Jeep lowered and re-tuned the Liberty's suspension for 2003 for better ride and handling. Jeep also reduced the steering effort for easier maneuverability at low speeds (parking).
The Liberty doesn't ride as smoothly on the road as a Ford Escape, particularly over bumps and other irregularities where it bobbles a bit. Nor does it handle as well as the more car-like SUVs. It's relatively slow steering and off-road suspension add up to lethargic transient response in lane-change type maneuvers. That said, the Liberty rides reasonably well. It doesn't beat the driver up as much as a Jeep Wrangler does. The wider tires of the Limited and Renegade models seem to offer more stability than the narrower tires of the Sport. I've found winding Virginia backroads to be an enjoyable experience with Liberty's rack-and-pinion steering. The Liberty also felt quite capable on crowded freeways around Los Angeles.
The 3.7-liter V6 works well with the automatic transmission, responsive to the driver's wishes. The V6 is rated 210 horsepower and 235 pounds-feet of torque. That's enough to give the Limited model a 5000-pound tow rating (though I don't think it's the best choice for pulling a trailer that heavy).
The 2.4-liter twin-cam four-cylinder engine comes standard on the Sport model, and is only available with a five-speed manual gearbox. I found the four-cylinder with manual transmission to be a smooth combination, though I suspect it may struggle when moving 3,826 pounds of Jeep at higher elevations. Besides the lower initial cost, the 150-horsepower four-cylinder rates an EPA-estimated 20/24 mpg city/highway, versus 16/22 for the V6 (or 17/21 for the V6 with automatic transmission). A slightly larger fuel tank on the 2004 models gives them a little more range.
The Liberty is fully capable of tackling the Rubicon Trail, the mother of all unpaved roads, and has in fact done just that. We drove a Limited 4WD model over a gnarly trail used at the annual Camp Jeep event near Lovingston, Virginia. A Jeep engineer and I followed a modified Wrangler driven by an off-road club member. A Ford Escape or a Toyota RAV4 would not have made it, but the Liberty crossed steep ditches and gullies, where its short front and rear overhangs paid off. It wove through stands of tightly spaced trees, where its tight turning radius was a benefit. It clambered over big rocks and fallen trees and slowly forded boulder-strewn creeks with 18 inches of rushing water. (Jeep says it can handle 20 inches at 10 mph.) Its traction up steep, muddy banks was truly impressive, with no wheelspin. If you need a vehicle to negotiate rugged terrain or slog down muddy trails, the Jeep Liberty is an excellent choice.
Four-wheel-drive models come standard with Jeep's tried-and-true Command Trac part-time system. It works great. Shift from 2WD to 4WD on the fly with a slight pull on the hand lever. When the trail is looking really ugly, slow to 2-3 mph and while still coasting, shift into neutral, and pull the lever up higher for low range. It works great. Our only complaint is that the rear wheels bind up on dry pavement when accelerating out of a tight corner.
Selec Trac is an optional system ($395) that offers the modes above but adds a planetary center differential that lets the driver shift into full-time 4WD for year-round conditions. The full-time mode is ideally suited to inconsistent conditions: patches of ice, gravel roads, wet, slippery roads. It also works on dry pavement.
Either way, V6-powered Liberties can also be ordered with the optional limited-slip rear differential, called Trac-Lok ($285), for improved traction off road.
Like most small SUVs, Liberty follows the trend away from body-on-frame to unibody construction. Jeep calls Liberty's construction "uni-frame" because it's a beefed up unibody with frame-like reinforcement rails. This gives the Liberty increased strength and rigidity. That rigidity allowed the chassis engineers to finely tune the suspension without having to compensate for a Flexible Flyer-type chassis. The Liberty suspension uses coil springs at all four wheels. Breaking from Jeep tradition, the front suspension is independent, with forged steel control arms.
For a better off-road ride, Liberty offers eight inches of suspension travel. Short front and rear overhangs (the distance from the tire to the bumper) allow steep angles of approach (38 degrees) and departure (32 degrees) in the rough stuff, so you won't be dragging the front bumper in gullies, or even in New York City parking garages. The Liberty offers capability that approaches that of the Grand Cherokee and it will go most of the places that a Wrangler, the king of off-road vehicles, can go. You can't say that about the Escape, RAV4, or most of the bigger SUVs such as the Ford Explorer, which are quickly left behind in really challenging terrain, spinning their wheels and banging up their rocker panels.
Progressive-rate springs deliver a nice balance of off-road grip and on-road ride comfort, though humps in the road can be jolting. The Liberty feels a bit jouncier on rough pavement; taller, squishier, more off-road oriented than the Escape. On rugged terrain, however, the Jeep offers a much more comfortable ride than the Escape because the Ford's limited suspension travel and lightweight components are out of their element in the rough. The Liberty feels more substantial than the car-based SUVs and it is. The suspension is far beefier, and the interior controls don't look like they came out of a sedan or a minivan.
All Liberty models now come standard with four-wheel disc brakes, which offer improved pedal feel, shorter stopping distances, and reduced tendency to fade. I found the Liberty's brakes easy to modulate in heavy stop-and-go traffic. ABS ($600) is optional, and recommended. The ABS is specifically designed to handle off-road situations: In low range, the anti-lock brake system allows some wheel lock for off-road situations, such as descending steep gravel hills, where skidding is a good thing. On the road, the ABS allows less skidding for improved control steering control, but there is some lockup for shorter stopping distances.