The 2008 Jeep Liberty is 2.5 inches longer overall and its wheelbase is two inches longer than that of its predecessor. With heavily revised styling, the 2008 Liberty is taller and more angular than the 2001-2007 models, reminiscent of the much-loved, rugged but crude 1990s Jeep Cherokee. Compared to recent Jeep offerings such as the Patriot and Compass, the all-new 2008 Liberty is more of a true Jeep, with off-road prowess and bold, upright styling.
The only engine for 2008 is a carryover 3.7-liter V6 that makes 210 horsepower. A six-speed manual transmission is standard and a four-speed automatic is optional. In these days of six-speed automatics, the four-speed is somewhat antiquated, and we don't think it gets the most out of the 3.7-liter V6, an engine that could use a little help. When it comes to fuel economy, the Liberty's weight and powertrain provide numbers that are on the lower end of the class.
Jeep has made an effort to refine the Liberty and add premium options. Snow Belt drivers will appreciate the new full-time all-wheel drive system available in addition to the carryover part-time system. Both four-wheel-drive systems make the Liberty highly capable off road, and they are aided by the addition of Hill Start Assist and Hill Descent Control. Within its class, only the Nissan Xterra can claim as much off-road capability.
When they redesigned it, Jeep engineers set out to give the 2008 Liberty pleasant road manners and, when it comes to ride quality, they succeeded. The Liberty rides firmly, but irons out most bumps quite well and is stable on the highway. The Liberty sacrifices handling for off-road prowess, however. The Liberty leans in turns and has a floppy feeling in quick changes of direction. It's this aspect that makes the Liberty most comparable to the Nissan Xterra and Ford Escape. These three are more rugged, more capable off road than the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, and the new Nissan Rogue, which are lighter, more agile, and more carlike. If we were heading up a rough logging road, we'd be pleased to be in a Liberty.
Inside, the Liberty has plenty of room for five. We view it as a step back in terms of materials quality and fit and finish, however. The previous Liberty had more soft touch surfaces and closer panel gaps, while the current model has more hard-plastic surfaces. Still, it's not an unpleasant cockpit.
Cargo room is a plus. The Liberty's second row seats fold flat, as does the front passenger seat, to provide plenty of room for hauling boxes, bikes and life's other accessories.
With a maximum towing capacity of 5000 pounds, rugged off-road capability and plenty of cargo space, the 2008 Jeep Liberty is a good choice for small families or couples that tow boats or go camping. If your travels don't often take you off-road, the other small SUVs will deliver better fuel economy and better handling, but none will offer a more pleasant ride.
Jeep Liberty Sport ($20,330), Sport 4WD ($21,940), Limited ($24,515), Limited 4WD ($26,125)
The 2008 Liberty is unmistakable as a Jeep. The 2008 model is 2.5 inches longer and 0.8 inch wider than the previous generation (2001-07), with a wheelbase that grows by 1.8 inches. Its tall, upright, angular styling fits with the current Jeep design idiom while also recalling the 1990s Cherokee. Whereas the last model had some soft lines and skewed 60/40 toward women buyers, Jeep feels the new model's more rugged looks will attract an even split of male/female buyers.
Internally, Jeep calls the Liberty's platform KJ. It is the same platform used for the last model and it is shared with the Dodge Nitro. The big news here is the new rear suspension. It's an independent five-link unit that allows for greater interior room and better ride characteristics.
The most noticeable aspect of the front end is Jeep's characteristic seven-slot grille, which is taller on this model. The grille is body color on Sport, chrome on Limited. The front fascia is body color on all, and the front air dam is removable to provide more ground clearance for off-roading.
From the side, the Liberty looks like a junior Commander, with tall windows in a squared off greenhouse. The Limited's chrome theme extends to the side with chrome side trim and roof rails. These components are black on Sport, and the roof rails are optional. In an attempt to give the Liberty the open feel of a Wrangler, Jeep offers the Sky Slider sunroof. Jeep says this canvas power sunroof is four times the size of an average sunroof.
A notable feature of the rear is the lack of an exterior spare tire. Jeep has moved it under the floor for 2008. The tailgate also changes from a swing gate to a liftgate design, and separate opening rear glass is newly standard.
Jeep says its competition is the Honda CRV, Ford Escape, Toyota RAV4 and Nissan Xterra. The 2008 Liberty is approximately the same size as these vehicles, but is considerably heavier than all but the Xterra. It is also more capable off-road than all but the Xterra.
