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2002-2004 Jeep Liberty (European Jeep Cherokee): Remake of a classic SUV

The first redesign of the Jeep Cherokee “XJ” ended up being more upscale than the original; and Chrysler, which had just taken over AMC, decided to keep the old Cherokee while making the new one the “Grand” Cherokee.

When the second redesign (“KJ”) was finished, Jeep originally thought it might keep the original Cherokee around, so it renamed it Liberty. Cherokee only stayed around for two more months, and then Liberty stood alone. [Liberty development opinion]

2004 jeep cherokee

At the time, we found the Jeep Liberty to be softer and gentler than the original XJ Cherokee; it felt more at home on the road. The second year, Jeep lowered the suspension, which hurt ground clearance but made on-road cornering better and improved the ride and entry height; for serious off-roaders, the later Renegade model had higher ground clearance and other concessions to rocks, mud, streams, and dirt. The primary reason for lowering the suspension was apparently to increase its stability in emergency tests.

Inside the Jeep Liberty2002 Jeep Liberty

The instrument panel used round dials cluster with black-on-beige graphics, with round air outlets and slow-reacting air ducts. The Limited Edition added satin chrome highlights and slate-and-taupe leather seats. Bottle holders for rear passengers were molded into the doors, while front seat backs had map pockets (Limited only). The base model was the Sport; until Renegade, those were the only two trim levels.

Jeep Liberty cargo bayA 65/35-split rear seat had one-handed folding operation, while shopping bag holders and child seat tether anchors were integrated into the back of the rear seats. The cargo floor had flush mounted cargo tie downs.

Like the XJ Cherokee, the Liberty's used a “uniframe” setup that had both unibody and subframe elements. More than 70 percent of the underbody was high-strength steel.

In some ways, the Liberty was a blazing success. Sales were strong, and while Cherokee tended to do poorly in quality surveys, Liberty had fewer mechnical failures, sticking near the tops of the charts on some surveys.

Our contemporary review said that cornering on pavement was surprisingly good, though the comfort-oriented Limited had occasional tailswing. The shifter made changing modes easy in models with four wheel drive, though getting to low gear was hard. Pushing the Jeep Liberty in sharp turns resulted in some noise and understeer, not surprising given the weight and smooth ride (compared with other off-roaderes of the time). The gas engines quiet and the wind noise was low.

Inside, we found considerable headroom in front and back, with room for some luggage and easy entry and exit. The slight lowering of the body after the first year helped handling and entry. The rear seats were not well padded and were close to the floor. As for the rear hatch, pulling the handle first popped the glass, then let the door open; if you opened the latch too quickly, the support hit the glass. A release on the key fob also popped the glass. There were two sets of detents, for partial and for full opening — truly full opening. The pictured shelf (right) showed up in 2005 and seems to have been brought over from the PT Cruiser.

Jeep Liberty drivetrain

Three “PowerTech” engines, all unrelated to each other, were used. The base 2.4 liter engine was a standard Chrysler four cylinder producing 150 hp. The 3.7 V6 was led by former AMC people and was related to the 4.7 V8. Finally, outside of North America, a VM 2.5-liter direct injection turbodiesel was sold, later replaced with a 2.8 diesel which finally made it to the US in 2005. We found the V6 to be “spirited,” but given the 800-pound weight gain from Cherokee, partly attributable to increased safety, fuel economy was 17/21 (the methods changed in 2008 so this was a relatively lax measure; that said, it matched the Toyota FJ Cruiser). Few bought the four-cylinder.

2005 Jeep Liberty

The base transmission was a five-speed manual until 2005, when it shifted to six speeds. The 42RLE four speed automatic was only used with the V6; any engine could have a smooth-shifting five-speed manual.

Two four wheel drive systems were sold, part-time (CommandTrac) and full time (NV242 SelecTrac). The normal 42RLE transmission required Chrysler ATF+4 fluid, and many transmission failures were caused by use of the wrong fluid. The diesel used the beefier Chrysler 545RFE five-speed automatic while the Limtied used a 45RFE (almost identical to the 545RFE). We found that the four speed seemed better tuned for fast kickdowns; the manual was rated 1 mpg better in the city, but likely did better in reality.

