Limited model comes with V6 engine.
by Mitch McCullough, Editor-in-chief
Base Price (MSRP) $16,450
As Tested (MSRP) $27,380
Jeep's new Liberty is among the best of the small sport-utilities for drivers who need serious off-road capability on the weekends, but want refinement, practicality, and affordability during the week.
Jeep Liberty is smooth, quiet, and responsive on the road. Turn off the pavement, and it'll go just about anywhere. It'll carry five people and their gear. Fold down the seats and it can move some serious cargo.
Liberty is available in two trim levels, Sport and Limited Edition.
Each is available with two-wheel drive or four-wheel drive.
Two engines are available, a 2.4-liter four-cylinder and a 3.7-liter V6. The V6 engine is paired with a four-speed automatic transmission on the Limited Edition, and comes standard with a 5-speed manual on the Sport. The four-cylinder engine is only available with a five-speed manual gearboxSport 2WD models ($16,450) come standard with the four-cylinder engine, five-speed manual, a cloth interior, wind-up windows, manually operated mirrors, and 16-inch tires on steel wheels. Air conditioning ($850) is an option, but a six-speaker stereo is standard.
Limited Edition 2WD models ($21,260) come standard with the V6 engine and automatic transmission. Also, many features are standard on the Limited that are extra-cost options on the Sport, such as air conditioning, cruise control, power windows, power door locks, power mirrors, illuminated remote keyless entry, better interior lighting, a roof rack, floor mats, cargo cover, and a CD changer.
Leather is available as part of a big option package on the Limited.
Four-wheel drive adds $1510 to each model. Four-wheel anti-lock brakes ($600) are optional, as are side-impact airbags ($390), both money well spent. Four-wheel-drive models come standard with a skid plate to protect the front suspension; serious adventurers may want the optional Off-Road Group ($765 for Sport, $520 for Limited), which includes fuel tank and transfer case skid plates, a locking rear differential, heavy-duty engine cooling P235/70R16 all-terrain tires, and tow hooks.
Though an all-new vehicle, the Liberty is instantly recognizable as a Jeep. Its seven-slat grille and round headlights are dead giveaways. The design was inspired by two radically different Jeep concept vehicles: the utilitarian Dakar, which looked like it was ready for a safari with an upright stance, short overhangs, and trapezoidal fenders, and the sporty Jeepster, which looked like it was ready for a race across the Sahara. The Liberty is built at a brand-new, state-of-the-art facility in Toledo, Ohio.
Liberty Sport is trimmed with black molded bumpers, wheel flares and side molding that give it a rugged, more youthful look. Limited models are distinguished with body-colored trim and aluminum wheels, which create a more sophisticated appearance.
Liberty's body is tall, providing the driver a commanding view of the terrain ahead. By exterior dimensions, the Liberty fits between the Jeep Wrangler and Grand Cherokee. With an overall length off 174.4 inches, it's slightly longer than Ford's Escape. It's longer than Jeep's classic Wrangler as well, but 7 inches shorter and as much as 500 pounds lighter than the Grand Cherokee.
A neat feature: Yanking hard on the outside door handle causes the glass hatch to swing up as the door itself is swinging out, which saves time and effort. Pulling on the handle with less force causes just the glass hatch to swing up. Also, the door swings open from the right, better for curbside pickups at the airport.
Liberty comes with a terrific interior that can accommodate five passengers and a generous amount of cargo.
Sitting in the Liberty gives the driver a sense of spaciousness with acres of headroom (best in class, according to Jeep) and general roominess. The overall sense of refinement and comfort feels more passenger sedan than truck. The front seats are comfortable, chair-like, softer and more contoured than the seats in the Ford Escape. Door panels are scalloped out for elbow rests.
The rear seats are comfortable, capable of holding three people. Two adults should be happy here. There is lots of rear headroom, and lots of space to slide your feet under the front seats, but knee room is limited. Getting out of the back seat requires a bit of a stretch down and your legs drag across the fender, so be sure to clean that before your mom gets back there in her nice Sunday dress.
The Liberty doesn't offer quite as much cargo space behind the rear seats as the Ford Escape does (29 cubic feet for the Liberty vs. 33.3 cubic feet for the Escape). However, it's quite adequate, and spacious enough that our 140-pound mastiff seemed happy to ride behind the rear seats. Two big garbage cans fit side by side back there that had to go front to rear in a boxy old Isuzu Trooper. Grocery-bag hooks and cargo tie-downs are provided in back.
Fold the rear seats down and the Liberty offers more cargo room than the Escape (69 cubic feet of space for the Liberty vs. 64.8 cubic feet for the Escape). Dropping the split rear seat is a one-hand operation in the Liberty; the rear seat bottom stays in place. The cargo floor isn't perfectly flat when the rear seats are folded down, however, and that's my biggest gripe with this vehicle. Nor are the rear seats readily removable as they are in the RAV4. Also, the rear head rests are hard to remove and install with two buttons needed to release them.