The gauges are easy to spot and the controls are simple to use. The climate functions are controlled by three simple knobs and the radio and other vehicle controls are straightforward. There is a useful cubby on the center of the dash top, and sizable grab handle is located just above the smallish glove box. The center console is deep and has a removable tray on top. There is also a small tray next to the shift handle. In 4WD models, a small electronic switch replaces last year's transfer case lever.
We don't think the interior feels like an upgrade from the previous generation, however. The previous Liberty had some nice materials and quality finishes that are lacking in this new version. The dash, for instance, is all plastic with no soft-touch surfaces. The same goes for the tops of the doors, where passengers might rest their arms. The only padded surfaces to be found here are the door armrests. The center console also has a little give to its surface, but it's not padded, either.
Jeep has upgraded the Liberty with available amenities, including automatic climate control, remote starting, a Sky Slider sunroof and the MyGIG Multi-Media Infotainment system. Jeep says the available MyGIG system can hold 1600 songs. It can also hold pictures to use as screen savers, and it contains the navigation system's map information. Songs and pictures can be ripped from a CD or loaded from a jump drive via an integrated USB port. The 6.5-inch navigation screen is a bit smaller than most. It absorbs some of the audio controls, but is generally easy to use.
The Sky Slider sunroof is much larger than a standard sunroof. It is made of canvas and creates an open air feeling, especially for rear seat passengers. However, it also creates wind noise at highway speed when closed. That's a shame because without the Sky Slider the cabin is impressively quiet. Wind noise and tire noise are well checked, and the engine is only noticeable under hard acceleration.
The second row offers lots of head room. Leg room is decent, even with the front seats all the way back. Toe space is plentiful under the seats, but there is an annoying hump on each side next to the transmission tunnel. The second-row seats aren't the most comfortable, however; they're flat and short with little thigh or shoulder support and they lack a fold-down center armrest. Getting in the second row is an easy step in, but the opening is a bit small, so it requires some ankle twisting.
Cargo space is about average for the class. The second-row seats fold flat in an easy one-step process to yield 64.6 cubic feet of cargo space (slightly less than the previous generation). With the seats up there is 31.2 cubic feet of cargo room, which is plenty of room for hauling groceries with the kids in the vehicle. The available fold-flat front-passenger seat allows for loading long items. In back, Jeep provides a shallow under-floor storage area with a reversible cover that is carpeted on one side and formed into a plastic tray on the other. This is a useful feature for stowing muddy boots. Cargo tie-down hooks are also provided to secure loose items. The load floor is fairly low, making it easy to load heavy cargo. For 2008, Jeep has changed to a liftgate (from a side-opening swing gate); the rear glass panel opens separately, so groceries can be set inside without opening the tailgate.
When it comes to handling, the Liberty is less capable than most of its competitors. The Liberty is relatively tall and heavy, so it is not as nimble as most of its compact SUV competitors. It leans more than most in turns and struggles to regain composure in quick changes of direction. Its solid axle rear suspension is designed for towing capability and off-road capability.
In off-road conditions, the 2008 Liberty is quite capable. With generous approach and departure angles and low-range gearing for 4x4 models, it can crawl over large rocks and logs. Four-wheel-drive models have Hill Descent Control, which pulses the brakes through the ABS to limit the vehicle's speed when driving down steep grades. Hill Start Assist is also standard. It holds the brakes on hills when the driver releases the brakes to prevent the vehicle from sliding backward. We drove the Liberty on a technically challenging off-road trail where it performed well.
With the available towing package, the Liberty is capable of pulling a load up to 5000 pounds. This towing capability combined with the Liberty's off-road prowess make it a good choice for families that like to camp, ski, or vacation at locations off the beaten path.
The 3.7-liter V6 is only adequate in this vehicle. It has decent pickup from a stop, but doesn't provide the willing punch to make passing easy. The four-speed automatic transmission kicks down readily to provide what passing power there is, but the standard six-speed manual transmission's extra gear ratios let the driver keep the engine in its power band more often. The manual gearshift has long throws, however, so you'll have to stretch your arm a bit.
With EPA fuel economy rating of 16 mpg City and 22 Highway (15/21 for automatic-equipped 4x4 models), the Liberty is harder on fuel than most of its competitors.
The 2008 Jeep Liberty has better off-road capability and more towing capacity than most of its competitors. It offers generous cargo space and a high seating position. All-new for 2008, the latest version is more refined than the previous generation. But it's heavy for a compact SUV, and it lacks the handling and fuel economy of most of its rivals. If off-road capability is important, Liberty is a good choice; otherwise several rivals will handle better and go easier on gas.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Kirk Bell filed this report on the 2008 Jeep Liberty from Indianapolis.