The NV3550 manual transmission was updated for Liberty with a reverse lockout from fourth gear, a quieter clutch disc, and longer, lower-rate damper springs to cut vibration.

Jeep Liberty diesel engine

Both 4x4 transfer cases included stronger main shafts to absorb higher torque peaks. A needle bearing on the shift mechanism reduced shift effort. With manual transmission-equipped vehicles, a rubber-isolated torsional damper on the transfer case output shaft cut noise. Off-road capabilities in low gear included calibrated vehicle crawl speeds and engine braking on grades.

By pressing in the odometer reset button and then moving the key to RUN (not START), owners could see what problems the computer has seen and stored in its memory, and also watch the gauges jump around and see the serial number.

As for cost — our Sport listed at $19,170 (in 2003) with the V6, automatic, and part-time four wheel drive. That includes rear defroster and wipers, folding rear seat, and six-speaker cassette stereo. Options which are now commonly standard, including air, power locks, windows, and mirrors, remote entry, lighting package, trailer towing, off-road package, locking differential, ABS, full-time four wheel drive, cruise control, and a CD changer, raised the price to $25,000.

Jeep’s independent front suspension

The most controversial aspect of the Liberty was the independent front suspension, with eight inches of travel. Cast iron lower and forged steel upper control arms, coupled to a cast iron steering knuckle via permanently lubricated ball joints, were a stable base; overall, it reduced the unsprung weight, allowing the wheels to track over bumps more easily and cutting wheel hop with four-wheel drive on soft or loose surfaces.

Dual-rate lower control arm bushings were used, with “rate plates” molded in for more lateral stiffness, while allowing longitudinal compliance to reduce the harshness of bumps.

A new aluminum housing had a revised Dana Model 30 center section. Larger pinion stem and bearing diameters and an increased ring gear diameter improved noise, vibration, and durability. The axle mounting to the engine cradle ws rubber-isolated.

car reviews

Concentric coil springs and shock absorbers were mounted above the upper control arms for protection from off-road hazards, and to allow a tight turning circle. They connected to the lower control arm via rubber isolated forks. A dual-path upper mount on the body structure had different rates for the coil spring and shock absorber; upper and lower spring seat cushions were used to cut noise and bumps. Computer selected springs maintained the desired ride frequency, vehicle height, and stance regardless of options.

As suspension engineer Ian Sharp wrote, while the 2-centimeter drop in ride height after two years was explained as improving road manners, it was a fix for a magazine test which forced the Liberty (or Cherokee, as it was called in Europe) to put two wheels up into the air and look as though it was about to flip over:

You could ... make the car go up on two wheels, if you first shaved off the shoulder of the tires by doing some very heavy understeer maneuvers and grinding off the edge of the tire to make it a lot more grip. That would then increase the actual force. You could corner it a lot higher or you could turn the car a lot quicker, and it would then flip it up, transfer the load to the rear and then flip it up on two wheels. But you had to put a certain amount of speed of input to the steering and also have the tires conditioned to the right way.

A normal customer wouldn’t ever drive their tires with the tires’ shoulders completely ground off... [but] when the cars were built, the spring code or the spring algorithm that selected the right spring [was set for] one centimeter higher than the ride height that I’d specified for it... which was enough to alter the roll centers, to give it a poor condition with the ground-off tires and all the other factors together. A German magazine got a hold of these cars and did this test because they knew about this... because of some work they did finding the moose test on a Mercedes.

2003 jeep cherokee

As for the European models, they were rather different:

One of the design guys said, “We’re thinking about putting an A-arm on top of the differential,” which means that’s where the roll center is, so it’ll have a fairly steep roll gradient to the front of the car — an independent front suspension on the car with a plunging roll center on the front and a fixed, high roll center on the rear. So you had a very large roll gradient.

