This review covers two different 2008 Jeep Liberty models - one with and one without the magical canvas SkySlider™ roof. Both models were the Limited, with classy two-tone leather seats and a variety of options.
The Jeep Liberty sells against the cute-utes, but it's an off-roader, not a cute-ute, and as such it has a few tradeoffs that car-based “cutes” don't have, as heavier duty components had to be specified. The first Liberty was also a real off-road vehicle, unlike many Fords carrying more than a few skid plates and a massive marketing campaign; but it's “girly” soft corners and circular headlights (presumably chosen to match the Wrangler) may have led some to the wrong impression. The current model goes back to Cherokee-square styling while mimicking Land Rover lines, with oversized “circle-in-square” headlights.
Our Limited edition included generous use of chrome accents, including classy chrome rings around each of the four gauges (in the usual layout of big speedo/tach, smaller temp/fuel), dull chrome pillars around the center stack, shiny chrome around the shifter and on the knob, and large inlays on the door along with chrome door-handles. That and the judicious use of a two-tone interior made the Limited seem much more upscale than in the past; while the blocky shapes and edges kept the rough-and-tough theme presented by the exterior. The two-tone leather seats were also quite attractive, giving the Liberty more of a luxury look than a Jeep should probably have. Countering that was the black exterior door-handles using antiquated push-buttons, in character on the Wrangler and an affectation on the Liberty.
Rear seating was not cramped; if there had been more underseat foot room (that is, if the front seat had been higher or empty underneath), it would have been generous, though getting in and out through the oddly shaped door was tricky. Seats were a bit firm but not uncomfortable; we were happier with the front seats, which were average in comfort, but could live in the back seat for a while. The dull chrome accents continued in back, as well, and headroom was generous in both front and back. The steep-rising windshield allowed the Jeep people to avoid having a massive expanse of dusty plastic above the dashboard; and the interior generally seemed airy, light, and spacious, even without the big canvas sunroof.
The cargo bay was fairly large, tall, and rectangular, a convenient size especially if outfitted with a cargo net; a nice feature was a waterproof, rubber-lined panel on the underside of a carpeted insert, which could be flipped over if wet things needed to be stored, or removed completely for more cargo space. The rear seats were split (2/3) and either side or both can fold flat. The front passenger seat can also fold flat, a nice feature.
Storage areas included a two-part center console (though the shallow top had to be removed to get to the deep bottom part), a sunglass area on top of the center console, a small bin between the front seats, the usual cupholders, and a small bin that folds out of the left part of the dashboard, Toyota-style; the glove compartment had some room in it if the owner's manual was shoved into a map pocket, as ours was. The odd cargo bay door of the past generation has been replaced by a standard hatch-type door that swings up.
Our test cars had the trip computer, operated by four buttons on the steering wheel where the cruise control used to be before moving to a convenient, Toyota/Denso style mini-stalk on the right. (The left stalk has the headlights and dimmer while the right stalk handles front and rear windshield wipers.) It let us set numerous preferences (locking, lights, pushing the seat back, etc.) easily, provided us with our gas mileage and range, and, almost as a bonus, provided the compass heading and outside temperature. The display is right under the speedometer where it's easy to see, and visible to the passenger as well.
Controls generally worked well and felt good; we are happy to see that Chrysler has standardized on the clever three-knob vent system, with chrome knobs around black buttons, in this case providing thermostatic climate control with an easy dial that doesn't require the driver to take their eyes off the road for minor changes. The automatic fan speed and vent settings are separate, so you can specify one but not the other (or both, or neither) if you like; and the fan was a bit noisy at high speed, but by no means excessively so. Heat came up fairly quickly and was scalding hot, in the Jeep tradition.
The four wheel drive system is now a big, simple three-way switch with a chrome accent, a far easier arrangement than the old stick/switch; the automatic transmission shifter is the only real weak point, with no way to specify overdrive-off (third gear). A new tow/haul button made its appearance for those who care to test the 5,000 pound towing capacity of the Jeep.
