No one could have predicted the commercial success the brand name Jeep would enjoy decades after WWII. Jeep is essentially the father of all modern off-road vehicles and they were building Sport Utility Vehicles before the term "SUV" was ever even thought of. Nevertheless, past successes are not always enough to keep the car buying public interested in todays "what have you done for me lately?" world. Studebaker, Packard and Plymouth were innovators of their day, but today they are as irrelevant as a Connie Francis record at a Jr. High School dance party.
While the Jeep Wagoneer and later Grand Wagoneer where pre-runners to the modern SUV, it was the 1984 Jeep Cherokee that showed us what Jeep had up their collective sleeves. A capable off-road wagon, the Cherokee lacked what we would all (much later) come to expect in an SUVcar-like ride with lots of room inside. Sluggish acceleration, almost non-existent rear legroom and the highway manners of a Mack truck forced Jeep and parent company DaimlerChrysler to rethink the Cherokee. It was fine by 1984 standards, but in the era of 10 cup-holders, premium sound systems, electronic stability control and side curtain air bags, the Cherokee was a relic.
As a replacement to the rough-and-ready Cherokee, Jeep brought us the Liberty. A year after the Libertys introduction, Jeep is resurrecting the "Renegade" name first used in 1964 on a Wagoneer.
Enthusiasts will immediately associate the Renegade name with the brawny Jeep CJ and later Wrangler that last wore this name with pride in the 70s, 80s and 90s. The first of the new Renegades went on sale as 2002s, with production continuing into 2003.
Visually the new Renegade is in keeping with the old macho style. Bulging fenders with exposed bolts and special colors set the Liberty Renegade apart from other mid size SUVs. A roof-mounted light bar houses four halogen off-road lights and adds to the macho flair. Further enhancements to the Renegade are body colored, 16-inch wheels, white lettered tires and a two-tone front fascia. The styling cues all work well giving the Liberty Renegade an intentionally tough look - it looks like a Jeep.
Inside the Renegade, the theme is more utility than luxury. Thats OK because the Grand Cherokee is intended to carry the luxury torch for Jeep. Tasteful metallic surfaces combined with white face gauges and rugged looking surfaces earn Jeep extra praise for a cool looking, but still straightforward interior.
Opinions vary concerning the power window switches located on the center console. This European arrangement may be a cost cutting technique, or simply an effort to be cool. Either way, its not terrible once you get used to it. Frankly, Jeep deserves some credit for cost cutting, a loaded Liberty Renegade 4x4 with automatic transmission is priced well under $25,000. This is directly in line with pricing of other similar sized SUVs with the Liberty Renegade coming in with a slightly lower price than the Isuzu Rodeo, Ford Escape, Chevrolet Blazer and the slightly larger Nissan Xterra.
Rear seat legroom is adequate while front seats offer plenty of room in every direction. The front seats feel as if they are overstuffed, and it can be difficult to find a comfortable seating position.
Rear cargo capacity is adequate as well, offering 29 cubic feet with the rear seats folded up. Vehicles like the Honda CRV, Chevy Blazer, Ford Escape and Isuzu Rodeo offer slightly more space at around 33 cubic feet. The Liberty utilizes space very well, and it seems as if designers intentionally cut down rear cargo space to offer a bit more people room. The Land Rover Freelander does the same thing, and it is a wise move on the part of Jeep. Anyone whos ever been forced to ride in the back seat of a Cherokee knows that Jeep made the right choice by adding rear-seat legroom to the Liberty.
Bravo to the Liberty engineers who came up with near perfect tailgate arrangement. The Libertys rear cargo area is accessible from a "swing open" gate or "flip up" glass door. Many compact SUVs have just one, large and heavy, rear door that swings up. This type of door can be hard to open or close when hands are full of groceries or baby seats and the like. Also those SUVs that do offer a split cargo door usually have a rear glass "release" button on the key fob. This is a great idea but too often the "release" mechanism does little more than unlock the gate and the driver is then required to open the glass door manually. The Liberty has a glass door that opens all the way as soon as you press the remote release on the key fob. Then you can open the tailgate all the way if you choose. The rear tailgate swings open wide and allows easy access to the cargo area just behind the rear seats.
On the road the Libertys 210 hp, 3.7-liter V6 performs well. Its not excessively fast, but does offer better than average acceleration with a level of refinement that would befuddle owners of the Jeep 4.0-liter straight six. The cabin remains quiet during normal driving, but at full throttle the PowerTech V6 can be heard, and borders on intrusive. As with any off-road vehicle, torque is just as important as power and the Liberty delivers with 235 lb ft. The Blazer tops the Libertys torque rating with 250 lb ft, but most other mid size SUVs, including the big Xterra, offer less stump-pulling torque than the Liberty.
The Libertys road manners are not up to par with car-based SUVs like the Honda CRV or Hyundai Santa Fe, but ride quality and noise levels are FAR superior to other truck based SUVs like the rickety Xterra. While the Libertys on road character could not honestly be described as car-like, it does offer a level of serenity comparable to the more expensive Freelander.
Rough pavement does result in a fair amount of jostling, but handling feels tight and controlled. As with any SUV, the risk of rollover is much greater, but the Liberty feels stable even when taking corners at moderately high-speed. The Renegade version does suffer from a slight increase in wind noise because of the factory installed light bar.
Off-road, the Liberty shows its true colors conquering moderate terrain with ease. The light bar on the Renegade is actually useful. Not content to install "looks only" accessories, the factory installed light bar houses four Hella halogen lamps - these are functional, real world lights that effectively split the darkness when traveling far from civilization. Suspension soaks up most ruts and bumps, but the Liberty has a tendency to flip the tail up when moving over bigger dips and bumps at a brisk pace. Shift on the fly 4-wheel drive system is easy to use. 4-hi is a part time 4x4 system that shifts power to the wheels that need it. Short front and rear overhangs also work well off-road.
Fuel economy is 16 city, 20 highway. These low numbers are, most likely, due to the Libertys 2-ton weight. SUVs such as the Ford Escape offer 18/23 fuel economy, while the Xterra comes in at a dismal 15/19. The Liberty wont win any fuel sipping awards, but neither should it be maligned for its very middle of the SUV pack fuel consumption. With a large 18.5-gallon tank, the Liberty wont require many more stops at the local Texaco station than any other truck.
Overall, the Jeep Liberty Renegade offers a lot for the money in terms of on and off-road performance, and stylish good looks. The Renegade package is largely an improvement in appearance only, but the functional lights add real usability to an already versatile SUV. The Liberty excels in areas such as towing capacity, torque, and horsepower. Drawbacks are few, but certainly poor front seat comfort is worth mentioning.
The Liberty strikes a great balance between off-road ability and on-road comfort. However, those spoiled by car based SUVs from Honda and Toyota may find the Libertys ride a bit harsh. On the other hand, those trading in an old Wrangler or Cherokee will be thrilled with the Libertys comparatively Rolls-Royce like on-road manners. Although the Renegade package is primarily an appearance upgrade, the Liberty itself offers lots of rugged utility and should be considered primarily by those buyers who need its brand of strength and off-road ability - Oh, and also those who want to look really cool.
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