The Jeep Liberty looks like one of those "cute utes," small, all-wheel-drive machines destined for no more demanding work than cruising the lot at the local mall - not to say that can't be an adventure.

It's a little bulbous looking, and the proportions are such that it looks much smaller than it really is. I still find it hard to wrap my mind around the fact that it's actually bigger than the Cherokee, which it has supplanted in the Jeep lineup. But it goes nearly 4,000 pounds in fighting trim, and stretches 174 inches, despite having a tidy 104-inch wheelbase.

You can make it less than a cute ute by ordering it with 2-wheel-drive and a four-cylinder engine (nuts, if you ask me - just get a station wagon and be done with it). At the other end of the spectrum, you can turn it into a wilderness-tamer par excellence by specifying either of two types of 4-wheel-drive mechanism and dropping a 3.7-liter V-6 under the hood.

To pump up the image and set it apart from the lightweights, DaimlerChrysler has created a Renegade version, borrowing the name from the all-conquering little brother, the Wrangler. This one is hard to miss, and it's quite a handsome machine, perhaps too pretty for the serious slogging of which it's capable.

I was given one to play with, equipped with the six, a five-speed manual transmission and part-time 4-wheel drive. As the glamour boy of the family, it comes well-equipped for its $23,695 base price. It has leather seating, air conditioning, power windows and automatic door locks with keyless entry, 6-speaker AM-FM-CD stereo, cruise control, 12-volt power taps, rear wiper and washer and bags of other little pleasantries, even unto dual lighted vanity mirrors.

Less obvious are the standard skid plates protecting the front suspension, transfer case and fuel tank, just in case someone should be so temerarious as to actually take it rock climbing.

There's nothing subtle about the exterior design features which denote the Renegade as something special. Start with the outsized plastic fender flares that are affixed with protruding stainless steel bolts. They are there to let the world know the driver goes through heavy mud and gravel, as well as to protect the paint from such missiles.

The two-tone front bumper and unique alloy wheels are just for show.

But the crowning glory of this package, literally, is the light bar and roof basket. Four halogen lamps are mounted atop the vehicle, in black housings. For one thing, they raise the apparent height from just under 6 feet to about 6-4. They also bespeak a tendency to adventure where lighting is scarce. Strictly for off-road use, they deliver 150,000 candlepower to light a mountain trail or, as Jeep suggests, to provide illumination for a night game of beach volleyball. My neighborhood has no lights and a lot of stupid deer; the blaze of illumination scared them away and had neighbors reaching for their Uzis.

The "wet basket" aft of the lights is quite similar to the one on the Nissan Xterra, but it doesn't obstruct the moonroof.

The Liberty is of unibody construction, which makes it more like a truck than a car, whose body is usually secured to a frame with lots of yielding substances in between. Jeep went the one-piece route for the solidity is supplies.

And indeed, the Liberty appeared quite rigid as it negotiated nasty terrain that should have evinced some twisting feel. There were no groans or rattles during this work.

Happily, the suspension engineering is such that the Liberty is still quite pleasant on paved surfaces, even the ones not so good as they ought to be. Minor disturbances are essentially ignored, and the major ones feel as if they've been beaten into submission. Jeep claims 8 inches of suspension travel; I found it not all that difficult to make it hit the jounce bumpers when taking whoop-de-dos a trifle fast. I suspect a serious off-roader would want to beef up this area, to the detriment of everyday ride quality.

Two engines are available on the Liberty, the six and a 2.4-liter, four-cylinder piece which might suffice for a 2WD version. It makes 150 hp at 5,200 rpm and 165 foot-pounds of torque at 4,000. For more serious work, though, the six is mandatory. It delivers 210 hp at 5,200 rpm along with 235 foot-pounds of torque at 4,000.

The curious thing about this powerplant is that, despite its overhead-valve construction, it has so little to give on the bottom end, by which I mean 2,500 rpm or less. If you try to accelerate from 2,000, you'll have a long wait before the wind whistles by. Once it gets past 3,000, though, it feels more like an overhead-cammer, quite eager to play tag with the electronically governed 6,000-rpm redline. Both it and the exhaust are perhaps excessively loud, although the intended audience might disagree.

At one point in the upper reaches of the rev range, the dash panels evinced some sympathetic vibration, which, along with the engine's raspy intake noises, was unpleasant. Jeep says regular unleaded suffices. EPA ratings are 16 mpg city, 22 highway with the 5-speed, 16/20 with the automatic. I got 17.7 with a bit of freeway work, a bit of quarry fun and a lot of country ambling.

The manual trans shifted well enough, with an easily modulated clutch. The tester was equipped with Jeep's Command-Trac part-time 4WD mechanism. It can only be invoked when the road or trail is slippery. Lacking a center differential, it might be better for serious trail thumping than the more versatile Selec-Trac, which can be used as 2WD or AWD or 4WD as conditions dictate. Both gear-changers have a low range and they share a 2.72:1 torque-multiplication factor. This is useful for crawling ever so slowly over logs and rocks or for descending a steep slope without using the brakes.

The Command-Trac I had went into and came out of 4WD almost instantly with no fuss from below. Low range, accessed by tugging the transfer-case lever back another notch while stopped in neutral, was similarly well-bred. Jeep has been doing this stuff for a long time. Instruments, such as they are, are very legible. Black Gothic type plays off an ecru background. They are unfortunately just four in number - on a seriously-oriented machine such as this, one would like to see oil pressure and temperature gauges, a transmission temperature gauge and perhaps an inclinometer to advise when one is taking a slope a bit too sideways.

With the towing package, the Lib can tow up to 3,500 pounds with the six and manual transmission, 5,000 with the automatic, Jeep says.

This year all Libertys have four-wheel disc brakes, a worthy addition which makes for a firmer pedal feel. Discs also shed water better than drums, in case the exploratory works includes fording.

The Liberty fared well in th e government crash tests, garnering a top mark (five stars) for occupant protection in a side impact, and four stars for co-pilot, five for pilot protection in a frontal 30-mph collision. When the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety upped the ante, crashing the Liberty into an offset barrier at 40 mph (nearly twice the kinetic energy), Liberty was rated only marginal. One thing that caused it to be marked down: the dummy driver's head went outside the vehicle when rebounding from the front air bag. The available side-curtain air bags for front and rear passenger compartments might be a good investment. Its bumpers landed it mid-pack in 5-mph bashings, running up a disgraceful repair bill of more than $6,000 in four incidents.

The tester was graced with some extras: A trailer tow group, $245; antilock for the 4-wheel disc brakes, $600; an overhead console with trip computer and universal garage door opener, $400; a traction-lock rear differential, $285; power heated mirrors with auto dimming for the driver's outside reflector and the rearview, $200; moonroof, $700, and 6-way power driver's seat, $300. With freight and package discount, the total was $26,535, a relative bargain in this class of midsize SUV. Payments on that one would be $538, assuming 20 percent down, 48 tickets and 10 percent interest.