Overall, the interior presents a round motif that looks contemporary with round door handles, round instruments, round air inlets, a round horn pad. Textures and finishes are nicely done. Big gauges use black-on-beige graphics. The Limited adds attractive satin chrome highlights to the instrument panel and doors. The shifter is on the tall side, but works well. Limited comes with a nice leather-wrapped steering wheel.
Liberty is loaded with safety features: Multi-stage front airbags deploy with less force during low speed collisions, or if the occupant is unbuckled, to reduce the risk of airbag-related injuries. Liberty is the first Jeep to offer optional side curtains to protect outboard occupants from head injury in side impacts. A three-point belt for the center rear seat is standard, a safety feature that's missing from most SUVs. Jacking equipment is stored under the rear seat and can be quickly grabbed as a unit.
Fully capable of tackling the Rubicon Trail, the mother of all unpaved roads, the Jeep Liberty also feels quite competent rounding a high-speed sweeping turn on a wet road. Winding roads are an enjoyable experience and tooling around town and in heavy traffic is smooth and comfortable.
Let's start with off-road capability: I drove a Liberty V6 automatic down an off-road 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. With eight inches of suspension travel, it clambered over big rocks and fallen trees. It slowly forded boulder-strewn creeks with 18 inches of rushing water. (Jeep says it can handle 20 inches at 10 mph, good for flooded underpasses.) Its traction up steep, muddy banks was truly impressive, with no wheelspin.
Most people will order the Liberty with the 3.7-liter V6 and automatic. The V6 is also available with a heavy-duty five-speed manual. (The Liberty's V6 is essentially the Grand Cherokee's 4.7-liter overhead-cam V8 with two cylinders lopped off. A counter-rotating balance shaft was added to reduce vibration.) It's smooth and powerful, rated at 210 horsepower and 235 pound-feet of torque. And it works well with the automatic. Liberty's V6 is standard on the Limited Edition, optional on Sport models. Jeep's V6 tops the small sport-ute class and allows an impressive 5000-pound towing capacity. Jeep engineers say they worked hard on gaskets and other sealing measures to ensure the Liberty would be free of leaks through the life of the engine.
A 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 19/23 mpg city/highway versus 16/21 for the V6. (The four-cylinder engine was not available during initial Liberty production.)
In addition to rear-wheel drive (2WD) models, two versions of four-wheel drive are available: Four-wheel-drive models come standard with Jeep's tried-and-true Command Trac part-time system. I love it. 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 mpg and while still coasting, shift into neutral, and pull the lever up higher for low range. It works great.
Optional is Jeep's Selec Trac, which offers the modes above but also 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 well on dry pavement.
Either way, you can order the optional limited-slip rear differential, called Trac-Lok, for improved traction off road.
Like most small SUVs, Liberty follows the trend away from body-on-frame to unibody construction. Jeep calls it “uni-frame” because it's a beefed up unibody with frame-like reinforcement rails. This gives it 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, with independent forged steel control arms in front.
There's a full 8 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 garages in New York City. The Liberty will go wherever a Cherokee or Grand Cherokee will go and most of the places that a Wrangler can go. You can't say that about the Escape, RAV4, or most of the bigger SUVs such as the Ford Explorer.
Progressive-rate springs deliver a nice balance of off-road grip and on-road ride comfort. It's tight, quick and refined on the highway, filtering out road vibration and smoothing jolts from potholes. It rides smoothly on pavement and on gravel roads, though not quite as smoothly as a Ford Escape. Liberty feels a bit jouncier on rough pavement, taller, squishier, more off-road oriented than the Escape. However, as the going gets rougher, the Jeep offers a much more comfortable ride than the Escape where the Ford's limited suspension travel and lightweight components are tested. 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.
The brakes work well and are the same in all models with discs in front, drums in the rear. ABS ($600) is optional, and they work well: 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.
An impressive balance of off-road capability and on-road sophistication make the Jeep Liberty the perfect choice for a daily driver that's ready for serious outdoor adventures.
Its go-anywhere capability is what separates the Jeep Liberty from most small SUVs. Called cute-utes by some wags, these small sport-utilities are practical wagons designed for moving people and cargo around town. Ford Escape, Mazda Tribute, Toyota RAV4, and Honda CR-V fall into this category. Designed like cars, they can easily handle inclement weather and unpaved roads. Fold the rear seats down and they'll work fine for carrying gear into the backcountry. But they are not capable off-road vehicles, lacking part-time four-wheel drive, low-range gears and sufficient suspension travel. Try to ford ditches, gullies, rocks, steep inclines, deep mud, and fallen trees in them and you'll be left spinning your wheels.
A few small SUVs, such as the Chevy Tracker, Suzuki Vitara, and Kia Sportage, are somewhat capable off road. Though their engineers have done an admirable job of tuning out vibration, they sacrifice refinement for ruggedness with body-on-frame construction. The ultimate example of this is the Jeep Wrangler, which offers unmatched off-road capability. But the Wrangler's body-on-frame design makes for a rougher ride; there's little room for cargo and few creature comforts. As a daily driver, the Wrangler is not the most practical, though its loyal owners are willing to work around this for its highly focused design.
The new Jeep Liberty offers a remarkably good compromise to bridge these two worlds.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.