2002 Jeep Liberty Review

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The Car Connection Expert Review

John Pearley Huffman John Pearley Huffman Editor
May 7, 2001

With President Ford's golden retriever long dead, the name "Liberty" was available for the taking. So Jeep has put it on what amounts to, in terms of relative "newness," as the most all-new vehicle in its history. Everything in this trucklet, from structure, suspension, and drivetrain to the plant in Toledo, Ohio, where it's built is either new or at least new to Jeep, and the whole is a huge advance on the Cherokee it replaces.

Being better than the Cherokee was a pretty low hurdle to clear. After all, that pioneering SUV entered production as a 1984 model (when Renault still owned AMC and, hence, Jeep) and only cursorily updated throughout its production. By 2001 (hell, by 1991) it was archaic and outclassed by the competition in terms of refinement and efficiency.

Still while familiarity breeds contempt, no vehicle stays in production for 18 years if it doesn't have something compelling in its favor. And for the Cherokee that was an authentically Jeep off-road ability and everyday practicality.

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The question about the four-door Liberty isn't whether it's better than the Cherokee it replaces, but if it can walk the same fine line that machine did between a rugged heritage and the lives most buyers really live.

Jeep in and out

2002 Jeep Liberty

2002 Jeep Liberty

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What's the favorite word in press releases from Jeep PR? Trademark. Oops, sorry, make that Jeep® PR. That obsession with preserving Jeep's image has led to a lawsuit with GM over the latest Hummer and to the Liberty's Jeepier-than-thou appearance.

Of course the Liberty was going to feature a grille with seven slats, but the Liberty goes further by grabbing styling cues from both the '97 Dakar and '98 Jeepster concepts. It's basically the Dakar's upright proportions wedded to the Jeepster's bug-eyed exaggeration of the Wrangler's nose. Except for fussiness on the hood between the headlight blisters and too-busy taillights, the design is remarkably attractive, contemporary and obviously Jeep. It's not just another SUV box -- it's its own unique box with really big fender bulges, and scant front and rear overhangs.

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Of the exterior details, among the nicest are the oversize door handles and fluted side-view mirrors. While the headlights appear to be round from many angles, they are in fact slightly ovoid compound units. Base Liberty "Sport" models get fender flares and trim in black plastic, while the upmarket Liberty Limited (which also happens to be pretty much the definition of parole) is finished monochromatically.

Under the skin rests Jeep's third generation of "uniframe" vehicles following the Cherokee and Grand Cherokee. Uniframe essentially means a pretty beefy unibody with elements of a traditional ladder frame welded into the structure. What results is the stiffest structure of any Jeep (Grand Cherokee included) and a solid platform upon which to mount the suspension. And it's  different for Jeep suspension.

The rear suspension is, no surprise, a solid axle on three links and coil springs. Up front is what's really different -- Jeep's first honest independent front suspension (the swing axles offered on early Wagoneers in the Sixties don't count). Built with thick cast-iron A-arms and coil springs over gas-charged shocks, the system looks rugged enough to withstand a direct artillery hit and yet offers a significant gain in on-road suppleness and responsiveness. In light off-roading it seems effective, but it will take the extreme antics of dedicated Jeep fanatics to determine if ultimate off-road prowess has been compromised.

That suspension is controlled by a new rack-and-pinion steering box (again a Jeep first) that is both precise and demanding of much more effort than the typical over-boosted Jeep system. Braking is handled by front discs and rear drums with ABS optional.

A much better runner

While the Liberty's structure and suspension represent real progress for Jeep, it's the new V-6 engine that will power most of them that impresses most of all.

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2002 Jeep Liberty

2002 Jeep Liberty

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Base power for the cheapest Liberty comes from a version of the 2.4-liter, DOHC, 16-valve four Chrysler mounts transversely in its Chrysler Sebring and Dodge Stratus front-drive sedans. It may be the first multi-valve engine offered in a Jeep, but producing just 150 horsepower and 165 pound-feet of torque, it strains to contend with the lightest, two-wheel drive Liberty's 3648 pounds of heft. At least at the start of production, all four-cylinder Liberty models will be stirred by five-speed manual transmissions.

At least until gas hits $4.00 per gallon, the vast majority of Libertys will leave Toledo with the 3.7-liter V-6 under their hoods. A truly new engine which shares elements of its reciprocating assembly and some critical dimensions with the 4.7-liter SOHC V-8 used in the Grand Cherokee, the 90-degree, iron-block, aluminum-head SOHC V-6 is smoothed by both a split-journal crankshaft and a centrally-mounted counter-rotating balance shaft. DCX has big plans for this engine, as it also becomes the standard powerplant in the 2002 full-size Dodge Ram pickup.

