Pros: get-up-and-go, interesting design, tight steering
Cons: Noise-y! questionable quality, bouncy ride
I see that Daimler-Chrysler dumped the venerable Jeep Cherokee after lo, these many years. Big deal: they should have sent the Grand Cherokee packing as well, if you ask me (but they didn't). The loss of the Cherokee, though, left a gaping hole in the middle of the Jeep line -- there's the bone-crusher kiddie-car Wrangler anchoring the bottom of the line, and the blowsy, frowsy Grand Cherokee sitting at the top... What to do, what to do?
Well, D-C went out and designed themselves a new vehicle -- but not a makeover of the Cherokee, not an underfed Grand Cherokee or a Wrangler on steroids, it's a new vehicle. And in a bit of marketing serendipity, they just happened to name it the "Liberty." As a replacement for the Cherokee, it's a winner, though replacing the Cherokee with a bicycle; nay, a tricycle, was always a winning proposition. "So what's driving a Liberty all about?" you ask... Sit back and I'll tell you all about it.
My "connection" down at the local Enterprise office slipped me the keys to Miss Liberty (a 2WD model) on a sunny Tuesday morning, and I bought her back on Friday afternoon - four days, 450 miles, most of them highway miles. I drove, I pondered, I took a few notes, and here's what I think of my week with Ms Liberty.
A question of Style
Style, to be sure, is a matter of taste... right? If that's the case, then the engineer who designed the front end of the Liberty obviously can't tell the difference between paintings hanging in a motel lobby and the art in the Louvre. What it looks like, to me anyway, is that somebody wayyyy up in management muttered, "Geez, we've got 400,000 extra Wrangler front ends -- let's build that new Liberty so we can fit 'em in!" And, so the front end is all squinched-up looking, with a pair of ridiculously small, round headlamps flanking a classic gap-toothed grinning Jeep grille (seven gaps, of course). Once you turn the corner to the sides, though, the vehicle looks modern -- no chrome, but lots of utilitarian black plastic trim -- and pretty much like the rest of the small SUV class. Ms Liberty's tall and boxy and a bit on the chunky side. From the rear, she has some of a classic Jeep look, mostly due to the naked spare tire on the back door -- a full-size spare! what a concept!
Interior styling is heavily influenced by circles -- dashboard vents, instrument panel, climate-control knobs, door handles -- even the hood release (when you finally find it). Likewise, trim accents are circular or arcuate. The design is a pleasant variation from the linearity of most modern interiors, giving Ms Liberty a vaguely "retro" look likely influenced by her distant cousin, the PT Cruiser.
Instrumentation and Controls
Ms Liberty boasts the usual suspects in the instrument panel -- tachometer (why? nobody knows how to use one, especially with an automatic), speedo / odometer / trip odometer, fuel and temperature guages. Everything else is an idiot light. Cruise controls are on the face of the steering wheel (including one of those nice "cancel" switches); the switches aren't lit. Lighting - headlamps, dimmer switch, turn signals, and interior lights -- is the left stalk; windshield washer and wiper controls are on the right.
Her dashboard controls are three discs for climate control -- fan speed, temperature, combined AC / vent / heat -- plus a rear defroster switch. The sound system sits high on the dash; the stock system in my rental features those clumsy little sliders for balance/tone control (have the designers ever tried working those with gloves on?). Controls for the power windows are mounted on the front of the console; a truly strange upside-down configuration that is both unusual and strangely awkward.
Driving Ms Liberty
Daimler-Chrysler made one tremendous leap forward with Ms Liberty: this species of Jeep no longer wanders about the highway like a lost puppy. To say that the old Cherokee had loose steering was on par with saying most Americans rather dislike Osama Bin Laden! Ms Liberty, however, has tight steering -- D-C swung the pendulum all the way over; perhaps even a bit too far. She corners nicely and is pleasantly maneuverable in garages and parking lots. On the road, though, the tall vehicle feels inordinately "tippy" when making high speed turns (freeway interchanges, etc.); a feeling exacerbated by a high center of gravity and short wheelbase.
The 3.7-litre V6 performs well, producing strong acceleration though most of the normal torque range. When mated to a 4-speed automatic overdrive transmission, the combination gets a respectable though not remarkable 17.8 MPG (my actual, EPA estimates 20 highway, 16 city). It does so, however, quite audibly: the engine noise in the passenger compartment is a pronounced coarse grumbling.
One area in which Daimler-Chrysler retained features of the Cherokee -- why, I don't know (but again, they didn't ask me) -- is in the suspension. The vehicle transmits every lump, bump, rut, and pothole straight to the passenger's seat. You could darned near sense the date of a quarter in the road when Ms Liberty ran over it! Like the Cherokee of old, Ms Liberty wallows on rough roads and bounces like a superball on any moderately rough surface. A definite downer!
Ms Liberty came with the following features (standard -- she was a rental, after all):
* power door locks and windows, with safety lockout (switches weird) and remote entry
* center console with two cupholders and slots for phone, etc. Storage for CDs in the armrest, door-side map pockets
* medium-small glove compartment with a designated slot for owner's manual
* rear seat cupholders molded into door panels
* two front power ports (one hot, one wired to ignition) and a third in the cargo compartment
* swing-away tailgate with auto-release for liftglass
* full-sized, rear-mounted spare tire
* dual airbags
* 60:40 fold-down rear seats; these fold easily with one-hand operation but do not lie flat
* cargo compartment with multiple hitch points for cargo net, tie-down straps, etc.
My Evaluation: the Good, the Indifferent, and the Ugly
The Good Stuff
+ engine power and acceleration much better than the old Cherokee with in-line six
+ good rear seat room for two passengers
+ interesting, fairly innovative interior styling
+ low-speed handling and maneuverability
+ full-sized spare tire
= mediocre fuel economy
= rear seat seating for three passengers, seats fail to fold flat
= unimpressive stock sound system with eensy-beansy buttons
= exterior styling, specifically that crunched-up front end
= hard, poorly adjustable front seats
- bouncy jouncy suspension
- build quality (had to slam glove compartment door to close, lots of squeaks and rattles)
- wind, road, and especially engine noise
- central console size and placement
- window control switch configuration and location
Wait a year before you buy one of these babies -- perhaps this time grandpa's old saw about giving a manufacturer a year to iron out all the bugs is a good idea. I'd rather be impatient than disappointed! I doubt that they'll fix the suspension any time soon, but at least they may get the build quality up. A 4WD's extra weight in the drive train might help some with the tippy feeling on cornering, but it'll also decrease gas mileage.
By all means, compare to the competition: maybe some of the others in this class are a year or two older, but the designs have been proven in the field and maybe tweaked a little where necessary. Conditionally Recommended, with reservations.