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by Richard Russell
Photos by Grant Yoxon
When Jeep decided to retire the aging Cherokee, its designers, engineers and product planners knew the replacement would go head-to-head with a flood of new compact SUVs. It had to have the ride, handling and comfort of the car-based competitors and yet it also had to remain a Jeep, worthy of all that name promises. It was a true balancing act between capability and refinement for the company that invented the SUV.
When the Liberty arrived as a 2002 model, the reviews were generally positive. Hardcore Jeep fans found it to have all the essential “Jeepness”, i.e. more off-road ability than others in the class. But Jeep dealers were also able to show customers comfort and convenience features and on-road ride and handling properties not previously available in a compact Jeep.
The Liberty has the size and seating to go up against the big sellers in the compact segment – but it also has the goods to go off-road, seriously off-road where the others fear to tread. It has a two-speed transfer case with low range, good ground clearance, shallow approach and departure angles and plenty of underbody protection. There is no two-wheel-drive version, all four wheels of all Liberties brought into Canada are driven.
But the Liberty also offers a new level of creature comfort, amenities and paved road prowess as good as most of the soft-roaders hogging the sales charts. The Liberty gives people a chance to boast they own a Jeep and take advantage of the inherent abilities – without having to wear a kidney belt during and visit to the chiropractor after every drive. They also got a modern instrument panel, good seats with plenty of lateral support and space for four – five in a squeeze – and some cargo or luggage.
Liberty pricing starts at about the $25K mark, but our tester topped $37,000 thanks to a heavy hand on the option sheet by someone who fancied a fancy Jeep. It had an automatic transmission, leather interior, power sliding sunroof, power windows, locks and seats, ABS and a pretty darn impressive sound system. It also had the optional SelectTrac full-time all-wheel-drive system. The standard CommandTrac setup is part-time and has to be disengaged for on-road driving.
Our tester was a mid-range Renegade distinguished by its butch appearance with an impressive quartet of halogen driving lights mounted in a plastic shroud at the leading edge of the roof. In addition to providing enough candlepower to light up a sports stadium – they announce to one and all this is a vehicle meant for more than shopping mall runs.
While they may look impressive, be advised they are illegal for on-road use in most jurisdictions and extract a penalty in fuel mileage and noise levels because of their negative effect on aerodynamic properties. The rest of the Renegade package includes prominent fender flares to contain the spray from bigger tires mounted on special wheels.
While the Liberty is smaller outside than its Grand Cherokee sibling, it packs plenty of space inside those upright walls. The front doors open nice and wide for easy entry and exit. The front seats are large and supportive but the transfer case infringes on room in the foot wells on both sides. Access to the rear is only slightly affected by the intrusion of the rear wheel wells. The rear seat is best left to two. Split 65/35 it can be easily folded almost flat for added cargo space. Access to the cargo area is through a slick tailgate combination of a swing-out tail gate and flip up top glass. A partial tug on the handle and the glass pops up for access. Pull further, and the tailgate opens to the left allowing safe access from the curb, unlike some Japanese competitors. They even managed to mount the full-size spare outside without interfering with visibility or useability.
The instrument panel is flat, modern and contains large, legible instruments. The large glove box door is misleading as it covers a pretty small bin. On the ergonomic side, the power window switches reside on the center console which takes some getting used to.
The Liberty is built on an all-new and very solid platform. You notice the stiffness by the less of flex or movement when encountering road blemishes. But also on the scales as this relatively small SUV weighs a healthy two tonnes.
The base model comes with a 150-horsepower four-cylinder engine but the mid and top-level trim levels get a 3.7-litre V-6 rated at 210 horsepower and 235 lb.-ft. of torque. Both five-speed manual and four-speed automatic are available, the latter allowing a class-leading 5,000 lb. tow rating. Our tester had the V6-automatic combo. A smooth and pleasant unit, it has the power and flexibility needed for the Liberty’s dual-personalities. In our tester it was mated to a four-speed automatic – but there were some issues with the pairing as the transmission seemed to be hunting for an appropriate gear frequently – and not finding one. This became evident when climbing long grades with cruise control engaged. Speed dropped off to the point a downshift was necessary – but by the time it took place, it was necessary to change down two gears. Similarly, when pushing the throttle to the floor in search of a downshift, there was considerable delay between ask and answer. Previous versions of the Liberty we’ve driven did not display this so perhaps it was an anomaly on the high-mileage tester.
Despite the relatively short wheelbase, the Liberty’s ride is surprisingly pleasant compliments of a coil spring independent front suspension – the first for a Jeep – combined with a triple-link and coil setup at the rear. Another factor that comes into play on the paved pieces is the generous 20 cm of wheel travel provided for off-road prowess. But when pressed hard into corners you are reminded this is a fairly heavy vehicle perched high atop some pretty flexible rubber – and riding on a long-travel suspension. Four wheel disc brakes are standard but unfortunately ABS is optional. The Liberty boasts Jeep’s first-ever rack and pinion steering system. It also has a fairly short turning circle for an AWD vehicle, making it very maneuverable in tight quarters like parking lots.
Since the launch of the first civilian Jeep (CJ-2A) in 1945, Jeep has defined off-road. It can also lay claim to starting the SUV craze with the Cherokee and Wagoneer in 1984. The Jeep Liberty offers a combination of both heritages for someone who enjoys the outdoors and remote locations – but needs everyday comfort and convenience.
Technical Data: Jeep Liberty Renegade
|Options||$ 6,300 (4-speed automatic $1,120; sunroof $1,050; AM/FM/CD stereo $195; 6 premium speakers $290; elec-Trac $465; ABS $650; power driver’s seat $345; E Package $2,185)|
|A/C tax||$ 100|
|Price as tested||$38,755|
|Type||4-door, 5-passenger compact SUV|
|Layout||longitudinal front engine/4WD|
|Engine||3.7 litre V6, SOHC, 12 valves|
|Horsepower||210 @ 5200 rpm|
|Torque||235 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm|
|Transfer Case||Selec-Trac (2WD, 4WD Part-Time, 4WD Full-Time, Neutral, 4WD Low Range)|
|Curb weight||1829 kg (4033 lb.)|
|Tires||Goodyear Wrangler SR-A 235/70R16 all-terrain|
|Max. payload||522 kg (1150 lb.)|
|Max. towing capacity||2268 kg (5000 lb.)|
|Wheelbase||2649 mm (104.3 in.)|
|Length (to spare tire)||4430 mm (174.4 in.)|
|Width||1819 mm (71.6 in.)|
|Height||1784 mm (70.2 in.)|
|Ground clearance (min.)||1628 mm (6.4 in.)|
|Cargo volume||821 litres (29 cu. ft.) seats up|
|1950 litre (69 cu. ft.) seats down|
|Fuel consumption||City: 14.2 l/100 km (20 mpg)|
|Hwy: 10.1 l/100 km (28 mpg)|
|Fuel type||Regular unleaded 87 octane|
|Warranty||3 yrs/60,000 km|
|Powertrain warranty||5 yrs/100,000 km|
|Assembly location||Toledo, Ohio|