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A revolution in driving feel for Jeep. Why spend more for the inferior Grand Cherokee?

by mkaresh:      Oct 23, 2001 - Updated Aug 1, 2005

Product Rating: 4.0 Recommended: Yes 

Pros: Styling, Jeep character, passenger space, ride, handling, refinement
Cons: Fuel economy, power, and perhaps the name (Dakar would have been better)
The Bottom Line: Somehow combines off-road capability with very refined on-road manners. The styling inside and out is full of character. Sadly, its weight harms acceleration and fuel economy.

A few years back on the auto show circuit Jeep displayed the Dakar, a concept car that was basically a Wrangler with four doors. I personally thought it was a very sharp vehicle, but apparently this was not going to be one of the show cars they produced as-is. Probably because the Wrangler is a very rough, very noisy vehicle, basically a toy for the young and child-free when used on pavement, so not well-suited to the typical family-hauling chores of four-door SUVs. Still, the favorable reaction to the Dakar convinced Jeep that there was a market for a vehicle with the looks of a four-door Wrangler, just not the ride and handling of one. Enter the Liberty. It looks like a Dakar that’s been smoothed over so that it can pass as a regular, errand-running, female-appealing compact SUV.

Which, as the change to a touchy-feely name also suggests, it basically is. Though it looks like a Wrangler from the front, the Liberty actually replaces the venerable Cherokee as Jeep’s entry-level SUV. Intended to compete with the Ford Escape, Honda CR-V, and other “cute utes,” with that bug-eyed Wrangleresqe front it is at least as cute as any of them. (The hyperlinks lead to my reviews of related vehicles.) But what else does it have to offer? Is it just a pretty face?

Jeep Liberty Reliability

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Styling and Accommodations

Even though it lacks some of the character of the Dakar, the Liberty is still a sharp looking SUV. I personally find it the most distinctive non-Wrangler SUV on the road. Even the most car-ignorant person can probably tell this is a Jeep. It manages to look cute, rugged, and refined all at once, especially in the monochrome “Limited” trim.

The interior has been equally well styled. The dash has the very shallow dimensions of the Wrangler dash, refreshing in an age when the top surface of some car instrument panels must be measured in acres. Though all of the plastics are the inexpensive, hard to the touch sort, like the vinylish cloth in the Sport version I drove they still somehow look just right in this vehicle. The interior feels purposeful and rugged with a dash of style. I can’t say exactly why, but it strongly appealed to me when I put on my imaginary Jeep hat in a way the cheaper-feeling interior of the more expensive Jeep Grand Cherokee did not. If you’re looking for a bit more style (with a bit less Jeep-ness), check out the “high contrast” interior available in the up-level Limited, which combines light taupe leather with a dark slate dash, console, and floors. I didn’t even sit in this one, but the photo in the brochure looks sharp. Why isn’t the interior of the Grand Cherokee this nice?

Similar questions can be asked about comfort. The seats are higher in the Liberty than in the Grand Cherokee, adding to its Wrangleresqe character. This provides welcome thigh support in the rear seat, much like that found in the Escape but lacking in many other SUVs, including Ford’s Explorer and Jeep’s own Grand Cherokee. Combined with room for toes under the front seat—missing in the Grand Cherokee with power seats—the rear seat of the Liberty is considerably more comfortable than that of its more expensive sibling.

The front seat is also comfortable. The high position combined with expansive windows mean that visibility is excellent. The airy feeling the large windows provide may be common among compact SUVs, if not among larger ones, but this does not diminish its appeal. Anyone should feel comfortable driving this vehicle.

The height of the package cannot help the cargo room as much. Here the fairly short length of the Liberty has an effect. There is a useful amount of space back there, especially since the spare tire is attached to the outside of the tailgate, but anyone who needs mucho cargo space may need to find the cash for a mid-sized SUV. This is one of only two areas where the Grand Cherokee had an advantage in my mind.

On the Road

The true test will be one the road. The Cherokee was fairly rough, the Wrangler even rougher. Since most people buying compact SUVs want a car-like feel, that just won’t do. After all, that’s why Jeep didn’t just go ahead and build the Dakar. (I do wish they’d at least kept the name, though.)

Here the Liberty surprised me. The steering, throttle, and handling of Jeeps have tended to have a slow reacting, loose feel to them. Supposedly this was because overly sharp reactions harm off-road performance, where you sometimes want just a touch more speed or just the slighting movement to the side. Well, Jeep has finally caved to the needs of most SUV buyers. The Liberty is the first Jeep with rack-and-pinion steering and an independent front suspension. And that’s just the spec sheet. On the road, the Liberty’s steering, handling, and overall controls have a firm, precise feel to them. I vastly preferred this to the Grand Cherokee. But then I’m a die-hard car buyer.