I said, “That really doesn’t leave any ability to tune the vehicle to give a good handling. I think that’s a poor way to go. Don’t do it.” But they went and did it anyway.

So the [European Liberty, called “Cherokee”] had this A-arm on top of the differential that controlled the lateral location of the axle, but also gave it a very high rear roll center. Totally wrong thing to do. And then muggins here, a year or two later, had to go tune it.

Liberty was the first Jeep vehicle with rack and pinion steering.

Rear suspension

Liberty had a link-coil solid axle rear suspension, similar to Grand Cherokee. A trailing A-shaped upper arm, dual trailing lower arms, coil springs and a stabilizer bar controlled rear axle movement. The ride coil springs had less static and dynamic friction than leaf springs. With a roll center closer to the vehicle’s center of gravity, this set-up reduced body lean during cornering, but as Mr. Sharp said, though, “the rear roll center was way too high. They designed it with a roll center above the axle, and it gave Liberty a poor handling characteristic. So I tuned it as best I could and had to call it good.”

The A-arm’s box-section construction, tuned to provide extremely high stiffness, prevented transmission of axle and road noise. The A-arm attached to the axle through a single, lubricated-for-life ball joint atop of the rear axle differential housing.

Jeep Liberty suspensionJeep IFS

Box-section lower control arms contributed to precise axle location and good durability. Large, voided rubber bushings at the axle end of each control arm allowed axle recession to reduce bump harshness. Progressive-rate springs helped handling and ride and helped deal with heavy loads. Rubber upper and plastic lower spring seat isolators reduced noise in the passenger compartment. A linkless rear stabilizer bar bolted directly to the lower control arms eliminated a noise transmission path into the body structure.

Jeep Liberty manufacturing

TNAP sign

Chrysler's newest assembly facility, the Toledo (Ohio) North Assembly Plant (TNAP), follows the old Corporation's policy of “brownfield” construction which provides jobs where they are needed, while reducing minimal environmental impact (the reverse of most import companies, which prefer to build on farmland in rural areas). The plant is a showcase for best practices, employing at peak 1,900 employees to produce 800 units per day (two shifts).

welding the 2007 dodge nitro SUVPerformance feedback systems can halt production if quality criteria are not met; for example, if a bolt wasn’t tightened properly (measured by the computer-connected torque wrench), the station would shut down.

Suppliers were heavily integrated into the design of the production process and facility. As with Chrysler's Windsor plant, different types of vehicles can easily and cheaply be produced.

Safety - Jeep Liberty / Jeep Cherokee

Liberty brakes were heat-tested in the parched desert of Death Valley, California, and in the rush-hour traffic of Los Angeles. They gained larger, more robust rotors and drums, and greater cooling capacity for less brake fade and a longer brake-pad life.

An optional anti-lock braking system (ABS) included Electronic Brake Distribution (EBD), which distributed force between the front and rear axles, and could be used off-road, since it allowed for limited wheel lockup as needed, and limited false activation on bumpy surfaces, such as at railroad crossings and on gravel roads.

Other safety features included:

  • Engine cradle rear fasteners designed to give way in a severe frontal impact, to dissipate energy and divert it from the cabin.
  • Jeep’s first side air bag curtains (optional), which only deployed on the side required.
  • Underbody rails built with high-strength alloy steel to reduce intrusion into the cabin and help keep the fuel system intact.
  • High-strength steel body-side components and reinforcements to keep doors intact in an offset frontal impact.
  • The highest roof strength of any Jeep vehicle.
  • A reinforced rear gate opening to prevent cabin damage in a rear-end collision, including a rear cross-member beam to handle the load of the spare tire, using an ultra-high strength material (heat-strengthened and tempered).

Changes

The Renegade was launched midyear in 2002.

For 2003, The Renegade Premium model gained dual power leather seats, premium interior, and an overhead console. Four-wheel disc brakes and full-size spare matching wheel were standard on all models.