In the Liberty the 3.7-liter is rated at 210 horsepower and a healthy 235 lb-ft of peak torque at 4000 rpm. That's particularly good in light of the two-valve combustion chambers, a forgiving 9.1:1 compression ratio and the lack of trick variable valve timing schemes. Compared to, say, the Acura MDX's 3.5-liter, DOHC, 24-valve VTEC-equipped V-6 which belts out 240 horsepower and 245 lb-ft of twist, the Liberty's V-6 may not seem initially impressive. But it's at least as smooth as the Acura motor and it sits in a vehicle with a sticker price at least $10,000 cheaper.

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While a manual transmission will be offered with the V-6 eventually, for now the only gearbox is the 45RFE split second gear four-speed automatic which was first seen in the Grand Cherokee. It's a perfectly acceptable transmission that integrates well with either the part-time Command Trac dual-range transfer case or the full-time Selec Trac system. Disappointingly, no manual shifting feature such as Chrysler's AutoStick is offered.

What North America doesn't get (despite the fact that all Liberty production, including right-hand-drive models, will come from Toledo) is the 2.6-liter, turbodiesel four in which the rest of the world should revel. While the diesel's 140 horses might seem modest, the promise of its 253 lb-ft of torque and exceptional fuel mileage makes it a tantalizing prospect in this summer of escalating gas prices. All that low-end grunt should make it the best of the three engines for crawling off-road, too.

Big where it counts

The Liberty has the exterior looks SUV buyers crave, but it's the interior that does most of the work for families and urbanites.

With its 104.3-inch wheelbase, the Liberty is up 2.9 inches in that dimension over the Cherokee and at 174.4 inches of overall length, it has a 6.9-inch edge there. But where the space advantage is most obvious is in height -- at 73.2 inches the Liberty is a significant 9.2 inches taller than the SUV it replaces and the passengers all sit bolt upright to take advantage of it. Add to that,  the spare tire mounts externally to the swing-out rear tailgate on all Libertys and the interior room available is exceptionally useful.

But it's not always the easiest to get into. The front doors open expansively enough, but the rear doors are cut over the rear wheelwells dramatically and that leaves the room for entry foreshortened. And though it's nice that the spare isn't crowding the interior, it'll be tough for a smaller person to reach across that tire to put groceries in through the open rear glass (and unpleasant for many of us larger people).

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The interior design itself is spectacular. The dash features vents that mimic the headlight shapes, a hooded binnacle under which sits big easy-to-read beige-faced instruments, and a center section containing the audio and ventilation system controls. It's good in the Sport, but particularly handsome when finished in the Limited Edition's "satin chrome" faux metal trim. There's a lot of plastic in the interior, but it's all better grained, better finished and more attractively assembled than in any other Jeep -- and most other Chrysler products.

Complementing the dash are seats that aren't lavish, but supportive enough and a nicely detailed steering wheel with redundant audio controls and scads of tie-downs, pockets, cupholders and flotsam catchers. There are SUVs with more interior room, and SUVs with more lavish luxury appointments, but there are no SUVs with a more elegantly designed interior at any price.

With prices starting just south of $18,000 and mainstream V-6 4x4s going out the door at about $23,000, the Liberty is priced to compete against small SUVs like the Ford Escape, Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V. But all those are car-based machines that don't offer, for instance, a low-range transfer case option while the Liberty is equipped for true off-roading. The Liberty doesn't just have SUV appearance but real off-road ability.

If the new Toledo plant can produce quality to match the design, the Liberty stands a chance of matching the Cherokee for length of production life.

2002 Jeep Liberty
Base price:
$ 17,035 (Sport 2WD); $21,795 (Limited 2WD)
Engines: 210-hp 3.7-liter V-6, 2.4-liter in-line four-cylinder
Transmissions: Five-speed manual, four-speed automatic
Wheelbase: 104.3 in
Length: 174.7 in
Width: 71.6 in
Height: 70.7 in
Curb weight: 3692 - 3857 lb
Safety equipment: Front-seat inflatable restraint system; force-limiters on both front seat belts and a three-point belt for the middle rear seat; LATCH child-seat tethers and interior materials meet 2003 head-impact standards
Major standard features: AM/FM cassette radio with CD changer controls and six speakers
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles

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