The Jeep Liberty sits in the middle of a rapidly growing lineup of SUVs from the company that has made them for a very long time. Neither a rough, rock-climbing scrambler nor a seven-passenger hauler, the Liberty replaced the beloved Cherokee in 2002.
All new for 2008, the Liberty assumes more of the chunky, squared-off look of the venerable Wrangler. Some critics derided the original Liberty as being too "soft" or "feminine." This rugged new version is carefully designed to appeal equally to men and women, especially young families and singles between 30 and 40.
Showing just how far SUVs have come as day-to-day transportation, you can actually buy a Liberty that is not Trail Rated. My Green Metallic two-wheel-drive Liberty Sport was one of those. Strictly for onroading, it drove firmly but comfortably on paved surfaces, thanks to a new independent front suspension and five-link rear suspension, along with power rack-and-pinion steering.
If you want more capability in your Liberty, you can order four-wheel-drive in two levels: Selec-Trac II, an advanced full-time system, or Command-Trac, a part-time system. Selec-Trac II, the leader in the midsize SUV market segment, anticipates and prevents wheel slippage, even on dry road surfaces. For steep grades, switch to 4WD Low.
Command-Trac is a traditional system that keeps the front wheels disconnected until you lock them. In 4WD Lock they work in tandem with the rears, splitting torque 50/50. This system is meant for use in mud or snow conditions only.
All Libertys use Jeep's 3.7-liter V6, which puts out 210 horsepower and 235 lb.-ft. of torque. You can mate it to the standard six-speed manual transmission in the Sport or the standard four-speed automatic in the Limited. The automatic is optional in the Sport and my tester had it ($825). The V6 provides adequate power to move the two-ton vehicle along well, if not like a rocket. My tester dropped a gear or two when ascending grades, which was a little noisy.
The EPA gives the Liberty Sport 4x2 fuel economy numbers of 16 City, 22 Highway. The EPA's Green Vehicle Guide scores it at 6 for Air Pollution and 5 for Greenhouse Gases, about in the middle. I saw an Ultra Low Emission Vehicle (ULEV) model listed at 7/5. Be sure to check which one you're getting when you visit the dealership.
The Liberty looks and feels Jeeplike inside and out. Interior fittings are hard and plasticky in a somber mix of light gray, dark gray, and black. The materials feel cheap, the center console moved from side to side when I leaned on it and I saw and felt some mold marks about the cabin. The shift column bag had a zipper in it that was already broken. The upright, nearly flat windshield and shallow dashboard will feel at home to Jeep aficionados.
The chairs are positioned high, and there's no height adjustment in the Sport. I felt almost like I was sitting in a kid's high chair at first. After I accustomed myself to the Liberty's lofty seating accommodations I realized the mission was to keep you upright and attentive.
There are only two Liberty models, Sport and Limited. The Limited offers many desirable features, some of which are available at extra cost or in packages with the Sport model. Limited cars get many interior upgrades, such as richer cloth seats (with leather optional), satin silver trim, cruise control, leather steering wheel, eight-speaker audio system with 368 watts of power, auto-dimming mirror, driver one touch up/down windows, and a cargo cover.
Exterior standards for the Limited include fog lamps, deeply tinted glass, a chrome grille and bodyside molding, roof rails, heated mirrors, 17-inch alloy wheels (in place of 16s for the Sport), and a full-size spare tire.
The Limited offers a broader palette of options, such as rain-sensing windshield wipers and Chrysler's high-tech MyGig system, which uses a touch screen or voice commands to control features and has a 20-gig hard drive to store 1,500 songs or photos. And check out the Sky Slider full-length open canvas roof!
The Liberty is reasonably priced if you manage the option list carefully. The base price of a Sport 4x2 is just $20,990, including shipping. The 4x4 model starts at $22,600. The Limited 4x2 starts at $25,175, with the Limited 4x4 hitting $26,785.
Libertys are assembled in Toledo, Ohio, which, thanks to a $3.9 billion upgrade, can build multiple models efficiently using Chrysler's Flexible Manufacturing Strategy (FMS).
If offroading isn't in your future but you like the look and feel of a Jeep, the Liberty could be for you. Add either all-wheel-drive system and go find some trails. With its adventurous point of view, the Liberty is a fresh choice today.