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Jeep Liberty and the Jeep Enthusiasts

by Paul Oss

As an owner of a 2004 Jeep Liberty, I would like to address the general debate in the Jeep community which contends that the Liberty model has betrayed the Jeep Heritage -as some have put it- and does not deserve the Jeep name. Let me first state that I am not what would be called a 'die hard' or 'hard core' Jeeper. I have not owned a large number of models, I have no particular entrenched bias and affection for the general line of Jeep vehicles-of any type. It is this lack of preconception which I think makes me qualified to make some unbiased sense of this debate.

The Liberty was introduced to the Jeep model lineup in 2002 with much fanfare and to scrutiny from the Jeep community. The Liberty was probably looked upon with some skepticism early on because of its appearance. A stock model simply looks like a 'cute yute.' There has been some comparison to the Rav4, even accusations that Chrysler was copying the Rav4 by producing the Liberty(1). Overall, there have been a bevy of complaints about the Liberty from the hard core jeep community, and almost all of the complaints stem from the highly controversial decision by Chrysler to abandon the solid front axle design of every other current Jeep model, and move to an independent front suspension, also referred to as an IFS.

As an observer, even before I was even fully aware of this departure by Chrysler, the complaint with IFS within the Jeep community cannot be understated. It seems, in fact, that regardless of any other technical complaints with the Liberty (of which there are several), all seem to stem from, or begin with, the use of IFS.

This is not to say all critiques of the Liberty are poorly founded, badly written, or without any merit. For the record, I must state that I do believe that, in the end, a solid front axle will take one more places in an off-road situation than an independent front suspension will as it allows for more vertical travel. However, I do not believe that this places the Liberty in a position of failure within the Jeep lineup. I believe that in the end, the choice of Chrysler to place IFS on the Liberty amounts to more of a subtle change in the overall vehicle ability. I believe the Liberty can arguably hold up to the Jeep Heritage for what the vehicle is by the sum of its parts, not by the singular issue of the IFS system.

I'd like to take a diversion by critiquing the very concept of Jeep Enthusiasm, and start by pointing out some faults within that community. It's clear upon even a cursory examination of the four-wheeler community, the Jeep name carries considerable weight, which it most likely deserves. Pick up any random '4 wheeler' publication, and the dominant vehicle is some version of what one would consider a 'traditional' Jeep-- either a CJ, TJ, YJ etc. Jeeps, in general, rule the trail. Pictures of 'extreme' four wheeling adventures fill the pages. Shots of highly articulated and extended suspensions abound on every page. In any photo shot of a rock-crawling event, the advantages of the traditional solid front axle Jeep are certainly hard to ignore.

Allpar note: NASCAR Chevrolets have nothing in common with any Chevy you can buy; for more on NASCAR, see our racing section.

What struck me after some time though, was the same thing that strikes one when scrutinizing stock car racing: When is the car no longer "stock"? Or, more accurately, when is a Chevrolet Monte Carlo no longer a Monte Carlo, once enough aftermarket, non-Chevrolet parts have been bolted and welded to the body and frame? While thematically it may be a Monte Carlo, it's not the same Monte Carlo that I drive off the lot at my local Chevy dealer. The same issue is apparent within much of the Jeep community.

A friend of mine who owned a 'traditional' jeep once referred to his vehicle as "a metal bucket with seats in it." He noted that the instruments were waterproof. After reading dozens of publications on four-wheeling, one can't help but notice how many of these 'Jeeps' are metal buckets with seats in them, but everything else on the vehicle resembles little of the stock Jeep one would drive off the lot at his local Jeep dealer. Most have aftermarket suspensions, many have aftermarket drive trains and axles, and a few don't even have a Jeep engine-some sport Dodge Hemis or other decidedly non-Jeep accoutrements. This does not offend me. What begins to grate on my nerves is when this same community ridicules the Liberty for a host of 'ills', most of which become increasingly vague after firing the first salvo against the IFS. Others have even created odd and difficult to pin-down categories of Jeep history, one called "Jeep Heritage," the other "Jeep Tradition." Others still will begin by complaining of features having nothing to do with IFS- suggesting that these obscure deficiencies (some in my opinion aren't deficiencies at all) also are the cause of the break with Jeep Heritage, but eventually, they still get around to complaining about IFS.

