- The Washington Times - Friday, August 31, 2001

Liberty is an all-new Jeep model, with a two-part mission.

The compact SUV seeks to keep the interest of Jeep loyalists while also luring new converts from among other SUV buyers. Liberty will straddle the rather tall fence separating off-road competence and on-road refinement.

Liberty has a definite Jeep family resemblance, with chunky good looks. Up front, a set of round headlights flank the traditional seven-slot grille. Flared fenders set off the side view, neatly swallowing the 16-inch Goodyear Wrangler SR-A all-terrain tires. In back, stacked, double-circle taillights set off the split swing gate — a combination of side opening door and remote-activated, slide-up window.

The dimensions of the new Jeep fit squarely between the Grand Cherokee and the Wrangler. Liberty has a distinct, right-size feel about it. Smaller utes can be confining and tough on the tailbone. Larger utes can be tough to navigate. Liberty will comfortably hold up to five adults and their belongings; it can easily negotiate tight city spaces, and a day of on- or off-road travel will not wear on driver or passengers.

Off-road has traditionally been the forte of Jeep models, and Liberty takes a back seat to no one in this regard. A 4x4 version of the new Jeep has 8 inches of ground clearance at the front axle, 7.8 inches in back. Approach and departure angles are 38 and 32.3 degrees respectively. Liberty boasts the stiffest Jeep body ever built. It rolls on a chassis bolstered by a newly engineered, coil-spring front suspension coupled with a link-coil rear suspension. In keeping with its off-road credentials, there are 8 inches of suspension travel, and the drivetrain is protected by a front skid plate.

My test vehicle was a Limited Edition model, equipped with the newly designed 3.7-liter V-6 engine and Selec-Trac, full-time four-wheel-drive system. A pull-up lever situated on the center console switches between 2WD, 4WD part time, 4WD full time and 4WD low range. The 3.7-liter V-6 pumps out 210 horsepower and 235 foot-pounds of torque, and my 900-mile road test of more parkways than pathways returned 18.5 mpg. The six-cylinder motor matches nicely with Liberty's size and weight. Towing capacity with the 3.7 and manual transmission is 3,500 pounds, which can be upgraded to 5,000 pounds with automatic transmission and the optional towing package. The Liberty's base motor is a 2.4-liter four-cylinder. While I've not driven it, the 150-horsepower, four-powered Liberty would have a weight-to-power ratio of 25.5, suggesting that acceleration might be a bit weak.

Hop into the interior and you find room for four to five adults. Round abounds as a design theme in the Liberty's cabin. Circular door handles, dash gauges and console trim are done up in a satin chrome finish. Visibility is good in all directions, with the back view hindered only by rear-seat headrests. Rear seating is roomy enough to suit 6-footers, even when like-size passengers are in front. Headroom front and back would withstand even a revival of stovepipe hats.

Interior storage is found in molded front door pockets; a small, covered center-console space; the glove box, and pockets on the back of the front seats. Rear cargo space measures 29 cubic feet with the rear seats up, and 69 cubic feet with the 65/35 split back seat folded down. Ride quality passes the long-trip-comfort test, and despite the Liberty's downright upright profile, there is little in the way of road noise at highway speeds. Off-road, Liberty feels sure-footed and the tidy dimensions make it easy to thread your way through tight quarters, whether that's between two trees or between two double-parked cars.

The first new model to enter the Jeep lineup since the 1999 Grand Cherokee, the Liberty does nice work at a tough chore being a true, dual-purpose vehicle. Stable on the rough stuff and smooth on the highway, Liberty seems well positioned to keep the Jeep-faithful happy and to capture first-timers.

MOTOR MATTERS


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