As automakers and buyers shifted their lineups and interest from truck-based SUVs to crossovers in the early 2000s, Jeep was faced with a conundrum. Aside from a few outliers such as rear-wheel drive versions of the early Willys Wagon, the automaker had largely shied away street-oriented vehicles, and yet that’s what consumers were starting to prefer. Off-road ability came first, even with its luxurious Grand Wagoneer and its city-friendly Cherokee and Grand Cherokee.
But when it came time to replace the Cherokee, which had been in production since late 1983, the powers that be in Detroit — not to mention Stuttgart, Germany, since Mercedes-Benz parent Daimler had control of Chrysler by then — were clearly intrigued by softly styled crossovers such as the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V.
Enter the Cherokee’s replacement, a vehicle many Jeep nerds (including myself) watched with equal parts anticipation and trepidation. Camouflaged test mules revealed short overhangs — good — but an upright body with an oddball front end — bad.
What was finally unveiled was an unusually styled SUV with a Wrangler-like front end. Jeep brought back round headlights with its 1997 Wrangler, and the automaker felt the need to remind shoppers that seven vertical grille slots flanked by a pair of spotlights equals Jeep. Except with the Liberty‘s upright body and its pronounced fender flares, the look was more akin to the Chevron cars that proliferated TV ads at the time than it was a reminder of the brand’s heritage.
Not helping things was the underwhelming 3.7-liter V-6 that would power most Libertys (which, nearly two decades later, I still want to call Liberties). The engine replaced the long-running 4.0-liter inline-six, a torquey tractor-grade engine that earned a deserved reputation for reliability. The problem? The new V-6 was more powerful than the old engine, but it needed lots of engine-revving.
Underneath, Jeep traded the solid axles on which it had staked its off-roading reputation for a new independent front suspension designed to smooth out highways but not boulders and mud pits. A solid axle was retained at the rear, but even with the optional Off-Road Group ($765 in its inaugural year) that added a limited-slip rear differential, skid plates and beefier tires, the Liberty was a rolling 4-wheeling compromise. Jeep shied away from answering whether the Liberty conquered the vaunted Rubicon trail, for instance.
Jeep intended for the new SUV to be a big departure from the Cherokee, and it’s easy to imagine why since the boxy outgoing model was nearly old enough to cast a vote. Accordingly, the new, patriotic Liberty name was selected. The word itself is so steeped in Americana — the concept of "liberty" was largely defined by the American revolution — that Jeep continued to use the Cherokee name in markets outside North America.
In the long run, the name change was a good one. Though the Liberty was a hit initially, it will forever live in the Cherokee’s admittedly shorter shadow — the Liberty was taller, after all. With good Cherokees now trading for upward of five figures, the old SUV’s place as a collector vehicle is fairly well cemented. By contrast, a Liberty can be had for comparatively little. Plan to spend less than $8,000 for a very nice example, of which there are many on Autotrader. Even the second-generation Liberty — which was, remarkably, worse than the first — has depreciated to sub-$15,000, even for the best examples. Here’s a nice 2006 Liberty Limited from the final year of production at just $7,295 in St. Joseph, Michigan.
There were some interesting points during the Liberty’s run. An Italian-built diesel engine was briefly optional, and the Renegade package that included four spotlights mounted to the roof (with covers, which made them legal) eventually begat the Jeep Renegade sold today. Well, that’s a heritage. Find a Jeep Liberty for sale