they need to engage all four wheels in certain weather conditions.
Behind the Wheel
Being the first small Jeep to abandon body-on-frame architecture, the Liberty is more pleasant to drive around town than past compact Jeep models, and it's surely more confident than the current Wrangler. In dynamic conditions, the Liberty concedes advantage to lower, wider competitors, though its tall, narrow shape is welcomed in the city, when parking, and most importantly, on the trail. The V-6, based on Jeep's 4.7-liter V-8, is rough and even noisy at some speeds, as is the clunky diesel, but either is a better choice than the overworked gas-powered four-cylinder.
The Liberty will appeal to some buyers simply for brand recognition. A more sporting audience will find the same 5,000-pound tow rating in the Nissan Xterra, along with significantly more power, more space, and more capability, albeit at a slightly higher price. Those looking for city or highway transportation offering big space in a small package might find more livable conditions in the more refined Honda CR-V, which also offers all the safety features missing in the Liberty. What the Liberty does offer is more off-road capability, style, and even personality than many of its competitors. If you want something as masculine as a Peterbilt but as thrifty as a car, the diesel model--with no competition in its class--might be just the ticket.
Bred for adventure, the mildly freshened Jeep Liberty provides compact transport for active lifestylers who live for weekend escapes and want to be reminded of the trails during the weekday commute. The Liberty may concede suburban supremacy to more mannered competitors, but the diesel option blazes a new and respectable trail in the forest of small SUVs.
Revisions for 2005 include a slight freshening of the interior and exterior styling, the Renegade model's tougher-looking body, a Rocky Mountain package, a six-speed manual transmission, and a diesel engine. ESP and a larger Dodge variant, the Nitro, are coming in 2006.
Audiophiles will enjoy the optional Infinity speakers, in-dash CD player, and Sirius satellite radio. The Limited model's trim package provides a more upscale appearance, as well as chrome wheels. Don't pass on side curtain airbags.
Others to consider
Ford Escape,Honda CR-V,Nissan Xterra