It had just rained for three days straight and our fresh-off-the-truck 2002 Jeep Liberty Limited test vehicle was pointed directly at a deep mudhole. What would you do?
On sale since May 2001, the Liberty is Jeep's newest vehicle and the replacement for the aged Cherokee. It evolved from the Dakar and Jeepster concept vehicles ('97 and '98, respectively) and features design themes from each, such as a large greenhouse, short front and rear overhangs, high roofline, rear-mounted spare tire and 16-inch alloy wheels below pronounced wheel flares. It also borrows from the past. (A Jeep marketing rep told us the Liberty is a bloodline descendent of the original Jeep Willys, which helped to "liberate" hence the name Europe during the Second World War.) The Liberty carries the trademark Jeep grille with seven vertical rectangles as well as the traditional Jeep round headlamps.
The Liberty Limited is powered by a 3.7-liter V6, which produces an impressive 210 horsepower at 5,200 rpm. Combined with 225 foot-pounds of torque at 4,000 rpm, it's enough to rumble the small sport-ute over terrain ranging from a 300-foot muddy incline with a slope as steep as 45 degrees to an undulating quarter-mile trail set with large boulders.
On this last obstacle, which mimics the famous Rubicon Trail in northern California, we set the Liberty in four-wheel-drive low this feature alone distinguishes it from other small SUVs such as the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4 and Ford Escape which use permanent all-wheel-drive systems with no low-range gear.
The Liberty had no trouble navigating the hellish track. At one point, we stopped the Liberty while straddling a ditch. The right rear wheel rested on a large boulder. The left front tire sat on solid ground. The left rear wheel was hanging with enough empty air under it to erect a tent. We had to jump from our seats, as it was a good 3 feet to the ground. Viewed from the rear, the fully stressed axles formed a big X. When we clambered aboard and drove off, there was no hesitation, and the Liberty carried us safely to pavement. It was an impressive, if not sensational, demonstration of the Liberty's off-road abilities.
Having driven the Jeep Wrangler (one of the world's most capable off-road vehicles) on some gnarly trails, we think the Liberty possesses every bit as much off-road acumen. Its exceptional crawling ability is due, in large part, to its 3.7-liter V6.
Surprisingly, the Liberty's dirt-munching prowess doesn't result in a rigid, unforgiving and sluggish ride in the city. During a cruise on the freeway, we punched the accelerator while traveling 60 mph, and the Liberty took off with surprising verve. On city streets, we never needed to put our foot in it because the V6 provides adequate power to stay with, if not ahead, of traffic.
In the fall of 2001, Jeep will offer a Liberty with a 2.4L inline four-cylinder engine that produces 148 hp and 158 foot-pounds of torque. It will only be sold with a five-speed manual transmission. We expected the four-banger to be a dog in the somewhat porky Liberty (at 3,857 pounds, the Liberty is more than 700 pounds heavier than the nearly identically sized Ford Escape), but with a little stirring of the gearbox, it has fairly peppy performance. It's certainly enough thrust for drivers who rarely drive outside the city. And since the V6 engine is an $850 option and the automatic transmission costs $825, it's a substantial savings. Likewise, drivers who live in warm, dry climates probably don't need four-wheel drive. It costs $1,510.
In addition to speedy performance, the Liberty's independent front suspension, coil-link rear suspension (borrowed from the Grand Cherokee) and more than 8 inches of suspension travel combine to provide a supple and quiet ride that is truly impressive. The smoothness with which the Liberty conveys itself is also aided by its portly weight and its stiff uniframe construction, which combine to dampen vibration, reduce flex and imbue a confidence-inspiring feeling of substance and solidity. The Limited's large P235/70R16 tires also help to cushion the ride. During a drive on rippled pavement, the Liberty floated over every bump, relaying almost no bouncing and rattling to the cabin. When we struck a large pothole, the 8 inches of suspension travel absorbed the shock before it reached our kidneys.
Though forgiving, the suspension also delivers plenty of road feel and precise handling. Sometimes vehicles engineered to provide a comfortable ride have vague feel and mushy steering. However, the Liberty's rack-and-pinion steering system, independent front suspension and beefy control arms convey a solid feel for the road and provide immediate response to driver input with minimal roll in tight corners. The result is a vehicle that's a pleasure to pilot around the city and in which to cruise on extended road trips.
Also, the large greenhouse, forward-sloping hood and elevated driving position (ground clearance is 10.1 inches a RAV4 is only 6.7 inches) enhance visibility. Parking is also a snap because, at 174.7 inches, the Liberty isn't long.
The newest Jeep also includes one of the niftiest cargo gate innovations we've seen. When you pull on the rear latch, the glass flips up and the gate swings open all in one motion. This eliminates the need to have two hands free to access the rear cargo area, meaning you won't have to put your groceries on the ground while you struggle with the gate. There's 31.7 cubic feet of cargo space with the second-row seats up and 69.5 with them folded down. (Standard capacities for a small SUV.) The rear seats are 60/40 split and fold nearly flat via a single release lever. The cargo area features several recessed tie-down hooks, and the Limited includes a cargo cover.
We also like what Jeep has done inside the Liberty. Our top-of-the-line Limited test vehicle was loaded with leather-faced, heated, six-way power low-back bucket seats with adjustable headrests. Though it's nice to have leather, we found it a little slippery. While navigating a long corner, our legs were scrambling for support. Conversely, the attractive and high-quality cloth upholstery that comes standard on the Limited held us in place more firmly. The base and Sport models have high-back cloth seats that are also comfortable, but not as figure-hugging as those in the Limited.
Window controls are mounted on the center console, which also contains two large cupholders. The center stack is a new design for the Liberty and features large, simple climate control switchgear and an easy-to-operate stereo.
Spheres are a recurring motif in the Liberty's design. Outside, the head- and taillights are round, as is the fuel door. Inside, air vents, gauges, stereo and climate controls, speaker covers and the door handle are also spherical. The whole cabin has a sculpted, modern look. In the Limited, the Liberty's contemporary flair is emphasized by the brushed-chrome trim around the center stack, floor-mounted gear lever, door locks and ivory-colored instrument gauges. Also, the round, brushed-chrome door pulls remind us of details found in the cockpit of the Audi TT, a design tour de force.
The top-of-the-line Liberty Limited with 4X4, upgraded stereo, fog lamps, color-coded exterior, chrome interior details, bucket leather seats and other goodies is $25,625. The entry-level Sport 4WD model includes power windows, locks and doors; air conditioning; tilt steering; and keyless entry and costs $21,890. When it arrives in the fall of 2001, the base two-wheel-drive Liberty will start at $17,035. (All prices include $585 destination charge.)
So, did we splash through the mudhole? Of course. The Liberty is a Jeep, after all.