Test Drive: 2003 Jeep Liberty Renegade car test drives jeep
Click image to enlarge


Story and photos by Russell Purcell


Urban adventurer

When DaimlerChrysler announced the demise of the Cherokee in late 2001, a lot of off-road fans began to moan and groan, as it was feared that the platform’s replacement would inevitably be more roadworthy than trail worthy, and Jeep had lost a lot of its ruggedness over the previous decade.

Well last year I had the opportunity to test the limits of the Cherokee’s replacement, the Liberty, when Daimler-Chrysler’s unique Jeep 101 program set up at the foot of GM Place here in Vancouver. After being lead through a course of man-made obstacles and hazards by the capable instructors, I had a better idea about the handling characteristics of all three of Jeep’s
current offerings – Liberty, TJ, and the luxurious Grand Cherokee, but it was the Liberty that left the biggest impression.


Big on Style

Test Drive: 2003 Jeep Liberty Renegade car test drives jeep
Click image to enlarge

The first thing you will notice about the Liberty is that it is leaps and bounds apart from its Cherokee cousin, the model that had helped start the compact SUV craze almost 20-years ago, especially with regards to tightness and ergonomics. The stylish new package is slightly larger than its fore-bearer, but the biggest news is the arrival of independent front suspension, giving it a much better feel on the asphalt than the previous solid front axle design of the Cherokee. A potent 3.7-litre V6 engine generates 210 horsepower as well as 235 lb.-ft of torque, healthy enough to propel this 2-tonne trail master with ease.

The Cherokee had established itself as a favourite with those consumers that actually do use the off-road capabilities of this type of vehicle and its size and rugged design had made it a strong seller for almost two decades. However, the small SUV market had exploded in recent years and the feature-laden, modern looking, ‘cushy’ riding rivals began to chip away at
the veteran’s market position. Jeep designers took some styling cues from the Jeepster and Dakar show-stoppers to give the Liberty the style that the Cherokee was lacking, but they were careful to maintain the convenient size and feel of the earlier design.

Test Drive: 2003 Jeep Liberty Renegade car test drives jeep

Test Drive: 2003 Jeep Liberty Renegade car test drives jeep

Test Drive: 2003 Jeep Liberty Renegade car test drives jeep
Click image to enlarge

The Liberty line brings Jeep into the 21st century with modern dials, gauges, and funky handles on the inside, and a much rounder and sleek exterior, accentuated by very futuristic taillights. The front end is instantly recognizable as a Jeep as two large round headlamps separated by the trademark seven-slot vertical grille were incorporated as a nod to the rich history of Jeep as a brand. The Renegade package adds a two-tone bumper that mimics the look of a push- bar, but an optional Mopar brush-guard unit is available if you feel the need to complete the new Road-Warrior look.


Resurrection

When I first learned that Jeep’s marketing department had decided to resurrect the ‘Renegade’ moniker I was surprised to hear that it was destined to grace the fenders of the Liberty model rather than the TJ, as the original Renegade was based on the that model’s CJ iteration. The
original Jeep Renegade hit the streets in 1970 as a limited edition based on a series of 1969 show trucks, and initially included a V6, roll bar, limited-slip axle and big tires. It marked the beginning of the factory high-performance craze for off-road vehicles. Why didn’t they (Jeep) utilize the ‘Renegade’ moniker on the TJ for 2003? Well the answer is simple. The
company had plans for a very special and very tough TJ model, the Rubicon, named after the famous 4X4 trail in California that is responsible for mangling more off-road machinery than any other. In short, the Renegade name wasn’t tough enough for this special TJ, but worked well for a tricked-out Liberty, somewhat of an off-road athlete itself.


Is it Worthy?

Off road the Liberty proved to be a natural climber, and with two-tonnes of well-placed mass to keep it from toppling over, the Liberty proved to be an agile and very capable vehicle. The shorter wheelbase allows it to outperform its fancy-pants sister, the Grand Cherokee, as it doesn’t get hung up on obstacles or the crests of hills on steep ascents. It also seems
easier to handle than the venerable TJ as well, due to its much more refined suspension, largely borrowed from the Grand Cherokee.

The Liberty’s Command-Trac four-wheel drive package is well proven, and offers the user the choice of operating the vehicle in two-wheel drive when the going is easy or selecting from either a four-low or four-high setup when the going gets dicey. The optional Trak-Lok rear differential activates when wheel slippage is detected, making trips up to the ski hill on icy
pavement a little less nerve-wracking.

I had the opportunity to take the Renegade off road and was impressed, although I did have some concerns. These were primarily cosmetic issues, as the Liberty is a very capable vehicle, both on and off the road, but some of the Renegade accessories may be more window dressing than functional. Off-road driving is an equipment killer, and this vehicle may be too pretty
to see real action.

The Package

Test Drive: 2003 Jeep Liberty Renegade car test drives jeep
Click image to enlarge

The Liberty Renegade is a very attractive truck and is based on the Liberty ‘Limited’ package, but with a few accessories designed to give the vehicle a more adventurous look.

A very functional light bar constructed of bombproof, ABS-plastic resides atop the cab, immediately behind the windshield. Containing four retina-piercing lamps, these ‘for off-road use only’ units will illuminate even the darkest trail. Having driven many a vehicle with accessory lighting, I was impressed with this design as its one-piece construction kept the lamps from bouncing loose, a common problem with bolt on units. Continual jarring of the bulb in a loose lamp leads to premature burnout, so I would expect this setup to hold up very well.

