SILVERTON, Colo. -- Nubby rubber rollers on a four-wheel-drive version of Jeep's mid-size Liberty SUV scratch gravel for traction on the unpaved CR8 trail that climbs over a saddle in the San Juan Mountains more than two miles above sea level in thin Colorado air.
After crossing the saddle, the trail traverses some stair-step slabs of granite in a steep descent toward the Ophir valley. We tap a dashboard toggle and switch to 4WD Low so Liberty can slowly descend the rocky steps as we maintain a tight rein.
The Jeep inches down those stone steps until meeting a relatively flat bed of gravel and the sharp approach angle at Liberty's prow permits an easy transition for the vehicle to land on the flatter trail.
Obstacles like granite steps might prove too dicey for a car-based wagon ill-suited for severe four-wheeling chores, but it's not too tricky for Liberty, which acts like a Jeep capable of taking a hard tack over rough terrain far away from pavement.
And Jeep boosts the 4WD prowess of Liberty for 2010 by resurrecting a Renegade version.
Renegade's standard 4WD rig is Jeep's Selec-Trac II, a full-time electronically controlled system with two-speed active transfer case and BTCS (brake traction control system). It instantly anticipates wheel slip and automatically redirects engine torque to wheels with grip.
Jeep's 3.7-liter V6 is the stock plant for all issues. The six-pack runs up to 210 hp at 5200 rpm with torque numbers climbing as high as 235 lb-ft at 4000 rpm.
Sole transmission for 2010 models is a four-speed automatic with an electronically modulated torque converter clutch.
Power from the engine channels either to rear wheels exclusively in a two-wheel-drive (2WD) system or to all four wheels for 4WD traction through one of two available transfer cases.
First, there's the part-time shift-on-the-fly Command-Trac electronic system delivered through a two-speed transfer case. It works in rear-wheel 2WD plus 4WD High and 4WD Low.
Or there's Selec-Trac II, the full-time system with electronic two-speed active transfer case. Modes available are rear-wheel 2WD, 4WD Auto and 4WD Low, with push-button electric shifting between 4WD Auto and 4WD Low.
Electronic safety devices fill the wagon, such as Hill Descent Control (HDC) and Hill Start Assist (HSA), all-speed traction control (ASTC), electronic stability program (ESP) skid controls, electronic roll mitigation (ERM), even a tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS).
The wagon employs an independent front suspension, a sophisticated five-link rear suspension and power rack and pinion steering.
Goodyear Wrangler HP 225/75R16 all-season tires are stock for Liberty Sport. Liberty Limited rolls on Goodyear Wrangler HP 235/65R17 all-season tires, while Liberty Renegade gets 235/70R16 OWL (outline white letter) all-terrain tires mounted on 16-inch wheels painted in the hue of Mineral Gray Keystone.
Liberty looks rugged like a dirt-dog SUV in a taut package decorated with progressive shapes.
It stands tall in the traditional two-box format of a wagon and unabashed square styling with edgy angles scoring fascia and fenders, a flat hood and flanks, steep rake of the windshield and a level roofline.
Wheel openings are cut in trapezoidal design with wheels pinned near corners of the platform and overhangs crimped to make transitions easy on steep slopes.
The Jeep signature of a seven-slot grille flanked by large round headlamps set in squarish housings becomes a focal point on the nose.
Liberty Sport shows standard body-color fascias and wheel flares.
Liberty Limited adds bright roof rails, a bright front grille and front foglamps.
Liberty Renegade wears unique front and rear fascias, body side moldings and lower side sills, black headlamp bezels and black vinyl hood graphics, dark neutral metallic wheel flares and deep-tint window glass.
Liberty is generous in scale. The wheelbase is 106 inches long and the width between wheel sets is 61 inches. The body measures 176 inches long, 73 inches wide and 71 inches high at the roof.
A large structure means more room for riders in the passenger compartment, plus lots of cargo space which exceeds 25 cubic feet aft of the split-folding rear seat.
The cabin layout for Liberty consists of bolstered front bucket seats and the split back bench. Standard content includes a fold-flat front passenger seat, the fold-flat second-row split bench and a reversible (carpet/vinyl) cargo floor.
Renegade's cabin provides seats clad in premium cloth fabric with leather wrapping the steering wheel and shifter knob and center console, radio controls mounted on the steering wheel, a security alarm, cruise control, rear cargo cover and dashboard EVIC (electronic vehicle information center).
Sky Slider, a power-controlled roll-up canvas lid stretches for almost the entire length of the cabin and opens either from front or back.
MyGIG, a multimedia audio, navigation, entertainment and hands-free communication system uses a 20-gigabyte hard drive for music and video storage.
Trailer Tow Package, adding a Class III receiver hitch and seven-pin wiring harness, heavy-duty engine cooling and power-steering cooler, plus TSC (trailer sway control) to help reduce trailer sway.
Uconnect, navigation and phone link utilizing Bluetooth technology.
Comfort and Convenience Group, installing automatic temperature controls, ParkSense rear-park assist system and a remote starter.
Jeep's 2010 MSRP figures begin at $23,260 for Liberty Sport in 2WD and $24,870 for Sport 4WD. Liberty Limited 2WD is $27,130, or $28,740 with 4WD, and the new Liberty 4WD comes in at $27,870.