Actually, I felt the Liberty drove better overall than any other conventional SUV I’ve driven, including some that are far more expensive. It feels much more solid and substantial than the new Ford Explorer. The steering is much firmer and responsive than that in the new GM mid-sized triplets, including the Chevrolet TrailBlazer. Noise levels and overall refinement are up there with those GM SUVs and the Toyota Sequoia. Like those vehicles, its ride has the luxurious, liquid yet controlled feel pioneered by Lexus. This even though the Liberty I drove had Eagle SR-A off-road tires. Suffice it to say that the level of refinement is light-years better than that of the noisy Ford Escape. Though this is still a tall vehicle with a moderate amount of roll in corners, and I wouldn’t think of taking turns fast in it, the Liberty simply felt great on the road.

This is quite an achievement, because aside from the changes to the steering and suspension this is still a real Jeep. Unlike its competition, the Liberty is not based on front-wheel-drive car parts. The engine is mounted north-south and, with four-wheel-drive, ties into a real transfer case. In two-wheel-drive form, the rears are the ones driven. The suspension and body have been designed so that ground clearance and the various angles (approach, breakover, departure) are very off-road friendly, I suspect easily best in this class. A limited slip rear different is available, adding to the Liberty’s off-road capability. So if you want to go off-road, I suspect you can. Just beware of the quicker responses!

Two four-wheel-drive systems are offered, one part-time (not for use on dry pavement) and a $395 more expensive system for full-time use. The vehicle I drove had the former, so I kept it in two-wheel-drive. If I were buying a Liberty, I’d think seriously about spending the extra for the full-time system. Even then the Liberty lacks the “auto” setting common in the competition, where the second axle is only engaged, and then automatically, when the first pair of tires slips. On the up-side, there is a low-range option in four-wheel-drive, a serious off-road feature not found elsewhere in this class.

Alas, all is not excellent with the Liberty. That refined feel combined with true off-road capability comes with a price attached: like the similarly refined new GM mid-sized SUVs, the Liberty weighs quite a bit more than its competitors. A quarter ton or so heavier than a Ford Escape, which in turn weighs more than the Honda and Toyota. Where this hurts is acceleration and fuel economy. Though a class-leading 210 horsepower, 3.7 liter six (based on the Grand Cherokee's eight) is available, and was installed in the vehicle I drove, this engine provides just adequate power for a two-ton vehicle. Around town this fairly large six feels torquey, but when pushed, say beyond half throttle, it goes soft. If you really want some muscle, I suggest tracking down one with a stick. Especially if you prefer a stick, like I do. You might have to special order such a vehicle, though, because dealers might only stock the automatic. Perhaps they’ll offer the eight from the Grand Cherokee in the future? That would be one great SUV. A supercharger attached to the six would also work nicely. Still, I suspect Jeep will offer neither option, since if they did there would be very little reason (no reason at all?) to spend the extra eight grand or so for that model. Perhaps the aftermarket will offer a supercharger? At any rate, forget about the base four-cylinder.

Since the Liberty weighs nearly as much as the average mid-sized SUV, it has fuel economy to match. If you regularly want to see fuel economy out of the teens, you should probably shop elsewhere. A shame, since the rest of the vehicle is so good.

For a similarly-sized, truck-based but more luxury-oriented SUV from Korea, check out the Kia Sorento.


For quick, up-to-date new car pricing, and especially user-specified price comparisons, check out the website I created: www.truedelta.com. Why yet another vehicle pricing website? Well, I personally lacked the patience to keep using the others. They were too slow and required too much effort, especially when trying to compare prices. So I taught myself some programming and created a site where there is no need to dig through option packages, prerequisites, and the like one by one -- the TrueDelta algorithm figures these out for you in one swift pass.

Last Words

This was a surprisingly good vehicle. Not only does the exterior and interior styling have a great deal of character and the true off-road capability expected of a Jeep, but it seats four comfortably and possesses the ride and handling of a much more expensive vehicle. All this, and it’s affordable. The vehicle I drove listed for $23,600. Go absolutely insane and check all the boxes on the Limited’s order sheet and the sticker is still under $29,000. The only thing holding the Liberty back, figuratively and literally, is its weight. Forget fuel economy! Let the Grand Cherokee fend for itself! Bring on the eight!

To learn more about my reliability research and sign up to participate in it, or to perform thorough, up-to-date new car price comparisons, visit www.truedelta.com. A link to this website and alphabetized links to my other vehicle reviews can be found on my profile page.
Amount Paid (US$): 23000
Model Year: 2002
Model and Options: Sport six auto 4WD
Product Rating: 4.0
Recommended: Yes 
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