Don't let that cute, wide-eyed look fool you. The newest addition to one of America's oldest off-roading portfolios is a Jeep off the old block. We took it through deep mud, over sump-rippin' rocks, across a pile of horizontal telephone poles, and, when cooler heads were turned, up a flight of concrete steps. Given its civil street manners and modern chassis/powertrain/suspension, it's impressively stout and readily climbs to heights many car-based SUVs fear to tread (see our Rubicon Trail sidebar for proof of that).
The new Jeep Liberty (internally dubbed the KJ platform) is intended to expand its reach to SUV buyers who place a higher value on on-road manners than off-road ability. Initially, its duty was simply to replace the boxy, taut-riding Cherokee, which debuted in '84. Instead, production of the old classic was extended because of continued strong sales. That also meant the Cherokee name was still on the old rig, so Jeep couldn't use it on the new one; hence, the Liberty badge.
We were quite surprised at the interior's high level of fit and finish in what should be a high-value street and serious
Jeep's all-new 3.7L V-6 features a rugged truck-style design with a cast-iron block and light, aluminum heads. Our acceleration tests on an early engineering vehicle indicate an eager, if noisy, 210 hp. A balance shaft helps smooth its high-rpm vibrations.
Jeep calls its new-from-the-ground-up foundation a "uniframe." We call it a terrifically rigid, quiet unibody that employs lots of high-strength steel in its longitudinal rails, A-pillars, roof structure, and footwells for crash protection. Like the original Cherokee and Wagoneer, this new Jeep doesn't rely on a separate, heavy ladder frame for strength and road isolation as do some larger competitive models, such as the Ford Explorer and Chevy Blazer. Instead, like the Acura MDX and a host of new-gen off-road vehicles, it features hefty sheet-steel rails welded directly to the unibody's belly for beaming and torsional strength. With Jeep's almost two decades of experience in these designs, it should prove solid, even if regularly asked to twist its way over rough terrain.
There are two engine choices: a standard 2.4L DOHC four and a new 3.7L SOHC V-6 derived from the Grand Cherokee's 4.7L V-8. Thanks to twin balance shafts, the four cylinder is a well-behaved design that produces 154 hp and 167 lb-ft of torque-this engine is also used in the Chrysler PT Cruiser. Tranny choice with the I-4 is limited to a five-speed manual that can be teamed with either two- or a part-time Command-Trac four-wheel-drive systems. If you opt for the premium V-6, you can have a five-speed manual or a four-speed auto. V-6 models also may be ordered in two-wheel- or premium Selec-Trac four-wheel-drive form. As expected, Selec-Trac-equipped Libertys pack a dual-range transfer case.
The new 3.7L is good for 210 hp at 5200 rpm and 225 lb-ft at 4000 rpm. Conceived from the start as a truck powerplant, the six uses a heavy crank and bigger crank bearings than a car engine. It also features a rugged cast-iron block and SOHC aluminum heads with durable chain-driven cams. Because it's a 90° block, it also requires a balance shaft. Our test data says this V-6 provides decent motivation. But our preproduction test vehicles didn't offer an especially sophisticated sound or feel.
Liberty's front and rear suspensions are relatively sophisticated, however. The front is a fully independent short- and long-arm arrangement sprung with a coil-over shocks. With its extra-big rubber bushings, this beefy apparatus is good at sucking up road joints and potholes. It also works well in concert with the standard rack-and-pinion steering, which is nicely weighted and accurate. Out back is a hefty "three-link" live-axle with coils. Similar to the axle used in the bigger Grand Cherokee, it provides a supple street ride and articulates amazingly well over broken terrain-but the penalty is a fair amount of body lean.
Like most sport/utilities, the Liberty tends toward initial understeer-that's just the nature of vehicles with a high center of gravity, soft springs, and high-profile tires. At the limit (and beyond), it can be provoked into an oversteer condition, but a quick flick of the steering wheel brings the tail end back into line. Considering its modest grip levels, the Liberty's roadholding is average enough for an SUV, but no better. The same could be said for its braking capability: Anti-lock-assisted panic stops are quite stable, but a tad longish (though remember, we were testing prototype vehicles). Still, the Liberty offers more than acceptable on-road manners, considering its serious off-highway credentials. Just don't expect to toss it around like a Miata.
In other areas, longish can be good. Like the aforementioned PT Cruiser, the new Jeep is truly long on style and comfort. Designers said the exterior was heavily influenced by the '97 Dakar and '98 Jeepster concept vehicles. We especially like the headlight bulges faired into the hood, the traditional square wheel arches, the wide track, the tall profile, and the sporty rocket-like taillights. Although it somehow looks smaller (and infinitely cuter), the KJ actually has a 2.9-in. wheelbase advantage and is 7.2 in. longer overall than the old Cherokee. This visual trickery may or may not be the result of its way taller roofline (6.7 in. over Cherokee's).
Liberty's clever rear glass and swinging gate can be popped open with just one hand. Once opened, the load floor is low enough that even heavy objects can be easily stowed. The rear bench is split for simultaneously carrying a passenger and long objects. Unfortunately, the front seat- tracks intrude into rear-seat foot space.
The new Jeep will be offered in base or premium trim levels, which are as yet unnamed. The base model's standard features include cloth front buckets, 65/35-split folding rear seat, the 2.4L four mated to an easy-to-shift five-speed manual, rear window defroster/wiper/ washer, variable-delay wipers, a roof rack, an AM/FM/cassette/CD changer and six-speaker sound system, and P215/75R16 Goodyear all-season tires. Go for the premium deal, whatever it's eventually called, and you get an even longer list of standards that includes the V-6 and four-speed auto, bigger P235/70R16 tires and aluminum wheels, pull-shade cargo cover, air conditioning, a convenience-lighting package, power windows, cruise control, tilt wheel, foglamps, floor mats, and an AM/FM compact disc player with six speakers. Some options: skidplates, a trailer-tow package, an off-roading package with special shocks, trick differentials, special cooling, uprated tires, anti-lock brakes, premium heated power seats, side-curtain airbags, heated mirrors, and a power sunroof.
We're impressed by the high level of interior detailing. The Liberty sports a cool steering wheel with bright aluminum finish on its four spokes. Easily read gauges are light-faced and oversized, with bright trim rings. Big, handy grab handles grace both A-posts. There's a "satin chrome" finish on the center stack trim plates, doors, and center console on the premium model. In back, shopping bag holders are incorporated into the cargo area so that your salad fixings don't fly around on the way home. And finally, the rear gate is ultra-handy. One squeeze of the handle pops open the top glass, and the gate with its mounted spare swings wide. This allows easy loading of heavy items, such as a tool box, directly onto the load floor.
Complaints? A few: It's a bit awkward getting into the rear seats, for one thing, as the front seat tracks intrude into the rear footwell. The rear seatback doesn't fold completely flat-much unappreciated. Our track numbers reveal this is no screamin' sports car, though that's clearly not its mission in life.
On the plus side, the Liberty's highly styled exterior and nicely detailed cabin fool you into thinking it can't hack it off-road-absolutely not the case. Yet it maintains a reasonably high level of market-pleasing on-road refinement. But really: Did they have to make it look so damned cute?