The Jeep Liberty is quite capable off road, one of the best in its class. Compared to the Jeep Patriot and Compass, the Liberty is more of a true Jeep, with off-road prowess and bold, upright styling.
The Jeep Liberty was all-new for 2008, and is further improved for 2009, with refinements to its suspension, steering, and brakes.
The 2008-2009 Liberty is taller and more angular than the 2002-2007 models, reminiscent of the much-loved, rugged but crude 1990s Jeep Cherokee. The current model is bigger than the previous generation: 2.5 inches longer overall, and 2.0 inches longer in wheelbase. It rides smoother, too; but it maintains the ruggedness of the previous version.
All Liberty models come with a 3.7-liter V6 that makes 210 horsepower. For 2009, a four-speed automatic is now standard; but 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 full-time all-wheel drive system available in addition to the part-time system. Both four-wheel-drive systems make the Liberty highly capable off road, and they are aided by 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 for 2008, Jeep engineers set out to give the 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 Nissan Rogue, which are lighter, more agile, and more car-like. 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 5,000 pounds, rugged off-road capability and plenty of cargo space, the 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.
When Jeep introduced the Liberty in mid-2001 as a 2002 model, it was the middle of a three vehicle lineup. Now the second-generation Liberty is one of a six-vehicle family. Compared to the Patriot and Compass, it is more of a true Jeep, with off-road prowess and bold, upright styling.
The Liberty is unmistakable as a Jeep. The current model is 2.5 inches longer and 0.8 inch wider than the previous generation (2002-07), 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. The tailgate also changes from the swing gate used in 2002-07 to a liftgate design, and separate opening rear glass is standard.
Jeep says its competition is the Honda CRV, Ford Escape, Toyota RAV4 and Nissan Xterra. The 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.
Though not luxurious, the interior of the Jeep Liberty is functional. Most drivers will like the high seating position. Head room in the front seat is plentiful, but the tallest drivers will want more available front leg room. The side mirrors are large and the cabin has a lot of glass, making for fine rear visibility.
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 the previous generation'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.
That said, Jeep has added some detail to the Limited interior for 2009, including a leather-wrapped shift knob with a chrome cap; and leather accent stitching on the console and door armrests, grab handle, and parking brake boot.
Jeep had already upgraded this latest 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. With last year's redesign Jeep 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.
The Jeep Liberty offers a pleasant driving experience. The ride is generally firm, but the Liberty smoothes over most bumps and is never punishing, even with the available 18-inch wheels.
When it comes to handling, 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.
For 2009, Jeep has stiffened the Liberty's rear axle shafts and retuned the springs, shocks, anti-roll bars and steering gear valve, for a more precise, linear feel on the road. We don't doubt that these changes improve the Liberty's handling somewhat, but it is unlikely that they provide any fundamental change in its dynamics. Additionally, a re-tuned brake booster, low rollback calipers, and a revised brake pedal ratio promise better feedback through the brake pedal.
In off-road conditions, however, the Liberty is quite capable. With generous approach and departure angles and low-range gearing for 4×4 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 pedal 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. Last year's standard six-speed manual transmission let the driver keep the engine in its power band more often; unfortunately, it is no longer available.
With EPA fuel economy rating of 16 mpg City and 22 Highway with 2WD (and 15/21 for 4×4 models), the Liberty is harder on fuel than most of its competitors.
The 2009 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 last year, this 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 from Indianapolis.