Turn off the pavement, and Liberty can negotiate most trails with confidence. True to its Jeep heritage, Liberty offers superior off-road capability that sets it apart from the herd of compact urban cute-utes. True, the Liberty gives up some refinement and road agility to do this. It does not ride or handle as well as some of the other small SUVs. But the Liberty is among the best of the small sport-utilities for drivers who want serious off-road capability on the weekend yet need practicality and affordability during the week.
The mid-range Renegade looks the part, with its flatter hood, taller grille, off-road foglamps and taillamp guards. Renegade also features functional rock rails and skid plates. All-terrain tires are optional, as are GPS navigation and an overhead light bar.
But the economy-priced Sport and luxury-grade Limited models are plenty capable as well, and offer something the Renegade does not: the only diesel engine available in a compact or mid-size SUV. Liberty's 2.8-liter turbo-diesel uses advanced common-rail technology for low emissions, maximum economy, and performance to make you forget all about gasoline.
All-new for 2001, Liberty was extensively updated for 2005, with more comfortable seats and a more contemporary appearance. For 2006, all Liberty models come with Jeep's Electronic Stability Program (ESP), anti-lock brakes (ABS), Electronic Roll Mitigation, and all-speed traction control.
Jeep Liberty Sport 2WD ($20,970); Renegade 2WD ($22,860); Limited 2WD ($24,410); Sport 4WD ($22,480); Renegade 4WD ($24,370); Limited 4WD ($25,920)
The Liberty's body is tall, providing the driver with a commanding view of the terrain ahead. In its exterior dimensions, the Liberty fits between the Jeep Wrangler and Grand Cherokee. With an overall length of 174.4 inches, the Jeep Liberty is slightly longer than the Ford Escape. It's longer than the Wrangler, but significantly shorter and lighter than the Grand Cherokee.
The Renegade model features a flatter hood that complements the traditional round Jeep headlimps for a distinctive appearance reminiscent of the hardy old Jeep CJ3B of 1953-64. Freestanding fog lamps with black bezels, side sills to protect the body from road blast, tow hooks and a bright silver metallic applique across the body-color front fascia add to Renegade's rugged appearance. Bolted fender flares, which are gray on Sport and body-color on Limited, are molded in contrasting accent colors for Renegade, and feature chrome-plated attachment details to make sure they are noticed. Tubular roof rails are finished in brushed silver metallic. A black off-road light bar is optional on Renegade only.
A neat feature on all models: Yanking hard on the outside handle of the rear cargo door causes the glass hatch to swing up as the door itself is swinging out, which saves time and effort. Pulling on the handle with less force opens the glass only. Also, the door is hinged on the left and swings open from the right, better for curbside pickups at the airport. A lot of imported vehicles swing the other way, meaning you have to walk around the door when loading and unloading curbside.
The seats were noticeably improved for 2005 through the use of dual-density foam, but the side bolsters are still soft, a signal that the Liberty is set up more to absorb vibration than to be slung around corners. And you'll have to order the optional power seats to get seat-height adjustment. The standard cloth upholstery feels like it will hold up well. The Renegade front seats are tailored with unique cloth center panels and vinyl bolsters. The front seats in the Limited are more comfortable. They are chair-like buckets, softer and more contoured than the seats in the Ford Escape.
Getting in and out of the Liberty is more difficult than it is in some of the more carlike SUVs. The door openings are relatively narrow, the step-up height is a little higher, the seats have those side bolsters to get past, and your feet must clear relatively high side sills. A grab handle is provided, but it's located on the A-pillar above the steering wheel, not the perfect position to help shorter people swing inside.
The Liberty's rear seats are comfortable, capable of holding three people. Two adults should be happy here. There is even more rear headroom than in the front, and lots of space to slide your feet under the front seats, but knee room is limited. Sliding out of the back seat requires a bit of a stretch down, and your legs drag across the fender. So be sure to clean that area before putting any well-dressed guests back there.
The Liberty offers a generous amount of cargo space behind the rear seats. Caesar the 160-pound mastiff was happy to ride there. Two full-size garbage cans fit side-by-side back there, too, a feat we haven't seen duplicated in many SUVs. Grocery-bag hooks and cargo tie-downs are provided to keep things from rolling around. An optional cargo organizer opens into a shelf with compartment dividers to keep packages in place, and can be folded flat when not in use.
Fold the rear seats down and the Liberty offers a lot of cargo space (69.0 cubic feet), virtually the same as in the Escape. Dropping the split rear seat is a one-hand operation in the Liberty, as the rear seat bottom stays in place. But that means that the cargo floor isn't perfectly flat when the rear seats are folded down, and that is our biggest gripe with this vehicle. Nor are the rear seats readily removable as they are in the Toyota RAV4. Also, removing the rear headrests requires pressing two buttons at once to release them.
