"It's a great looking, nice driving, useful, and compact SUV."
Good: decent handling, cushy interior, stylish looks
Bad: trouser-splitting climb into vehicle, limited space

 

The 2002 model Liberty is Jeep's new, smaller sport utility vehicle and is being introduced as the eventual replacement for the old barbaric Cherokee. Jeep will keep selling the Cherokee for another year or so, or as long as people are willing to buy it. The Liberty is slightly larger and more rugged than other SUVs built on car platforms, such as the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4. Its true competitors are vehicles like the Ford Escape, Mazda Tribute, the new Land Rover Freelander, and Nissan Xterra. The Liberty is actually built for off-road travel, which is, after all, what people expect from Jeep. It comes in two versions: a base, Sport edition with a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine and a Cars.com target price of $17,500, and a Limited edition, with a 3.7-liter V6, for about $22,100. (The larger engine is also available as an option on the Liberty Sport.) The six-cylinder Liberty can be had in two-wheel drive, or with Jeep's Command-Trac all-wheel drive, which allows the driver to switch between all-wheel drive and the traditional, fulltime four-wheel drive. We drove the Limited edition Liberty.


Driving Experience

Many manufacturers have chosen not to make their SUVs capable of sustained off-road travel because (A) most people never really use it, and (B) the required heavy-duty suspensions make for a rougher ride and poorer handling.

And, sure enough, the Liberty has some of that same side-to-side jiggle that you feel when driving the Grand Cherokee. It's definitely not as bad, but it's there at slow speed on bumpy roads. Considering it was built for true off-road travel, though, we thought the Liberty had decent handling, felt tight, and was pretty nice to drive. It certainly could serve as your daily driver.

 

We had the opportunity to take the Liberty on a road trip to Vermont. The 210-horsepower, 3.7-liter V6 did well enough getting us up Vermont's hills. We're less certain that the four-cylinder version would do as well, however, since it uses the same 150-horsepower engine found in the none-too-racy PT Cruiser. If you're thinking about buying a Liberty, we'd suggest spending the extra dollars and getting the V6.

Interior

Adventure awaits you from the moment you enter the Liberty -- that is, if nearly splitting your inseam qualifies as adventure. The copious amount of ground clearance required to make this a true, off-road vehicle also makes for a potentially trouser-splitting climb into the Liberty.


 

Inside, seats are comfortable... almost cushy. The interior is stylish and sort of upscale, with modern, cool looking brushed aluminum accents here and there. Chrome surrounds the instruments, adding to the retro look. Switches and controls have a high quality feel to them. Even the bin between the seats, which in many cars is a flimsy piece of garbage, feels very solid and durable in the Liberty. Overall, we thought the Liberty had a very tastefully designed interior.

 

Space is pretty limited in the Liberty, especially in the back seat and the cargo area. Although, one nice feature of the cargo area is that it's easy to access from the outside. You can either lift up the rear window by itself, or open it and the side-opening tailgate.

 

Here's the good part: If you just pull the handle to swing open the tailgate, the rear window simultaneously pops open. It's a nice, thoughtful improvement over vehicles like the Honda CRV, which require you to open the rear window first before being allowed to open the gate. Good job, Jeep!

There aren't a whole lot of frills that come standard in the Liberty's Sport edition. You'll pay extra if you want air conditioning, cruise control, a tilt wheel, power windows, or power mirrors. All those options are standard on the Limited edition. Antilock brakes and side airbags are options on all models.


Ergonomics

Controls are generally where you would expect to find them, with one notable exception. The window switches are located between the front seats and that still seems counterintuitive to us. Otherwise, there are lots of controls on the stalks, where they're easy to find and use. Cruise-control buttons are on the steering wheel.There are two well-placed cup holders between the front seats, and three nice, simple dials for the ventilation system.


Styling {C}

Styling is a strong point. The first thing you'll notice is the front end, with its round, cool retro headlights and seven-bar grille echoing the earliest Jeeps -- you know, the ones that came with serial numbers stenciled on the side of the hood. In fact, the Liberty has a lot of that classic Jeep look -- retro and rugged. It's taller and less long than it appears in photographs. Lots of people came up to us and told us they loved the looks.


Reliability {C}

We've found Jeep's reliability record to be average to slightly below average. We would expect the Liberty to be about the same in terms of reliability. We'd recommend staying away from the 2.4-liter engine, however, which is a little small for a vehicle this heavy (between 3,500 to 4,000 pounds, depending on configuration). For details on Jeep's track record, you can check their ratings and owners' comments in our survey area.


Maintenance

The Liberty should be pretty straightforward to service. Your local independent garage should find the Liberty easy to service and repair.


Overall comments

Jeep has carved a niche for itself, as the builder of true off-road vehicles. The positive side of that for Jeep is that when people think of "off road," they think of Jeep. But the flip side is that Jeep is virtually obligated to make sure each of its vehicles has true, off-road capability; a capability that few people need, and one that forces sacrifices in the areas of ride, handling, and stability.

Most SUV drivers are interested in a high-seating position, rugged looks, and enough four-wheel-drive capability to get through the occasional snowy road. Many small SUVs are designed with those goals in mind, including the RAV4, the CR-V, the Subaru Forester, the Toyota Highlander, and even costlier vehicles such as the Acura MDX and the Lexus RX300. Because they'll never have to get their owners over fallen redwoods and across rain-swollen creeks, they can tune their suspensions for better ride and handling.

 

Jeep did a nice job with the Liberty. It's a great looking, nice driving, useful, and compact SUV. And if you really need, or want, off-road capability, the Liberty is a very nice vehicle. It's a definite improvement on previous Jeeps in the ride and handling department. But - realistically - if the nearest you're going to get to the great outdoors is when you accidentally back over your neighbor's rock garden, you may find other, more car-like vehicles easier to live with over the long haul.

[ Test Drive Notes Index ]