Test Drive: 2003 Jeep Liberty Renegade car test drives jeep
Click image to enlarge

Running boards are a wonderful convenience on taller vehicles, as ingress and egress can pose a real problem for smaller and less-nimble passengers. However, on serious off-road vehicles they can be a hindrance. The running boards fitted to the Renegade hang so low, that I can’t imagine why anyone would really require them. In fact, the Liberty is such a well thought out design that the step-in height is a non-issue. On more than one occasion I could hear the bottom of the runners dragging through loose gravel or catching the lip of steeper hills. In deep snow and mud they became scoops that tended to collect a fair amount of debris. Luckily, these tubular bars are easily removed, something I would suggest if you plan to make off-road
exploration a regular activity.

A corral-like cargo compound resembling those depicted on the safari-bound Jeeps you see on National Geographic television specials, is mounted to the standard Liberty roof rails. This design seems far more functional than main rival Nissan’s Xterra unit, as it sits further back, allowing for a sunroof to be cut. However, it needs a floor tray to be really useful, as the way it is presently laid out will make short work of the paintwork on the roof top. Nice idea, just not executed correctly.

In my opinion it would have made more sense to dress the ‘Sport’ model of the Liberty up as a Renegade, as its simple plastic fender flares and unpainted bumpers would be less susceptible to scratches, dents and dings. Instead, the Renegade is cloaked in high gloss metallic paint, even on the extended wheel flares and stylish alloy wheels. Pretty yes, but almost too
pretty to be taken seriously.


Big on Comfort

Test Drive: 2003 Jeep Liberty Renegade car test drives jeep
Click image to enlarge

Back on the highway, the Liberty is very easy to get comfortable with, as all of the instruments and controls fall easily to hand, as well as eye. One of my previous complaints for the Liberty was the awkward placement of the power window controls on the centre console, which took getting used to, but the Renegade offered a complete second set of controls on the door where you would expect them. This seemed very strange, but was appreciated. Very supportive sport buckets trimmed in attractive leather and cloth gave the Renegade a luxurious feel, as did the host of power accessories and sweet sounding 6-disc CD stereo blessed with Infinity speakers.

Loads of storage bins and cup holders are speckled about the vehicle, but seatback pockets would be a nice addition. An easily operated 65/35 split-rear seat makes the roomy cargo area even roomier, especially since the full-size spare is relegated to the exterior rear door mount. An innovative power operated glass hatch becomes a handy feature when your hands are full of bags, suitcases or hyperactive puppies and pops open quickly and quietly via the entry remote.

Test Drive: 2003 Jeep Liberty Renegade car test drives jeep
Click image to enlarge

A right-to-left swinging tailgate means that curbside loading will be a breeze, and all those groceries and gear will be held securely by seatback bag hooks, a removable net and a
sliding cargo cover.


On the Road

A few times through the traffic cone slalom course and a week’s worth of daily commutes made me a fan of the Liberty’s road manners. The low centre of mass and wide stance gives it a solid, confidence-inspiring feel when cornering, and beefy brakes assisted by ABS made sure I was able to haul this swoopy mass of metal to a complete halt without any drama. Tight steering and a relatively smooth shifting 4-speed automatic transmission reflect Jeep’s awareness that consumers want to feel like they are in a car, not a truck, when going about their everyday activities.

The 3.7-litre Power Tech V6 is more than powerful enough for a vehicle of this compact size, and the power comes on smoothly, even when under the added stresses of climbing a long grade or pulling out to pass on the highway.

Safety First

Passenger safety has taken a major leap as well as the Liberty Renegade can be ordered with side-curtain air bags to supplement those mounted in the steering wheel and dashboard. Usually only available in up-market automobiles, these units protect occupants from flying glass and debris in the event of a side-impact. I offer kudos to Jeep for incorporating this technology into the new design, something unavailable on most of its direct competitors. The over-sized four-wheel disc brakes were up to the task, but ABS is an option worth considering, especially if you are planning to use the Renegade as your primary people mover.


Best of Both Worlds

Jeep brand managers expect that the Liberty Renegade will manage to carve out its own niche in the marketplace, as they feel it represents the best of both worlds – appealing to Jeep enthusiasts who already know the brand’s ruggedness off road, but at the same time attracting new buyers with its smoother ride on paved roads and adventurous good looks.

Rolling into showrooms nicely equipped and competitively priced, the 2003 Jeep Liberty Renegade has raised the bar another notch, and looks set to make also-rans out of the competition in the sale’s race. With loads of comfort and convenience features, as well as all the ‘custom-look’
accessories already onboard and fully covered under the manufacturer’s warranty, Jeep dealers should be able to move a lot of Renegades. This is good news, as a financial ‘homerun’ is something Daimler-Chrysler, as well as most of the major automakers, could really use right about now.


Technical Data: 2003 Jeep Liberty Renegade

Base price $31,050
Price as tested $38,520
Type 4-door, 5-passenger compact sport utility
Layout longitudinal front engine/RWD/4WD
Engine 3.7-litre V6
Horsepower 210 horsepower @ 5,200 rpm
Torque 235 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm
Transmission 5-speed manual or optional 4-speed automatic; Command Trac 2WD/4WD High/4WD Low transfer case
Curb weight 1,867 kg (4,115 lbs.)
Wheelbase 2,649 mm (104.3 in.)
Length 4,430 mm (174 in.)
Width 1,819 mm (72 in.)
Height 1,783 mm (70.2 in.)
Fuel consumption City 14.6 l/100 (19 mpg)
  Hwy 11.1 l/100 (25 mpg)
Warranty 36 months/60,000 km
Powertrain warranty 84/115,000 km