The transmission is a four-speed automatic, shifting smoothly yet reacting quickly when needed; downshifts were fast and cushioned, if firm, while upshifts, cushioned with torque management, felt luxury-car smooth. The transmission was nearly always in the right gear, and downshifted readily when needed to maintain speed on inclines or when passing. Thanks to the torque of the designed-for-trucks V6, the Jeep felt almost like a luxury car on smooth roads, with the transmission shifting ever so nicely and the engine providing good torque and throwing in the horsepower for quick acceleration.
Getting onto the highway was no problem at all, and the issues we had with the prior model's power loss on entering a new gear seem to have been completely resolved. Those who want a more powerful engine can go with the Dodge Nitro, which has better onroad characteristics (at the cost of offroad prowess), along with the sporty four liter V6/five speed automatic combination. The Liberty probably would have been even better with that six speed - especially with its nice low first gear -
but we suspect the factory that makes those automatics is capacity constrained, and the four speed is cheaper to make, which means the Liberty can have a lower price.
Gas mileage is par for the course, when the course includes “real” SUVs - 15 city, which you'll be lucky to get, and 21 highway, with four wheel drive (the 4-liter Nitro 4x4 gets 15/20); a stick shift will raise gas mileage by 1 mpg, as will eschewing four wheel drive for simple rear wheel drive. Regardless, that's lower than many of the cute-utes with all wheel drive, which is something to consider when (or if) you think about how you'll actually use the vehicle; it's also lower than the surprisingly-versatile Patriot, which manages 21/24 with four wheel drive and an automatic (CVT), 22/27 with a stick-shift, and 23/28 with a stick-shift and front wheel drive. If you're looking for something to deal with rain and snow, there may well be better choices - choices which were intended for rain and snow rather than mud and boulders.
The ride was comfortable on smooth and standard roads, on the firm-but-cushioned side on bad roads, with few actual shocks transmitted; over very bad surfaces or big pot-holes, there could be sudden drops or bumps with quickly-damped bouncing. Noise was never an issue, surprising for a car with such a square shape; the engine, tires, and windows were all surprisingly quiet, with mild whispers of wind from the passenger side when at speed. The Liberty, shaped like a brick, turned out to be surprisingly aerodynamic, or very, very well insulated. The only flaw turned out to come from the canvas top on our second model, which let through quite a bit of wind noise from the roof area (with the roof open or closed) - not quite as much as a convertible but more than a standard hard-roofed car, or a car with a standard sunroof.
The SkySlider™ top deserves some discussion, especially since we have all these photos. It normally sits up top, above the metal roof, seemingly an aerodynamic nightmare, but apparently not affecting gas mileage much. At highway speeds it generates some noise, as one might expect. Pressing a button just once opens it all the way; it folds as it opens (as with a convertible, this should be done from a stop, and the button won't work if you're at speed). Covering the roof again is similarly simple, as it slowly draws itself closed, then makes a final stretch so the roof looks almost normal from inside.
The effect is much like having a convertible, except that the opening is above and behind the driver's head, so you don't see the outside world so much as you sense it; and of course the sun shines right into the vehicle, undiminished. Driving with the top open is similar to driving a convertible with the windows up and the top down, with similar noise and a bit less wind hitting the back of the neck. Put the heat up and you can drive with the top open on cold days, too. The top is better insulated than ordinary convertible tops, and lets in considerably less outside noise when it's closed. There is probably considerably less to go wrong, too.
The stereo in our first Jeep had excellent sound; despite the subwoofer (in addition to its eight speakers), it did not have muddy bass and did not make talk radio unbearable. The system was easy to use, and in our case included satellite radio, using an easy interface (to be fair, we had the $400 Premium Sound Group, which also included a six-disc CD changer, UConnect cell phone helper, and automatic dimming rear-view mirror - the latter makes us not recommend this group). Controls mounted on the back of the steering wheel made it easy to change the radio station, volume, mode, or preset. We tried out the voice command system and it worked remarkably well; with the push of a button we could consistently order the system to a particular station (by preset number or by frequency, not call letters), to a mode (FM, satellite, etc.), or, if we had a phone, we could have made it dial the phone for us. It's not a deal-breaking capability but when you're driving, you don't always want to hunt for a radio station. Also, it keeps kids entertained for five minutes.