Finally, for 2004, the final year of this version, the Liberty gained new colors, rock rail protection and black bodyside molding on Renebade, a larger (19.5 gallon) fuel tank, new powertrain controller, optional cargo organizer, optional hands-free phone connection, passenger grab handle, and standard CD player. A program that shut off power to the fuel pump, unlocked the doors, and turned on the interior lights in an accident was added, airbags were tuned to match the front passenger’s weight, and tire pressure monitoring became optional except on Sport.

Success in retrospect

The “KJ” Liberty series sold better than the original Cherokee, likely due partly to the better on-road manners and modern amenities, and partly to the modern styling. However, sales started to plummet after 2006, falling below typical XJ sales.

kk jeep liberty

The 2008 update, dubbed “KK” and given “hard core” angular styling to appeal more to men, was a death blow; off-road performance reportedly suffered, and the looks were not appreciated any more than interior cost cuts. Worldwide sales fell below 50,000 for the first time in the series in 2009, though much of that may have been due to the 2008 economic crash followed by Chrysler’s bankruptcy. Production actually increased in 2012, though that was largely to give Jeep dealers something to sell until the new Cherokee was ready. Some dealers invested heavily in Libertys at that point, to last out the dry spell, but sales were low, in some cases aided by heavy discounting.

Note: the following chart does not include XJ Cherokees made in China by Beijing Jeep.

sales

Many owners found that the ball joints and bushings tended to wear out all too quickly; and anyone wanting to modify the suspension, as they could with an XJ, found it expensive if possible at all. Liberty also lost some usable cargo area (it gained in height but lost in length), and even then the spare tire was moved outside. Some mourned the old 4.0 liter engine; and some off-roaders regretted the loss of usable ground clearance (on rebound, the independent suspension would reduce effective ground clearance).

The Daimler demand for five-star safety ratings also led to a smaller interior overall, a larger exterior, and hundreds of pounds of extra weight.

What the Liberty could have been

I am one of those rabid Jeep fans that hates the KJ, because there was an opportunity to showcase a good independent front suspension (IFS), and the management blew it. Before it was introduced, I was a supporter of the car, because I knew what Chrysler had on the shelf (from the “King Of The Hill” prototype) and didn't think the management ignorant enough to not use it. All it would have cost was another $70 per vehicle (yes, that’s a lot, but I think the cost was justified—you don’t see new HMMWVs running around under $100,000 today and the KJ could have had that much mobility).

jeep rescue concept

The Rescue show car, using the Dodge Ram four-link over-constrained system, is a ray of hope and lust because of the air springs, long travel, AAM axles, and the possibility of an inexpensive (relatively speaking, of course) CTIS system. All of this wrapped in a basic (meaning simple construction) body that is free of frilly plastic and junk (obviously, I am discounting the wannabe lamps built into the roof rack).

Many off roaders forget (or never knew) is that Jeep, in 1962, invented the first independent front suspension (IFS) for an off road vehicle in the US [Wagoneer] and sold it as an option.

The suspension Evan Boberg talks about in his book started out as the 1962 Wagoneer suspension.

1963 jeep wagoneer

My disgust with the KJ comes from the half-hearted job done on the independent front suspension (IFS). I don't care what suspension is used, as long as it performs to the intended goals and parameters. Jeep had, on the shelf, a design that would make the currect suspension seem as antiquated as the Hotchkiss used on the CJs, when looked from a technical standpoint. Unfortunately, there are only about twenty people in toto that have driven this kind of suspension.

More on the Jeep Liberty

From 2002 to 2004, 75% of Jeep Liberty buyers were new to the Jeep brand.

  1. 2008-2012 Jeep Liberty
  2. 2005-2007 Jeep Liberty
  3. See the Jeep Liberty being built (factory tour)
  4. How the Jeep Liberty factory was designed
  5. Jeep Liberty Limited reviewJeep Liberty Renegade review
  6. Guest editorial: Liberty vs Cherokee.
  7. Liberty vs Isuzu Rodeo Sport

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