Jeep Liberty (Jeep Cherokee) car reviews
|Review Notes: 2002 Jeep Liberty Limited, 2003 Sport, 2005 Limited Diesel|
|Clearly Superior In:||Style, inside and out|
|Above Average In:||Comfort, refinement (V6), power, ease of use, off-road prowess|
|Needs Work In:||Gas mileage (par for the course, though)|
|Unusual Features:||Variety of four-wheel drive options; diesel engine available|
2.4 four-cylinder, manual transmission: 21/26 2WD, 20/24 4WD
The Jeep Liberty is a softer, gentler vehicle that feels more at home on the road, yet can still take the Rubicon trail and wear the brand's Trail Rated badge. The most controversial part of the Liberty's balance was the independent front suspension, which can be (and is) compatible with off-roading; and echoes the 1962 Jeep Wagoneer, the first off-road vehicle ever to have an independent front suspension. More questionable to some was the second-year suspension lowering, which hurt ground clearance but made on-road cornering better and improved the ride and entry height; for serious off-roaders, the Renegade model has higher ground clearance and other concessions to rocks, mud, streams, and dirt.
Perhaps the most groundbreaking aspect of the Jeep Liberty has been its strong reliability ratings; for decades, Jeeps and other off-roaders faired poorly in reliability surveys, with Jeep known for durability (resistance to shocks and abuse) but not long-term freedom from mechanical failures. (To be fair, many off-road-ready vehicles have had this issue - most quality surveys feature the Hummer H1 firmly at the bottom, followed in low-quality ranking by Land Rovers and Range Rovers.) But the Liberty has stuck firmly to the tops of the charts.
Another groundbreaking feature has just appeared in 2005 models: a diesel engine option, available on either Sport or Limited models, providing long life, long breaks between service, and the towing and torque of a V6 with better mileage than the four.
The Jeep Liberty is a tight little package with its two standard gasoline engines, too - an economical four-cylinder, coupled to a manual transmission, which provides decent gas mileage, and a powerful and smooth V6, coupled to an automatic.
Cornering on pavement is surprisingly good in the Sport, and not bad in the comfort-oriented Limited despite occasional and controllable tailswing. The optional all wheel drive is practical for wet weather, while the part time four wheel drive is good in snow, dirt, and heavy rain. A simple shifter makes changing modes easy in models with Command-Trac (part-time four wheel drive). We easily shifted between modes while driving, though two wheel drive generally has a better feel in acceleration and turning. Getting from normal rear wheel drive to part and full time four wheel drive was easy enough, but moving to low-gear four wheel drive and back required a bit of strength, determination, and, mostly, reading the manual to discover that you need to be in Drive.
Pushing the Jeep Liberty Sport in sharp turns tended to result in some noise and moderate understeeer, giving indications of being near the limits without crossing them. In short, the Liberty Sport behaves very well under hard cornering, providing good feedback without losing control. It should do whatever most people require of it in daily driving without causing accidents in sudden maneuvers. The Limited is a little looser, but still behaves well for an SUV - particularly a heavy, off-road-ready one.
The ride is well cushioned and smooth, though you feel road imperfections (cushioned) thanks to the off-road-ready suspension. It is unusually smooth for a real off-roader. The gas engines are so well insulated that it sometimes seems to be in the rear, since that's where you hear the exhaust (the Sport has a more prominent exhaust note, tuned to give a sense of power). There is less wind noise than we would expect.
The V6 engine is clearly spirited and wants to rev high, but the Liberty is not a lightweight - indeed, it tips the scales at roughly 800 pounds more than the similarly-sized Cherokee. The result is moderately poor gas mileage - the government estimates 17 city, 21 highway for the V6 - and good, but not great, acceleration with the automatic. Though the five-speed automatic is responsive, downshifting smoothly and easily as needed, the four-speed automatic seemed to be tuned for more spirited, enjoyable acceleration on demand (but lower performance in sustained sprints). Diesel engine acceleration is detailed in a special section at the end of this review.
The manual transmission provides better gas mileage and acceleration - the EPA gives it an extra mile per gallon in the city, but we suspect real life will provide more benefits. Indeed, an available manual transmission is the Liberty's main advantage over the Grand Cherokee. A diesel is available starting in 2005 models at an extra $1,800; this allows the best gas mileage of the three engines, despite being hooked up to an automatic, along with long oil-change intervals.
There is considerable headroom, even in back, and plenty of seating for four. Five will fit, with room for some luggage. Entry and exit is fairly easy, thanks to doors that open wide, and loading up the rear is convenient thanks to the Liberty's reasonable height. Indeed, the lowering of the body after the Liberty's first year helped not just in handling, but also in clambering in and out - you don't climb up, you just get in. For most people, it's a good height, and for off-roaders, Jeep sells the Liberty Renegade.