Some of these complaints might be legitimate when comparing the Liberty to a generalized market, but make little or no sense when using them as to buttress Liberty's lack of Jeep credetials overall. For example, "the Liberty is ugly" or "it has limited cargo capacity." While the first may be true depending on one's personal aesthetic (not mine), it has little bearing to the concept of "Jeep Heritage." The latter, while true by broad standards, also doesn't change the Liberty's value as an off-road vehicle. I, as a Liberty owner, sometimes find myself quietly grumbling at its limited cargo capacity, but I'm always quickly reminded as to what advatages the Liberty's generally small footprint afford -more on this later.

I approached the Liberty with no Jeep preconceptions, no real knowledge of Jeep Heritage or tradition, and certainly no specific thoughts on IFS or solid front axle. I had come to a place in my life where I had a family, we had two old cars of rapidly waning reliability, one a compact sports car with a standard shift, the other a small sedan. Now that we had a child, the two door sports car was quickly becoming an annoyance when trying to load a wriggling child into a car seat. We knew that we were in the market for something utilitarian-something we'd load kayaks on and go camping with. Over the year or two previous to this decision, I had started to strongly lean toward some type of SUV. Money was (and still is) an object, but I was highly skeptical of 'cute yutes', and various 'four wheel drive' vehicles which were basically cars with an SUV body and some sort of basic 4wd system slapped on. Looks and style were highly important.

Up to this moment in my life, SUVs had bored me. Most seemed dull and conservative. Some were humongous behemoths which were out of consideration from the beginning because we live in the rather densly populated city of Seattle where parking is a premium. Seattle has narrow streets, parallel parking is the order of the day, turning radius is king, and in the winter, slippery conditions with very steep hills are all too common. Any number of AWD family wagons would probably suffice in these conditions, but again, looks were a top priority, and I was beginning to become interested in being able to traverse significant terrain, not just navigate a dirt road or two. So 'crossover' vehicles were pretty much out.

Quality was always a big consideration because my wife and I drive a car until it can no longer be driven. We don't belong to the 'new car every five years' club. I expect my vehicle to last for fifteen to twenty years. Once our financial situation was rolled into the equation, there were really only a few choices. I knew that we were going to buy a 'lower end', and most likely compact SUV. By 'lower end', I mean in cost, not necessarily quality- if it could be helped. The first SUV to completely blow me away on sight was the now well known and popular Nissan XTerra. For the record, I still believe this to be the best looking SUV currently produced. In fact, I was so cock-sure I was going to buy an XTerra, I nearly quit considering everything else.

I spent all my free web-browsing time looking and researching XTerras. I read about the Xterra. I browsed them on dealer lots. I read reviews, looked at pictures and spent all of my car buying energies scheming on when I would buy one, much less if I would buy one.

Aside: In my opinion, the best-- no-- the coolest SUV ever produced in automotive history was the Isuzu Vehicross. But alas, it was a short lived production vehicle-- too niche oriented and too flawed to be widely popular. I still contend that had I been single, it would have been the truck I'd have purchased. Oh, and to this day I have little information as to how well it performs off-road.

During my XTerra obsession, a friend casually mentioned that this new Jeep Liberty was being introduced, and apparently it could cross the Rubicon trail... stock. While I found this interesting, I though the Jeep Liberty was, on appearance, a ho-hum vehicle and quickly shelved further thoughts of it. Over time, however, I had spent enough hours reading about the Xterra which started me worrying about some nagging complaints that both reviewers and owners were reporting. Yes, I had been smitten by the initial imagry of the XTerra-- the high intensity commercials with the consumate outdoorsman roaring through tough terrain in his slick, tough, but basic SUV. All this appealed to me. I wanted basic, I wanted tough, and it had to look good. But the deficiencies of the XTerra nagged at me. And these were reports from people who liked the vehicle. Deficiencies which included a weak engine (180hp), only a part-time 4wd system-- no full time low available, poor gas mileage (yes, something the Liberty suffers from but XTerras were rated lower than the Liberty), fairly expensive once any real options are added. Furthermore, the expense was even more significant because Japanese automakers weren't offering any financial incentives that could be found at many of the American lots.