Our second Liberty had the inevitable MyGIG system, a $1,550 option including a navigation system, UConnect™, hard drive for music storage, satellite traffic, touch-screen display, and satellite-radio capability. It can be fed from CDs (it labels songs and artists using a built-in database), DVDs, and the USB port (assuming you have the right equipment), and with the premium sound package in our vehicle, had excellent sound. Copying a CD takes a few minutes, and is easy to do even for the true novice. Choosing CDs is done from a pushbutton interface, using a touch-screen - not necessarily something we want drivers to do on the road, but easy for a passenger to manage (or to do from a traffic light). It's much more distracting than the old mechanical-button stereo, but better than trying to deal with an iPod or some competing systems. Likewise, the direct-dial feature for radio stations can be a real time-saver but requires a lot of eyes-off-the-road. Everything worked very well except for satellite radio, which was a little more prone to dropouts than usual, and took a bit of time to switch stations compared with some competing systems. Getting to bass and treble controls took more work and required more eyes-off-the-road time than it should have; adding another knob and allowing those functions to be controlled by the normal “push and twist” method would help.
Our test vehicle also had a navigation system and UConnect built in; UConnect uses the owner's Bluetooth-enabled cell phone with the car's speakers and microphone, and allows voice dialing, albeit after pressing a couple of buttons (one real, one touch-screen). The navigation system was fairly speedy and had a 3D mode; the touch-screen controls made it a bit easier to use than usual. Some options seem to have been well hidden, such as the volume of the navigation voice, but on the whole it was one of the better systems.
Standard on our test car were safety features including side curtain airbags, Command-Trac part-time four wheel drive, electronic stability control, four-wheel antilock disc brakes, all-speed traction control, rear defroster, rear wiper, and alarm. Standard off-road features included hill-start assist and hill descent control; while conveniences included cruise, air, power windows and locks, six-way power driver's seat, CD/MP3 player, Infinity sound system with 8 speakers and a subwoofer, universal garage door opener, stain-free fabric, leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls, vehicle information center, tire pressure monitor, tonneau cover, and carpeted floor mats (an odd choice for a Jeep). Durability was aided by a transmission oil cooler and 600-amp battery. All that comes in at a hefty $26,775 (the base Liberty is of course much lower) - but wait, there's more.
Our test vehicles both had option packages that boosted the price into Grand Cherokee turf. The first ran to $31,000 and included the premium sound group; $225 worth of rather nice red paint; an upgrade to full-time four wheel drive at $445; a power sunroof at $850 (and why didn't Jeep provide the big fancy new roof? we don't know); and the big guns, the Customer Preferred Package 28F. At a whopping $2,300, this included a driver lumbar adjust, sixway power driver seat and two-way power passenger seat, leather, heated front seats, automatic temperature control, air filter, power memory, automatic headlamps, bigger tires and wheels, a remote starter, and rear parking assist.
The second Liberty topped the first one, running to $32,900, with the 28F group ($2,300) mentioned above; trailer towing at around $400; various skid plates at $225; active full-time four wheel drive at $445; MyGIG at $1,550; and the SkySlider system at $1,200. Compared with similar SkySlider-equipped vehicles, the Liberty is a bargain - but at the time of writing the only other vehicle to have it was a Hummer, and compared with Hummers, any Jeep is a bargain.
Compared with convertibles, the Liberty doesn't do badly, either. A base model Chrysler Sebring - one of the more affordable, and better, convertibles - lists at $26,515. Get the base V6, and you're already at $29,290, without four wheel drive or MyGIG or skid plates.
For those who never go off-road, the Liberty is overkill. It's heavier than cute-utes and similarly sized crossovers, and because of that, it eats fuel like a Wrangler. A serious, heavy-duty four wheel drive system with appropriately placed skid plates tends to be much heavier than a performance-based all wheel drive system. On the other hand, of the vehicles that can deal with nasty conditions on and off road, the Liberty has one of the best balances of price, comfort, and capability out there.
Yes, you can get a vehicle that Car & Driver finds more attractive, but we think you'll like the Liberty.
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