- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 13, 2005

When Jeep finally put the aged Cherokee out to pasture in 2002, it replaced it with the all-new Liberty.

While Liberty has the dimensions and puppy-dog appeal of the plethora of “cute-utes” on the market, it quite simply will eat the lunch of most of those off-road pretenders when put to the off-pavement or towing test.

First and foremost, Liberty is a Jeep. Engineered from the rubber up to take on the toughest terrain, it is completely qualified to plant Jeep’s flag in the compact SUV segment.

Looks can be deceiving, and Liberty may well be too adorable for its own good.

Looking more like a Toon-Town taxi than a master of the outback, the Liberty is less than intimidating in its appearance; this despite its Jeep family-inspired, vertically segmented grille, beefy fender flares and wide stance. For 2005, Jeep has tinkered with the grille, fog lamps, fender flares and body-side moldings of all three (Sport, Renegade and Limited) Liberty trim levels.

However, it paid special attention to the exterior package of the Renegade, the most rugged of the three.

In buffing up the Renegade, Jeep gave it a taller grille and off-road fog lamps, as well as its own fender flares, wheels and tires with wider, more aggressive treads. It also has functional rock guards.

To really butch things up, you can ante up another $750 for the D package.

This includes a roof-mounted light bar, four skid plates and brush guards for the rear tail lamps, in addition to a six-way power driver’s seat. This is the trim for owners serious about taking their Liberty off-road.

The entry-level Sport is fitted with the rather wobbly 150-horsepower 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine. This four-banger is engineered for the meek and probably won’t satisfy more impassioned drivers.

Standard in the Renegade and Limited is a 210-horsepower 3.7-liter V6. Both the Sport and Limited offer a 160-horsepower 2.8-liter turbo diesel with a whopping 295 lb.-ft. of torque as an option in 4x4 models.

Making the engine switch, however, isn’t as simple as just opting for the diesel.

It is bunched with other upgrades in four distinct packages — two for the Sport and two for the Limited. Diesel package prices range from $1,240 to as much as $2,870. Only the V6 is available in the Renegade.

Liberty’s towing stats are impressive. With the turbo diesel it enjoys a segment benchmark with 5,000 lb. of pulling capacity.

This number drops to a still impressive 3,500 lb. with the V6. Two thousand pounds is the limit with the 2.4-liter four-cylinder.

Choosing a transmission can be a tad involved. Availability is determined by the engine as well as the trim level. A six-speed manual transmission is partnered with the Sport’s 2.4L and the 3.7-liter V6 in the Renegade.

The V6-equipped Limited comes standard with a four-speed automatic ($825 option in the Renegade). Opting for the turbo diesel in either the Sport or Limited replaces their standard transmissions with a five-speed automatic. When equipped with the optional four-speed automatic, the Renegade claims an Environmental Protection Agency rating of 17 mpg in the city and 22 on the highway.

The best fuel economy numbers among the Liberty’s engine/transmission combinations are posted by those equipped with the turbo diesel. They earn an EPA rating of 21 mpg in the city and 27 on the highway.

Renegade can be configured with either rear-wheel drive or one of two four-wheel-drive systems. The standard 4WD set up is a part-time, two-speed system. As with traditional 4WD systems, it should only be engaged when traction is an issue. The advanced Selec-Trac all-wheel-drive system is a transparent full-time, two-speed system.

The ride is decidedly on the stiff side of the equation. A truck at heart, the Liberty’s suspension focuses on utility more than ride comfort. This isn’t to say the Liberty’s ride is rough, but there is a noticeable difference between its ride and that of, say, the more passenger-conscious, less off-road worthy Ford Escape. Disc brakes supervised by an antilock system are standard on every Liberty.

Up to five adults can motor about in the Liberty when necessary, but four will be more comfortable. The cabin is roomy enough — particularly in the front seat. Rear-seat legroom falls about in the middle of the compact segment. Likewise cargo capacity (69 cubic feet) with the rear seat folded down is about the segment’s average. The spare tire is mounted on the rear door making it easy to access and freeing up precious cargo room.

Neatly arranged, the dashboard houses chrome-ringed gauges. A fat steering wheel fills the driver’s hands. The uncomplicated audio and climate controls are located in the center stack. Brushed aluminum accents brighten up the over-all look.

Able to stand out in the crowded compact SUV arena, the Liberty is capable and comfortable. It takes its Jeep heritage seriously.

The entry-level 2WD Sport model with air conditioning, CD player and tilt steering wheel stickers at $19,800 including destination charges. At the opposite end of the price spectrum: The AWD Limited with power windows/door locks/outboard mirrors, remote keyless entry, cruise control, alloy wheels and 6-way power driver’s seat retails at $25,645.

The AWD Renegade on which this evaluation is based has a base price of $24,170. Side curtain airbags are a $490 option, while upgrading to Selec-Trac will add $395 to the bottom line.

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