In the end, the XTerra was looking more like a predominantly two wheel drive truck with a four wheel drive system tacked on in case of 'emergency.' I again started to widen my search for SUV options. The Liberty came back into view. While I wasn't overwhelmed with its looks, as I read its specifications, I was seeing subtle differences between it and other 4wd SUVs within its class. It simply had better numbers. Do numbers make the vehicle? No, but still, the Liberty was, albeit slowly, making its way to the forefront in my search. As I began to browse the web for all things Liberty, I was seeing something which differed markedly from its XTerra counterpart: people were actually four wheeling in these. And some people were doing some rather significant off-roading in barely modified Libertys. A lift kit here, new tires there, but overall, many were practically the same vehicle as I ultimately drove off the lot when I finally purchased mine in late 2004.

The Liberty's looks have grown on me. With a properly equipped model, they can even look tough. Put a rack on it, some fog lights, some good off-road tires- give it a 1"-2" lift, and now we're looking like what the XTerra looked like when I first saw it: A tough, basic vehicle that looks like it can go places where others can't.

Almost immediately after buying my Liberty, and still blissfully unaware of any Jeep Heritage controversy, I wanted to take it four-wheeling. Not rock-crawling, or mud bogging in water over the window frames, but I did want to get it on trails that a two wheel drive vehicle simply would not go. It didn't take long to find such places. Having no experience in four-wheeling, I played it (and still do) very cautiously. Initially I didn't put my Liberty into four wheel drive, because I wanted to see it fail in rear wheel drive, then succeed when put into four wheel drive. I wanted to see and feel the contrast. I wasn't disappointed. I quickly came across areas where the Liberty simply wouldn't climb or traverse when in two wheel drive. But a pull of the lever into part time 4wd, and it crawled right over the terrain. As one might guess, I started finding places where the vehicle was struggling or failing in part time 4wd, and so I yanked the lever further into the full time, low range 4wd and the truck crawled effortlessly over those obstacles.

Yes, I have found terrain that the Liberty wouldn't take, but this has been primarly because I'm still driving with my stock factory equipped street tires. I have never purchased off-roading or all-terrain tires. I won't until my street tires wear out. (See previous comments on money being an object). Now that I've owned the Liberty for over a year and a half, I have used the four wheel drive system far less than I want, but I'm glad I have it. I have used it out of necessity two or three times, whereas all other uses have been for recreation. In the times of necessity, it has never failed me. Not once. Which brings me to another issue...

Why do people buy four wheel drive vehicles and who are they? There seem to be several different types of people who purchase a four wheel drive SUV. The most common type are conversely the most baffling to me. They purchase an SUV, usually of the larger type-- the four wheel drive system on the truck being incidental to the reasons of their purchase. They need cargo room, they have a family, they like the looks of the vehicle, and are often mini-van averse. While I sympathize with the last issue, I find it odd that they never, in the life of their vehicle put it into 4wd mode (whatever mode is available on their model), even when it's probably needed. These, in my best assesment are the people you see stuck in the ditch when you're driving through snowy mountain passes to the ski slopes. I always felt that the worst possible vehicle related embarrassment in life would be to end up in a ditch, with a four wheel drive vehicle-- while in 2wd mode.

The next group of people (arguably the second most common group) buy a 4wd SUV consciously because of its 4wd capacity, taking a peace-of-mind view that it will save them if they ever find themselves in poor or tough conditions. Again, these vehicles are rarely placed into 4wd mode, except in 'emergencies'.

The last group (and rarest) buy a four wheel drive because they want to use it. They fully intend that, while driving it off the dealer's lot, it will be taken where no 2wd system will go. And a small percentage of them intend to take it where some 'normal' 4wd systems might not take them- so they want a vehicle that's not only 4wd, but one that sports a 4wd system with particular capabilities. This, finally, was where I was drawn to the Liberty after factoring in all the other things I mentioned previously: cost, looks, size/maneuverability, quality, etc.

