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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
Gas Mileage:
(city/highway EPA)


2.4 four-cylinder, manual transmission: 21/26 2WD, 20/24 4WD
3.7 V6, five-speed automatic: 17/22 (18/22 with manual)
Diesel: estimated at 21/27 with five-speed automatic


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.

Tire Motor vehicle Nature Mode of transport Automotive tire
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.

Motor vehicle Mode of transport Transport Red White
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.

Product White Grey Silver Baggage
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.

The Liberty isn't given 100% biodiesel at the factory
because, Chrysler's Max Gates told us, the fuel is still uncommon and
not standardized in the US. "We are working with standards writing
groups to develop standards for B20 - 20 percent biodiesel - so that we
can endorse use of that fuel...B100 [100% biodiesel] - while it may be
used by a few selective individuals - is not really productive at this
point, since there are not enough supplies of the fuel to provide for
much of the nation's diesel fleet. Better to mix that fuel with
conventional diesel and stretch its benefits across more of the
country."

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).

More information on biodiesel is available here. Specs on this engine are here.

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.

Engine Automotive fuel system Automotive engine part Fuel line Nut
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.

Photograph Technology Machine Auto part Automotive engine part


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.

Motor vehicle Automotive tail & brake light Mode of transport Automotive parking light Automotive lighting
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.

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.

Links

  1. Main Jeep Liberty page
  2. Details and specifications on the 2005 Liberty
  3. An engineer's view of the history of the Jeep Liberty
  4. Editorials on the Jeep Liberty including comparisons to the Cherokee.
  5. Jeep Cherokee/Liberty forum
  6. Comparison of Liberty to 2001 Isuzu Rodeo Sport


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