Cosmetically, the interior features a round motif, with round door handles, round instruments, round air inlets, a round horn pad. Textures and finishes are nicely done. Big gauges use black-on-beige graphics. The Limited adds attractive satin chrome highlights to the instrument panel and doors. The interior on the Limited is particularly nice and executed with quality materials. The Renegade gets silver mini-carbon highlights on the instrument panel that give it a serious/functional look consistent with its rough-and-ready exterior theme.
The manual shifter is on the tall side, but works well. The available leather-wrapped steering wheel is comfortable and features well-designed cruise controls.
The accessory controls work well and intuitively, and don't look like they came out of a sedan or a minivan because they didn't. The power window switches are located on the center console, however, more awkward than having them on the door. The manually operated heating and air-conditioni
The available 2.8-liter turbo-diesel four-cylinder engine is surprisingly satisfying, combining the horsepower of a small gasoline V6 with the torque of a V8 and the mileage of a four-cylinder. The diesel is rated at 160 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque. The EPA says the diesel should get 21/26 mpg city/highway. During a week of testing, we averaged about 21 mpg, including a fair amount of time spent off-road in low range. On the highway, the diesel Liberty becomes an easy cruiser, showing just 2000 rpm on the tach at 70 mph. Our highway mileage was close to 24 mpg, some 30 percent better than the 18 mpg we saw with the gas V6. And, just like the V6, the diesel is rated to tow up to 5000 pounds with the optional hitch.
Best of all, the new diesel seems to suffer few of the tradeoffs associated with oil-burning engines of the past. There is practically no smoke, and very little noise or vibration. This is largely thanks to the new common-rail technology developed in Europe, which uses a high-pressure fuel injection system that burns diesel fuel much more cleanly than earlier designs. There is no warm-up period before starting, because the glowplugs are electronicaly controlled. The turbocharger is an advanced design with variable-geometry vanes that deliver significant induction improvements at both low rpm and high rpm, and at high altitudes.
The diesel comes standard with a stronger five-speed electronic automatic transmission, which benefits from advanced logic. Depending on throttle input,this transmission can deliver two separate second-gear ratios, a lower ratio for quicker acceleration, a taller one for smooth downshifts.
The Liberty doesn't ride as smoothly on the road as a Ford Escape, particularly over bumps and other irregularities where it bobbles a bit. Nor does it handle as well as the more car-like SUVs. Steering effort is relatively easy at low speeds for a 4x4, nice when parking. On the road, the steering is reasonably solid on-center, a benefit of its power-assisted rack-and-pinion design. But the long-travel off-road suspension, set up to absorb impact without being overly harsh, makes for lethargic transient response in lane-change maneuvers. That said, the Liberty rides reasonably well for a short-wheelbase 4x4. It doesn't beat the driver up as much as a Jeep Wrangler does. The wider tires that are standard on Limited and optional on Renegade seem to offer more stability than the narrower tires of the Sport. The Liberty handled winding Virginia backroads well and felt fine on crowded freeways around Los Angeles.
The electronic stability program that comes on Liberty models can help the driver avoid accidents. ESP is especially valuable when driving on mixed surface conditions such as patchy snow, ice or gravel. If there's a discernible difference between what the driver asks through the steering and the vehicle's path, ESP applies selective braking and throttle input to put the Jeep back onto the driver's intended path. The system is calibrated to offer more control of the vehicle under a variety of conditions, and to operate in a manner that is not intrusive in normal or spirited driving.
We've also found the Liberty capable of handling fairly gnarly trails. It tackled steep ditches and gullies on an off-road trail, thanks to its short front and rear overhangs and a suspension that articulates well. We appreciated its tight turning radius while weaving through a stand of tightly spaced trees. We clambered over big rocks and fallen trees and slowly forded boulder-strewn creeks with 18 inches of rushing water. Jeep says Liberty can handle 20 inches at 10 mph. Its tract
Jeep Liberty strikes a balance between off-road capability and on-road sophistication. It's a good choice for drivers who like to venture into the backcountry, but need comfort and practicality in a daily driver. A higher degree of off-highway capability separates the Liberty from other small SUVs. Though less agile on the road than the so-called cute-utes, the Liberty is superior once you leave the pavement.
NewCarTestDrive.com editor Mitch McCullough filed this report from Charlottesville, Virginia; John Stewart contributed to this report.