The rear seats are good for smaller people, but they aren't especially well padded, and they are fairly close to the ground, so regular or long-distance use by adults will not be appreciated. They can, however, be folded rather tightly to make room for more cargo.
The rear hatch is both clever and goofy (or, if you like, so clever it becomes goofy). As you pull the latch, the windows glass pops up; then you can open the door. If you open the latch too quickly, the rubber support hits the glass - but you almost have to do that on purpose, since the glass rises quickly. Pressing the rear hatch release on the key fob also pops the glass. The door itself swings open after you raise the glass. There are two sets of detents, for partial and for full opening. Unlike some cargo bay doors, this one swings all the way open - which is how we got the photos on the left.
Our 2005 model had a new organizing shelf built into the rear cargo area. It is easy to swing into place our into storage, and can easily be folded out as well. Normally it sits flat, hiding the contents of the cargo area; but unfold the three panels, and there are two handy compartments for groceries and such. The top can only hold up to 30 pounds (100 pounds when folded down), but it's easy to move into and out of place, and virtually doubles the grocery-bag capacity of the Liberty - a good thing given the small cargo area.
Visibility is good, and the spare tire is sensibly mounted so it does not interfere with the rear window.
Inside as well as outside, the Liberty is a styling triumph. Starting with a classy, 300M-like instrument panel, the Liberty combines innovative and unique styling with simple controls to make a usable, attractive package. Bits of chrome here and there, consistent with the Jeep image, make the Liberty unusual without being flashy or overdone - no TT-style overkill. The instrument panel is easy to read at a glance, but the use of a separate circle for each warning light is a bit odd. Differently textured materials for the center stack and other interior panes may raise some eyebrows. The de rigeur "passenger airbag off" lamp is cleverly situated off to the right, and stays off when the car is running and the passenger seat is empty.
Most of the controls are sensible and self-explanatory. The cruise control sits on the front of the steering wheel, while radio control buttons are on the back (on Limited models). The center-mounted shifter allows for manual selection of four gears: first and second are selected by the gearshift itself, while a button on the side shuts off overdrive. The four wheel drive system is controlled by a separate handle-like shifter, which can require some muscle to move into neutral and low-range four wheel drive. Most Liberty buyers will never use those settings, though some may, perhaps, drop into low gear for exceptionally bad winter weather.
Ventilation comes through modern round vents, though for some reason not the clever system used in the PT Cruiser. The control is needlessly old-fashioned, with the compressor control combined with the vent control. Our 2005 responded slowly to vent changes while at idle.
The optional Infinity stereo is much easier to handle, with sliders for bass and treble, and easily controlled knobs for balance and fade. As you move the sliders and knobs, a digital display shows where you are. It has excellent sound, too, with strong bass and clear stereo separation. CD and AM/FM modes are cycled using a single button, a more convenient setup than in past models. The Infinity stereo on our 2005 model had a cheaper but less satisfying setup with only one knob (for volume); audio was handled by pressing the Audio button repeatedly, and then pressing up/down buttons. It was hard to lower bass enough for talk radio (and it doesn't remember settings by station), but otherwise had good sound.
As with all modern Jeeps, one handy feature is the ability to view computer fault codes without a scanner. By pressing in the odometer reset button and then moving the key to RUN (not START), you can see what problems the computer has seen and stored in its memory, and also watch the gauges jump around and see the serial number. This can be a good way to keep your dealer or mechanic honest, and is a major troubleshooting tool for do-it-yourselfers. (See the repair section at www.ptcruizer.com for an explanation of what the codes mean.)
Our Limited model was fully loaded, with antilock brakes, leather seats, side airbags, and all sorts of other goodies. One of the nicer options, familiar to Chrysler owners for decades, was the overhead trip computer. It provided average and on-the-fly gas mileage, a compass and outside temperature, and distance-to-empty estimates. This was absent from the Sport, which could use a compass. Both have a door ajar readout in the odometer area, which reads "glass" when the glass section of the rear hatch is ajar.
A standard feature which families will appreciate is the LATCH system, which provides lower anchors for child seats as well as rear tether strap anchors. The anchors are unusually easy to use, and, unlike some competitors, do not require the straps to cross the cargo area.
As with most SUVs, cargo space can be increased by folding one or both of the rear seats forward. As the seat back goes down, the seat bottom moves forward.
Smaller cargo can go into the center console, which has space for eight CDs, into a slot in the center stack, the dual cupholder (which holds sunglasses nicely), or the front map pockets. The glove compartment has little space, and will probably be used to house the wheel lock key.
