Almost two years ago while taking a quick look at the PT Cruiser, I came across the 2002 Jeep Liberty in my dealerÕs showroom. At the time it was a new model, untested in the real world. I passed on it, opting for yet another Ford Explorer Sport. After fifteen unhappy months with my Explorer, I decided to take another look at the Liberty. I bought a Jeep Liberty Limited Edition 4x4 with the 3.7 liter engine and all the bells and whistles. So this review focuses very much on comparisons of the Liberty with other sport-utes, especially the Ford Explorer Sport and Ford Escape.
The Liberty looks like the factory had several thousand Wrangler front grilles left over and decided to build a new car with them. If you like that bug-eyed Wrangler look (I do), youÕll love the Liberty. It has that classic Jeep front end look that means business. This Jeep is a serious off-road contender (more so the Renegade edition) and the look conveys that. This is no Ņcute-ute;Ó itÕs a Ņbrute-ute,Ó just smaller. The front design of the Liberty allows a great view of the road. When I first drove the Liberty on the highway, I felt a certain sense of uneasiness. Then I realized the Ņproblem.Ó The LibertyÕs hood slopes downward a bit from the windshield. Since you still are sitting up pretty high, it gives a great sight line but makes for a certain sense of vulnerability, unprotected by that big honking truck-like hood on a Ford. But since the Liberty got five stars on the front impact test, I guess my uneasiness is misplaced. The back glass liftgate opens cleanly and even remotely, but the side-hinged gate can be a problem to open in urban areas where parking space is at a premium. The Ford top-hinged, lift up gate works better in that setting.
The Liberty is a relatively small SUV, but it doesnÕt feel that way inside. The interior is positively cavernous. Large amounts of glass give it an open feel and minimizes blind spots. I find the head room to be excellent (but IÕm only 5Õ3Ó). The Liberty has that utilitarian Jeep interior look jazzed up with some edgy brushed chrome accents. Especially when compared to the Escape which has a tacky, plastic appearance, the Jeep seems solid and even refined. ItÕs not plush, but it does convey a sense of quality and function. The controls are neatly clustered around the driver, using stalks for all light and wiper controls. The overhead console provides useful info (direction, temperature, trip mileage, miles to empty, average miles to the gallon, etc) in an easily accessible and understandable way. I know that many people have a problem with the location of the window switches; they are on a center console rather than on the window arm rest itself. But I love this arrangement and if you have kids and/or dogs it is a significant safety improvement. My dog would often lean on the side arm rest and stick her head out the window (children do it too). Occasionally, she would rest her paw on the window switch sending the window up or down and the dog scurrying for cover. In fact, 25 kids have been killed this way (see August 2003 Consumer Reports for discussion of switches and location)! The front seats are sorely lacking however and my butt hurts from the short, hard lower cushion. Rear seat head and leg room are also good, but still with short, hard lower cushions. The rear seats fold flat very easily in a 65/35 split arrangement that allows extra cargo while still having a passenger or two in the back.
ItÕs a pretty SUV, but the Jeep Liberty is made for tough work. I didnÕt buy it so much for off-road as for getting through tough New England winters. But so far, IÕve been off-road once with the Liberty (I hated getting it all dirty) but it acquitted itself very well. Changing gears from 2WD, 4 Part-Time, and 4 Full-Time is seamless. But it gets a bit harder getting it from 4 full-time into 4-Lo. Even after this past New England winter, I think I will have no worries with my Jeep Liberty. Still, you may well be paying for more than you need with the Liberty, if all you will ever do is drive around city and suburban roads. An Escape, CR-V or Rav-4 may be more your speed.
Two Tons of Fun
Although a little SUV, the Jeep Liberty is Ņtwo tons of fun.Ó With 210 hp that weight isnÕt as apparent as you might think in acceleration or handling but really shows in gas mileage which ranges 15-21 mpg. Gas mileage is particularly bad in stop and go city traffic. It is surprisingly nimble for such a heavy SUV and despite some significant body roll has a good solid feel in cornering. IÕd still be plenty careful about sudden turns at speeds over 30 though. It has excellent towing capacity as well, exceeding that of all the Ņcute-utes.Ó This is a great little SUV that neatly accommodates the rough and tumble of life on the trail as well as Home Depot, as well as a more upscale and plush night on the town. I feel if I sacrificed none of the function of a Jeep to get most of the comfort of a sedan.
The glove box is tiny and the interior is oddly shaped. ThereÕs no change/coin holder. Anti-lock brakes are standard on most SUVs at this price-point, but a hard-to-get option on the Liberty Š thatÕs just silly! And IÕm glad I donÕt go off-road too often because bouncing on those short, hard seats would be a misery.
Good Ideas from other SUVs
After 8 years of driving other SUVs, I have found a number of good ideas from other SUVs that the Liberty lacks. I hope Jeep will consider adding these to the Liberty. A driverÕs side keypad on the Explorer allows access to the car without the key. Identified as an active lot, this would be great for Jeep owners. Lock the keys in the car while you rock-climb, surf, etc and come back and punch in your code. Other neat ideas from other include puddle lamps that come on when the door is unlocked providing a view of the ground below the doors and autolamps that come on as it gets dark.
A New Classic?
I have always been impressed with the almost legendary reliability and versatility of Jeep vehicles but years ago when I went shopping for an SUV, I didn't find a Jeep that suited me. The Grand Cherokee was just too, too much, the Wrangler didn't suit the realities of urban life and the Cherokee's outmoded, boxy design and choppy ride seemed inappropriate as well. In this design, Jeep has come up with the perfect car to fit between the Grand Cherokee and the Wrangler. With four major models (Sport, Freedom, Renegade and Limited), the Liberty is capable of adapting to the needs of a broad spectrum of buyers. One mistake made with the Cherokee was that in its latter years, there were no major design improvements. I hope that Jeep will keep evolving the Liberty design and that it can become a new Jeep classic.
December 8, 2003
It is the day after one of the biggest snow storms ever to hit New England. 24" to 30" of snow. My car, parked on a city street, is covered in snow. But not just the snow that fell from the skies, it is the snow the plows pushed up against it . I start the car, crank up the heat, and get out to uncover the windshield, and back. I uncover the head and taillights (and license plate), and push the snow off the hood and top. I climb back in and pop it into 4Wheel Lo. Once in Reverse, then into Drive and I am off and running in 30 seconds. I LOVE MY JEEP LIBERTY!!
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