It's 103 degrees in the shade--and, unfortunately, there's no shade for miles. Jeep invited us to Utah's red-rock country to test the new Liberty SUV's mettle (and metal) on some of Moab's best trails. An ice chest of water bottles and Gatorades later, we knew more about this SUV than many of the engineers did.
The 2008 Liberty (now two inches longer and an inch wider) has a new look for the first time since the model replaced the blocky, angular Cherokee in 2001. Exterior changes include squared-off headlamps, a flattened hoodline, and a less rounded body--Jeep has definitely masculinized the Liberty's styling. Likewise, a retuned independent front end, five-link rear suspension, and power rack-and-pinion-steering setup provide an improved ride and more precise handling.
Both Liberty models (Sport and Limited) are offered in four-wheel or rear drive, with a choice of a four-speed automatic or six-speed manual transmission. A duo of Trail Rated 4WD systems are available: the all-new full-time Selec-Trac II or Command-Trac, a traditional part-time system. Selec-Trac II is the more versatile of the two, allowing use in all sorts of bad weather and rough terrain, whereas the less-expensive Command-Trac should only be put in low range on loose surfaces where tire slippage can occur.
The single engine currently available in the U.S. is the 3.7-liter SOHC V-6--rated 210 horsepower at 5200 rpm and 235 pound-feet of torque at 4000 rpm--which is carried over from last year. Towing capacity remains unchanged at 5000 pounds. Unfortunately, Jeep dropped its turbodiesel option in the U.S. because that engine couldn't meet 2007 emissions regulations, but we're hopeful the 3.0-liter V-6 turbodiesel offered in the Grand Cherokee (and soon in the Commander) will also make it into the Liberty. Likewise, we suspect the Liberty will eventually get the 260-horse, 4.0-liter and five-speed automatic from its Dodge Nitro sibling.
Our favorite interior change is the industry-exclusive Sky Slider optional power sunroof, which almost makes the Liberty feel like a convertible when it's fully open. An auto-sensing system automatically reverses the sunroof if it encounters an obstacle. But the cabin is full of other cool features: There's the MyGIG multimedia system, which combines audio, navigation, entertainment, and Bluetooth hands-free communication. It uses touchscreen or voice commands and includes a 20-gig hard drive to store music and photos. A 115-volt AC inverter outlet allows the use of various small battery chargers and other gadgets, and there's also a voice-memo recorder.
Jeep also improved cargo management in the Liberty. Rear cargo access is made simpler with a new liftgate that includes a flip-glass window that can be opened by a button or keyfob. In addition, useable cargo capacity was increased by mounting the spare tire under the vehicle and a handy waterproof storage bin lies beneath a lid on the rear floor.
Our day-long run on the red rock of Moab, Utah, on the famous Golden Spike and Poison Spider trails, allowed us to push and evaluate the Liberty in numerous off-road situations. We noticed the improved support and holding strength of the seats on the trail and really liked the Sky Slider sunroof, although we suspect that using it could make the Liberty vulnerable to vandalism. The air-conditioning managed to keep up with the searing temperatures outside, and the engine never hinted at overheating. The Liberty did surprisingly well avoiding rocks and outcrops considering its low-hanging front and rear fascias and relatively low ground clearance (7.4 inches at the front diff). Well-placed skidplates, part of the off-road package, protected all vital components from rock damage.