The Jeep Liberty has more refinement for the price than any of its competitors, a smooth V-6 and efficient straight-four, a choice of five-speed automatic or six-speed stick, and Jeep's well-deserved reputation for off-road prowess. Given this, the Liberty can be a bargain even before the standard copious rebates. Our Sport, for example, listed at $19,170 (in 2003) with the strong V6, automatic transmission, and part-time four wheel drive. That includes rear defroster and wipers, folding rear seat, and six-speaker cassette stereo. A huge number of options, including air, power locks, windows, and mirrors, keyless remote entry, lighting package, trailer towing, off-road package with trac-lok differential, ABS, full-time four wheel drive, cruise control, and a six-disc CD changer, raised the price of our test vehicle to just under $25,000. Current incentives and bargaining could knock that down to $20,000.
Our Limited models were somewhat less of a bargain, with the 2005 model starting at a hefty $25,000 - that makes a dent, even with thousands in rebates. Replacing the V6 with a long-lived diesel engine added under $2,000, while making the Liberty more unique and economical.
The diesel engine option
Diesels are available on every Jeep model sold in Europe, from Wrangler to Grand Cherokee, but in America cheap gas and cheap cars, combined with troublesome and smoke-belching 1970s Mercedes and GM diesels, made the efficient but more expensive engines fairly rare outside of one-ton pickup trucks.
Diesel engines are common in Europe because they offer higher gas mileage and greater longevity; in a continent where people tend to keep their cars longer, and where fuel is more expensive, these factors offset the higher initial price. So does their lower maintenance (oil changes every 12,500 miles, for example), and their terrific torque at low engine speeds, which is handy in city traffic. Their roughly-20% lower carbon dioxide emissions are handy, too.
As an added factor in their favor, diesels can run on "grown and distilled" fuel - that is, biodiesel, which is a fluid with diesel-like properties made by distilling almond oil, soy, or various garden wastes. Biodiesel is grown naturally, does not require lots of outside energy for distillation (as alcohol and hydrogen do), and, when spilled, is generally not toxic. People can actually grow their own biodiesel fuel; Chrysler uses a 5% bio fuel ("B5," see sidebar) for Libertys as they leave the factories, but research has shown that pure biodiesel can be run in Cummins turbodiesels (used in Ram trucks) with no harm, and we suspect Libertys can run it equally well. (Pure biodiesel is fairly rare at commercial filling stations, even in Europe, but common in Germany, where it qualifies for tax breaks. As the EU phases in renewable-fuel laws, the proportion of bio to petrodiesel will increase.) Thus, diesels can actually be the most environmentally and socially friendly engines: they can preserve open space by helping farmers to stay in business, divert revenues from terror-supporting nations and businesses, and, because the fuel can be produced locally with very little energy input, producing and distributing biodiesel requires less fuel (oil brought in from the Middle East must be shipped by boat and refined - both steps require quite a bit of fuel).
The diesel Liberty is only $1,860 more than the standard, equally-equipped model, but many of the first run of 3,000 vehicles (assembled in Europe using American bodies and engines - go figure) use the pricey Limited model for their base, leading to a sticker price of at least $27,000 - our test car, with many other options, went just over $30,000. (At the time we wrote this, all Libertys had a $1,750 rebate which we are not including). The Liberty Sport is a better buy, in our opinion, with a good number of creature comforts and better cornering at a lower price.
The engine itself is a Detroit Diesel / VM Motori model, which is quite reputable, and a good choice over the Mercedes engine that one would normally expect to find under the hood. It's been proven in European Jeeps.
Like most diesels, the VM likes to be warm - it operates without spark plugs, relying on pressure to ignite the fuel. We tested it under rather adverse conditions, with weather reaching a high of 32 degrees Farenheit during our drives, and reaching a low of 7 degrees. The engine always started, but it was very noisy for a few minutes, making a pronounced diesel noise complete with clanking, gradually quieting down over time; and power was very low for the first minute or two. On warmer days (32 degrees), the engine quieted down much more quickly and didn't make quite as much noise at first; it also wasn't as sluggish. Gas mileage was horrendous for about the first 15 minutes, and shot up rapidly once the engine was fully warm. This isn't the best choice for someone who makes lots of short trips around Newfoundland. Estimated mileage for this engine, under EPA testing conditions, is better than that of the V6 (with automatic) by 4 mpg city, 6 mpg highway - that is, 21/27. The four-cylinder manual, in contrast, is rated at 20 mpg city, 24 highway, with a six-speed manual transmission. The Kia Sorento, by other contrast, is rated at 16 city, 22 highway with V6 and automatic; the Ford Freestyle, which we wouldn't take offroad, is at 19 city, 24 highway.
