With its redesign of the Liberty, Jeep has taken what was one of the first cute-utes on the market and turned it into a macho off-roader. That transformation may have been well executed, but it leaves the Liberty in a strange place in Jeep's lineup. True offroad enthusiasts can get a Wrangler, while those looking for a smaller city ride can get a Patriot or Compass. Because of its minute differences in size and capability compared to other Jeeps, the Liberty is left the tiniest of voids to fill. After a week driving the new model, I think there's still plenty of room for improvement.
Over the past few years, Jeep has consistently designed vehicles in the vein of its beloved Cherokee of the 1980s — the large Commander and small Patriot both share that look. The Liberty once had some stylish, rounded design elements, but no more (see a side-by-side comparison with the 2007 model). The 2008 version is all box, to help achieve that Cherokee aura. The abrupt angles, however, don't recall the classic Cherokee so much as they do World War II-era Jeeps. It's a masculine appearance that may turn off the avid female buyers that made the original Liberty such a strong seller.
As the Chrysler Group, which owns Jeep, grew quickly on past successes, many of the interiors of its new models suffered. Cheap, bulky plastic dismally makes up most of the Liberty cabin, as it does in its sister vehicle, the Dodge Nitro.
There's no sense of richness to any of the materials save the seat fabric, which is sturdy and looks like it will hold up well over extended use. The least expensive Liberty starts at $20,330, and the 4x4 Limited model I tested started at $26,125. In that price range you can and should expect better interior execution. Other SUVs in this class, like the Mazda CX-7 and Toyota's FJ Cruiser, offer noticeably superior interior material quality at a similar price.
One other problem is that the old Liberty actually had a pretty progressive, high-quality interior for its day. My wife and I test-drove one a few years ago before ending up leasing a Grand Cherokee, and an hour into some errand-running with the new model she turned to me from the passenger seat and said, "the old Liberty was so much nicer." That's one of those easy and quick observations that can hurt buyer loyalty.
An extremely upright seating position might throw off buyers who are new to the Liberty, though the old one had a similar setup, as does the Wrangler. Think of how a bus driver sits and that's pretty much how you'll be positioned in the Liberty's driver's seat. I never felt totally comfortable in it. With the seat lowered all the way, I still felt like I was riding too high, despite having plenty of headroom. The seats were comfortable, though, and offered plenty of support. After a two-hour ride my back wasn't sore at all, which is unusual for me in non-luxury seats.
The optional Infinity stereo was lackluster. Besides poor sound clarity, there wasn't much power when turning up loud favorites. The stereo head unit also seemed glitchy; when I adjusted the bass or treble level, the display reverted to their previous setting or jumped to the radio tuner. Fiddling with the stereo is distracting enough — if it fights back, that's just more time your eyes are off the road.
Going & Stopping
The Liberty may have gotten all-new sheet metal and a different interior, but its engine is exactly the same. The 210-horsepower V-6 is completely adequate, especially at highway cruising speeds. It takes time to charge off the line, but you expect that in a 4,220-pound four-wheel-drive SUV. On inclines, you can take your foot off the brake without rolling backward or forward, which is helpful on road and off. Highway passing, which is one of the more important performance aspects, was adequate.
Braking was responsive — not grippy in the least and very intuitive. Brakes aren't normally a Jeep strong suit, but here they are definitely above-average.
Ride & Handling
Another big surprise was how nice the Liberty was in highway driving. I found the ride quite pleasant on long commutes, with little shimmying from road imperfections and little wind noise for such a boxy vehicle.
Around town is a different story. The offroad suspension will pitch the Liberty — and anyone inside — in all kinds of different directions when they hit a bump. Train tracks feel more like a rock-strewn canyon than a minor road imperfection.
The Liberty also suffers from the normal truck-based phenomenon of feeling like its going to tip over during sharp turns. This is one of those attributes that SUVs with a high center of gravity simply can't combat. What's the solution if you hate this? Buy a car-based crossover or SUV, like a Ford Edge. If you're a seasoned SUV buyer, however, and are used to the driving experience of a Jeep Grand Cherokee or Ford Explorer, the Liberty's dynamics won't come as a surprise. That said, Jeep could probably do a better job dialing down this handling attribute. It takes away a lot of driving confidence when you enter a curve on your local highway and have to let up on the gas more than you'd like to feel comfortable.
Jeep is probably betting a lot of buyers will get this Trail Rated Liberty for their offroad adventures. Those folks will be happy with the 8.1 inches of ground clearance and 17.7-foot turning radius. Approach and departure angles are rated at 29.0 and 32.1 degrees, respectively. That's great for the offroad crowd, but so many buyers of the old Liberty were people who liked its size and looks for city driving. They're likely to be confused when they see the Liberty nameplate on this vehicle.
When equipped with the optional towing package, any Liberty can tow 5,000 pounds, just like the outgoing model. Even though that's plenty for this class, I'm a bit surprised Jeep didn't try to bump this number up, seeing as the vehicle itself now appears to be aimed at outdoor enthusiasts.
Just looking at the rear cargo area of the Liberty, it sure doesn't look big. The Dodge Nitro seems more cavernous even though the two are nearly identical when you compare the numbers. The Liberty has 64.2 cubic feet of storage with the rear seats folded, 31.5 cubic feet with them in place. I guess looks really are deceiving; I did some light moving work with the Liberty and was able to fit a 27-inch Sony TV — the old-school tube kind — and a sizable TV stand in the back along with a number of bags and still had room to spare. The stand didn't even block rear visibility that much, despite the Liberty's relatively high load floor.
The rear seats fold flat with a simple pull of a strap, which is nice, but the tall, well-cushioned head restraints easily get stuck on the backs of the front seats as the backrest is lowered. Unless you drive closer to the wheel than I do (I'm 5-10), you'll have to adjust the front seats to fold the rear ones.
The cargo area also features a hidden storage compartment that's completely waterproof and about 4 inches deep. Theoretically you could put ice packs and soda cans in it for an outing, but even though it does have a drain, the mess might put people off that. Instead, it might be a good place for essentials like jumper cables and other necessities.
The Liberty comes standard with side curtain airbags that cover both rows of seats, but there isn't the added protection of side-impact airbags for the front seats. Stability control is also standard throughout the lineup, as is a rollover sensor.
A tire pressure monitoring system is standard, and I can attest that it works perfectly. I got a flat tire during my time with the Liberty that didn't blow out immediately, but lost air slowly over a period of time. The monitor beeped when the front right tire dropped below 30 psi, and I watched the number drop all the way to 19 psi before I got to a gas station to fill it up. After a few more miles it dipped again. After that, I pulled off the road and called roadside assistance to put on the full-size spare tire, which was nice to have onhand.
As of publication, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has not crash tested the Liberty.
Liberty in the Market
The Liberty is the right answer to a rarely asked question. While the market for street-friendly SUVs based on easy-riding, unibody designs is booming, the one for lower-mileage, rougher-riding offroad types like the Liberty is dwindling. The one vehicle bucking that trend is the hot Jeep Wrangler, which was redesigned last year. With so many buyers walking into Jeep showrooms opting for that vehicle, will they even look at the Liberty? Jeep better hope so, because a lot of former Liberty owners are likely to gravitate to the competitions' cute-utes once they've seen the newly brutish Liberty.
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Cars.com Expert Reviews
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