Here's something that might surprise you: Jeep's midsize SUV, the Liberty, is less refined than the Jeep Wrangler, America's pre-eminent symbol of rugged, go-anywhere capability.
While the Wrangler has evolved along with other off-road-capable SUVs, the 2012 Jeep Liberty stirs memories of a bygone era when SUVs were brash, loud and thirsty — and that was just fine.
That may still be fine for Jeep enthusiasts, but the wider car-buying public is increasingly interested in car-based crossovers. The Liberty has little to offer these shoppers, and its throwback ways grated on a number of Cars.com editors.
The 2012 Liberty starts at $23,360 with rear-wheel drive. The model we drove, a Sport with part-time four-wheel drive and other options, had an as-tested price of $27,110. Liberty competitors include the Nissan Xterra, Suzuki Grand Vitara and Toyota FJ Cruiser; see them compared side-by-side.
Styling & Access
It's pretty easy to pick out a Jeep from a crowd of cars, and the Liberty is no exception. Jeep adopted a boxier design for the 2008 model year that has carried through to the 2012 version. The flat, seven-slot grille is trademark Jeep (the design really has been trademarked), appearing on all current Jeep models. Flared fenders give the Liberty some definition, but the boxy look is typical SUV.
Jeep's truck-based architecture — dubbed Uniframe — contributes to the Liberty's appearance and stance, but it also affects ease of entry and cargo loading. You have to step up to get into the driver's seat, and that applies to taller drivers, too (I'm 6-foot-1). More concerning, though, is the hip-high cargo area liftover height, which will make loading heavy or bulky items more difficult. There's a standard shallow storage bin under the cargo floor, but it exacerbates the liftover issue by making the cargo floor higher than it would otherwise be.
Once you've made the climb into the driver's seat, you're treated to one of the SUV's most appealing qualities: great forward visibility. A tall ride height and seating position combine to make for unobstructed views, which is a big deal for some car shoppers.
The standard cloth front bucket seats have long cushions that provide good thigh support, but the backrest cushioning is a little lumpy and doesn't conform to your back.
The Liberty's tight backseat is another reason why we're seeing fewer truck-based SUVs on the road: They're not that space-efficient. The Liberty isn't a small SUV, but the backseat feels cramped; my knees were pressed against the back of the front seat. The 60/40-split backrest reclines, but small door openings make getting in and out of the backseat a demonstration of your flexibility — or lack thereof.
Disappointing Interior Quality
Chrysler has been busily improving the appearance of its vehicle interiors, and models like the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Ram 1500 now have competitive cabin quality. The attention hasn't been equally divided, though, and the Liberty carries on with a terribly subpar interior.
At a time when automakers are improving the level of perceived quality in their cars and trucks, the Liberty's interior lacks niceties like padded trim pieces and two-tone designs. The result is an industrial-looking space with lots of hard plastic where you might want to rest your arm. Overall, there's very little regard for aesthetics.
While aesthetic level is low, functionality is high. Three large knobs provide all the climate controls. The stereo is refreshingly simple to use, with a handy knob for tuning radio stations — something all radios used to have but which has become rarer. The simple, familiar interfaces show there's something to be said for sticking with a time-tested design.
Power & Gas Mileage
The Liberty delivers good off-the-line acceleration in city driving. This is accompanied by a growl that I found an endearing reminder of the big V-6 under the hood, but which another editor thought just made the SUV too loud.
The drivetrain loses its appeal on the highway, where it doesn't have much power in reserve for high-speed passing. The standard four-speed automatic transmission — an increasingly rare design — is quick to kick down, but its limited number of gears means engine rpm can jump way up in the process, making for a lot of noise and minimal acceleration. The modest gear count also makes the V-6 lug a little when cruising at around 50 mph.
In terms of gas mileage, truck-based SUVs are at a disadvantage compared with similarly sized crossovers, as is the case here: The rear-wheel-drive Liberty gets an EPA-estimated 16/22 mpg city/highway, while four-wheel-drive versions are rated 15/21 mpg. All-wheel-drive crossovers like the Ford Edge and Nissan Murano are rated 18/25 mpg and 18/23 mpg, respectively. Jeep has begun to incorporate five- and six-speed automatics into other models, and the change has improved their mileage and performance.
Ride & Handling
The Liberty's suspension yields a range of responses on dry roads. On broken pavement, the ride is rough and you're jostled around. Over dips and rises, though, the Liberty seems to float comfortably. Corners induce body roll, and hitting the brakes makes the nose dip.
As the driver, you feel mostly removed from what's happening where the tires meet the road. It feels like there's play in the steering system, and feedback is nonexistent. It's a not-so-subtle reminder that the Liberty is engineered to tackle challenging off-road terrain — even if most customers don't explore that capability.
Liberty crash tests have produced some concerning results.
In Insurance Institute for Highway Safety tests, the Liberty received the best score, Good, in the frontal-offset and roof-strength tests, but got a Marginal rating in the side impact, which IIHS says translates to a likelihood of rib fractures or internal injuries for the driver.
In National Highway Traffic Safety Administration crash tests, the Liberty scored three stars out of five overall and two stars in the frontal crash. Though the Liberty earned four stars in the aggregate side-impact tests, it got a sobering one-star rating in the side pole test. That mark was accompanied by a Safety Concern because of significant intrusion into the passenger compartment, leading to a high acceleration reading on the crash-test dummy's lower spine.
The Liberty's rollover rating is three stars, a score more commonly associated with heavy-duty and/or off-road SUVs. Crossovers overwhelmingly score four stars, indicating a lower likelihood of rollover.
For a full list of safety features, check out the Features & Specs page.
Liberty in the Market
As one of the last traditional midsize SUVs, the Jeep Liberty is a member of a dwindling club. While some of its brethren have left the market altogether, others have been reborn as car-based crossovers.
It remains to be seen what direction Jeep takes the Liberty with its next redesign, which is due in the not-too-distant future, but the automaker's own Grand Cherokee would be worth emulating. That SUV delivers credible off-road performance along with composed on-road driving manners. It's a formula that would make the Liberty appealing to Jeep purists and regular car shoppers alike.
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