The Liberty seemed to be very good at conserving its warmth; it took almost no time to reach normal operating temperature, including roasting heat from the vents, after it had been left in freezing cold for three hours.
We were surprised and gratified, that even at a meager 7 degrees Farenheit, the Jeep started right up with only a couple of seconds on glow plugs. In "normal" weather - 20 degrees Farenheit - the Jeep started up with nothing more than a turn of the key and three or four cranks. That's a far cry from past diesels, which required a fairly long time on glow plugs even in warm weather.
Our Liberty was unmistakeably diesel-powered; the familiar uneven clanky diesel sound was present, but not annoying or intrusive at idle. The idle noise is only a little louder than a standard gasoline engine, but different in character - very familiar to any European, for whom small diesels are commonplace. Jeep did probably make a mistake in having the CRD initials on the back to denote this option, though; few Americans know what CRD means (common rail diesel), and many, on seeing and hearing this Liberty pass by, must have thought something was wrong with the engine. We'd certainly have spelled out the whole word "Diesel" on the back and on the sides, to explain the noise, surprise people at the fast startups and total lack of smoke, and provide bragging rights to the owners.
Once warm, the diesel provided plenty of power right off idle, mostly in the form of torque. The tachometer was cleverly set up so the redline was in the usual place on the dial, though the engine itself only goes up to 4,300 rpm (standard engines tend to go up to 6,000 rpm). Any light touch of the throttle immediately sent the tach from 750 rpm to about 1,500 rpm, and the vehicle moved shortly after. We were rather surprised by this and initially blamed the normally-responsive automatic, but an inquiry to Chrysler resulted in this brief note: "Until the turbo kicks in (1500 to 1800 RPM) the diesel engine has excellent torque but limited acceleration." It takes a while to get used to this.
Flooring the gas from idle brought a small delay, then a sudden boost of power and a quick shove forward. Normal acceleration requires just a slight touch of the throttle, and the Liberty turned out to be a very responsive city car.
Highway acceleration is another story, due more to the "under 1500 rpm" issue (turbo lag) than to the engine. The Liberty gets up to highway speeds quickly enough, with fairly large gaps between the gears due to the low (around 4,000 rpm) redline. We suspect the six-speed manual transmission would be ideal with the diesel engine, but that combination isn't available. Perhaps if the diesel sells very well, it will be.
Once on the highway, the Liberty can't accelerate at 55 mph without downshifting, which causes both delay and noise. Again, the normally pleasant and responsive 545RFE automatic ends up feeling loose and inefficient. At 65 mph, the engine comes back into its power band, and acceleration is quick, requiring only a light touch of the throttle. Engine noise is moderately high at these speeds, but not especially unpleasant.
When in the right gear, the Liberty responds in a satisfying way to light throttle - as one would expect with a torque of 295 lb-feet that peaks at 1,800 rpm (idle is 750 rpm). This torque is actually greater than that of the 4.7 liter V8, and almost as high as the Hemi V8; the V6 tops out at 235 lb-ft. That helps the Liberty diesel to tow up to 5,000 pounds, and it probably does so with greater ease than the V6. However, horsepower is barely above that of the four-cylinder, (160 vs 150), which results in less than stellar sprint numbers. (The V6 has 210 horsepower).
Overall, the diesel is an interesting package. We suggest that you consider the kind of driving you'll do before ordering it, and think about whether you can make or buy biodiesel fuel for it as well. Though gas mileage is substantially better than most similar SUVs, a similarly sized car or a bigger minivan will meet or beat the diesel's gas mileage with ease. If you're only willing to get an SUV, it's an economical, environmentally friendly option - and it'll get more economical the longer you own it, as the longevity of the diesel pays off.
If you're interested learning more about the mechanics of this engine, we suggest you visit DetroitDiesel.com and download the brochure by clicking on Products, then selecting Automotive > Brochures.
Why it is a “Liberty”
Back in the 1980s, AMC had just redesigned the Cherokee. It was considerably larger and more expensive. Management realized there was room for both the old and new versions - the engineering on the old Cherokee had been paid for; thus, they simply renamed the replacement, creating the Grand Cherokee.
That scheme was repeated for a time as Cherokee sales swung upwards during the Liberty launch. The Liberty name may have been part of an attempt to keep the Cherokee going a few more years, still filling a niche as the "real" SUV, but the older, boxier Jeep was eliminated - because it would have become the sole user of many components, and Daimler was (and is) on a cost-cutting, parts-reducing drive. The Liberty is sold as the Cherokee outside of the United States, where the old Cherokee was never considered as a viable addition.