- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 2, 2005

Sure, its engine clatters like shaken ball bearings in a beer can. And it growls like an angry Rottweiler. The torque sometimes falls into a ditch, then comes on like a lothario in a singles bar.

But doggone it, the new Jeep Liberty diesel is an endearing little beast. Maybe it’s the thought of that promise of good fuel economy, or perhaps its reputation as one of the more capable off-road SUVs. But it does grow on you, and it’s an appealing addition to the Liberty lineup.

With the public interest in fuel economy, prompted by the gasoline-electric hybrids from Toyota and Honda, there’s a resurgence of interest in diesel engines. All other things equal, they deliver about 30 percent better mileage than their gasoline-fueled counterparts. In Europe, about half of the passenger cars are ordered with diesel engines.

But diesels have not found favor with Americans, mainly because gasoline prices have remained low compared to those in Europe and other parts of the world. Moreover, five states, including California and New York, have adopted stringent anti-pollution regulations that forbid the sale of most diesels.

As a result, the 2005 Jeep Liberty diesel can be sold only in 45 states. That should not pose a problem because it is a limited-production model, with plans for only about 5,000 annually, and they likely will sell out quickly.

Diesel enthusiasts like the power of the oil-burning, compression-ignition engines, which deliver plenty of torque at low revolutions.

The Liberty diesel is such a creature. It has four cylinders totaling 2.8 liters of displacement, and with turbocharging makes 160 horsepower.

More importantly, there are 295 foot-pounds of torque at just 1,800 revolutions.

That means this compact SUV can tow a load of up to 5,000 pounds.

It also gets a great jump off the line as long as you get the revs up quickly.

If you hesitate, the lag before the turbo kicks in feels as if the engine’s power has dropped into a hole somewhere beneath the floorboard.

The Liberty’s engine is made in Italy, and it has most of the characteristics of traditional diesels.

It takes a few extra seconds to get it started, particularly on a cold morning.

It clatters loudly at idle, and on the road it settles into an audible growl.

But the pickup is quick, and the EPA fuel consumption rating is 22 miles to the gallon in the city and 27 on the highway. (The latter is close to that of the Ford Escape Hybrid).

For a rugged SUV that weighs nearly 300 pounds more than 2 tons, that ain’t half bad.

The handling feels nimble in traffic, though the Liberty is no sports sedan.

As with any Jeep, it is a capable crawler off-road. A manual shifter gives the driver a choice of two-wheel drive (for fuel economy and highway driving), full-time all-wheel drive (for foul weather conditions on the road), and part-time four-wheel drive, with a low range (for bashing about in the boondocks).

The Liberty is regarded as a compact sport utility vehicle. Its dimensions are tidy — just 14 feet 6 inches from the front bumper to the spare wheel that hangs on the cargo door out back.

But its passenger space is about that of a midsize sedan, though some of it is vertical, and there’s 29 cubic feet of cargo space behind the back seat.

Up front, the seats are reasonably comfortable and well-shaped, upholstered in cloth on the test Liberty.

The interior is utilitarian, done up in shades of gray and black, and there are no overt luxury touches.

But this is a purpose-built vehicle, the purpose of which is all-terrain motoring.

In the back, there’s plenty of headroom, though knee room is limited and the seatbacks do not recline.

As in many vehicles, the center seating position is a perch, with no place to put feet unless they straddle the driveline hump. Getting in and out takes a bit of torso twisting.

Access to the cargo area is through a side-swinging door, which also carries the spare tire. But unlike some of the other compact SUVs such as the Honda CR-V, Jeep got it right.

The door is hinged at the left, so it swings open curbside for loading. That means the loader doesn’t have to stand in traffic.

Above the cargo door, the rear window swings up out of the way. It can be opened by itself to toss in a few items. When you pull the handle to open the door, the window automatically pops up. It’s convenient.

The diesel engine is available on the Liberty Limited and Liberty Sport models as a $1,950 option. It comes only with the five-speed automatic transmission, which costs another $1,220. So the package adds a total of $3,170.

With a few other options, including a power sunroof, cruise control, an alarm system and lighted vanity mirrors, the $21,310 Liberty Sport diesel topped out at $25,970. As SUVs go nowadays, that’s not an outrageous price.

Just don’t expect to get a discount. The diesel nuts are out in force.

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