This now brings me back to the debate about whether or not the Liberty is 'worthy' of Jeep Heritage, or the Jeep moniker. By trade, I'm a software engineer, so I am absolutely no stranger to raging debates about 'superior' systems- especially when being edged out by a newer system which I or my ilk percieve to be inferior. Debates can rage for years with emotions running remarkably high on subjects found mind numbingly obscure to people outside the profession. But wisdom and time have tought me something: When a debate of this type rages for a long period of time, it usually means that both sides have some merit.

I fully understand that to the 'hard-core' Jeeper-- to those that almost literally pray at the alter of the solid front axle-- there will be no convincing that the Liberty is a worthy member of the Jeep model lineup. But I'm not trying to preach to the unconvertible, I'm merely trying to take a fresh look at the debate, and make some points which I think have not yet been made succinctly. The Jeep Liberty is a highly capable off-road machine. I don't know what the ultimate limit is on my own vehicle because I come to the trail-head with some significant personal handicaps. For one, this is my primary family vehicle. I have no intention of putting it out of commission just to see how 'far' I can take it. I concur that some modifications would have to be made to do any 'real' rock-crawling- and as such, I don't have the money to spend on such modificatons. Also, damage to the vehicle (especially body related) in rock-crawling conditions are not only a likely reality, but pretty much a guarantee. I'm not interested in damaging body panels. Lastly, I mostly solo 4wd, meaning that if I get stuck-- really stuck- that's it. I better be in cell phone range of someone. So again, I tend to hold back.

The point I'm trying to make here is, that although I have remained conservative by extreme 'hard-core' rock crawling/off-roader definitions, I have taken my Jeep in places that have sobered many of my friends-- all in stock, 100% steet tires. Consequently, I feel that some of the 'cheap shot' comments made about the Liberty are by definition, completely unfounded, unwarranted and unfair. Many of the cheapest comments have come from people who often have never driven the vehicle- and claim they'd never take it off-road after snatching a four second glance under the front suspension and finding *gasp* IFS!!!

I think that too much ink has been spilled comparing apples to oranges. The Jeep Liberty is not a metal bucket with four seats in it. Chrysler has enough models to fill that role. Chrysler is in business to sell cars, and sell cars by covering several markets. As of this writing, Ford is learning the hard way that if you don't diversify your product line, you set yourself up to lose money-- and in Ford's case, a lot of money. Chrysler decided rightly or wrongly that it needed a compact SUV- but it had to stay true to the Jeep concept of good off-road ability. I believe that Chrysler has done just that. The Liberty is much like the Nissan ads for the XTerra that first caught my eye: "Everything you need, nothing you don't." This marketing tagline was speaking to people in my group. I wanted a basic, but tough SUV that I truly planned to use off-road. I didn't need 'luxury' touches that might get botched up with muddy boots, moisture, sand etc. I wanted a tough four wheel drive system that truly performed-- and I didn't have endless wads of cash. Ironically, it was the XTerra that failed this mark, not the Liberty. To quote a magazine review of the pre 2005 XTerra, "The Xterra is a passable product wrapped up in a great idea." I believe the Liberty is a very good product wrapped up in exactly the same great idea.

Finally, we come back to the the concept of Jeep Heritage. Does the Liberty fall within the concept of Jeep Heritage? Despite the amount of thought I've put into this, I'm not completely certain. If pressed, I would probably say that it does. But if the definition of Jeep Heritage is what so many hard-core Jeepers have implicitly, if not explicitly defined-- solid front axle-- then no, it's not a 'true' Jeep. But I believe that the Jeep Heritage is something more vague, but yet still tangible: A tough vehicle which, when driven off the dealer lot can go where few others can go. I stand by the Liberty's ability to do just this. And, for those who still religiously cling to the kind of "Jeep Heritage" that prompted this article, I say this: When you're driving a metal bucket with seats in it and a Jeep logo glued to the side where nothing else in the vehicle is original equipment, you're further from Jeep Heritage than the Liberty will ever be.

So let's try to keep it civil, and see where our Jeeps will take us. I may not be going where a super-modified solid front axle CJ with custom suspension, modified gear ratios and a transplanted Dodge Hemi will go, but I'm definitely going where no other SUV in the Liberty's class is going- and that's good enough for me.

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