Yes, of course, I'm the first to admit that the broad-shouldered Jeep look is classic and legendary and means-business, but the fact that the new-for-2008 Jeep Liberty looks so much like a slightly shrunken Jeep Commander suggests that designers have gone to this well at least once too often. Not just because the Liberty looks like the Commander, but because pretty much everything else in the Jeep lineup does too, differences being more a matter of scale than inspiration.
OK, I'm over that rant. Otherwise, all is well with this second-generation Liberty -- the first generation bowed in 2002 as the replacement for the beloved but past-graying Jeep Cherokee. It is certainly time for a new Liberty -- in the first 10 months of 2007, Jeep sold about 75,000 of them, nearly 40,000 fewer than during the same period in 2006 -- but the Liberty has been a cash cow for Jeep since its introduction.
It was, and is, a marked departure from the "crossover" SUV craze, crossovers being SUVs that are built not on a traditional truck platform, but on a car platform. There's no mistaking that the Liberty is a truck, but Jeep has managed to bridge the gap between a comfortable ride and capable off-road ability nicely. In that respect, the 2008 is the best Liberty yet.
It is also simplified. The four-cylinder gas engine, as well as the short-lived diesel are gone, with only the 3.7-liter, 210-horsepower V-6 remaining. This engine (sort of the Chrysler 4.7-liter V-8, minus two cylinders) has never seemed as smooth as it did in the test Liberty. The four-speed automatic transmission worked well with the V-6; a six-speed manual transmission is standard.
There are only two models: the Sport and the more luxurious Limited. The test Liberty was a Limited rear-wheel-drive model, but it had the four-wheel-drive look that many buyers covet. As a consequence, the test Liberty rode a little smoother and weighed a little less than a four-wheel-drive version. Should you want four-wheel-drive, two systems are offered: the part-time Command-Trac, and the more sophisticated full-time Selec-Trac II.
As it was, the test Liberty was loaded enough, with options that included a power sunroof ($850), special green paint ($150), a trailer towing group ($395, allowing it to pull a respectable 5,000 pounds), an upgraded sound system ($395), and a "Premium Group" that, for $2,295, added multiple features including leather upholstery trim, heated power front seats, automatic headlights, rear parking assist, remote starting and 18-inch chromed aluminum wheels, instead of the standard 17-inchers. With shipping and options, the base price of $24,515 rose to $29,260. Add Selec-Trac II and some other options, and you can nudge the price of a Liberty Limited to just more than $33,000.
Inside, except for a narrow, oddly tapering footwell on the driver's side, this is a very comfortable, familiar cockpit. Rear seat room is acceptable, and even with rear seats in place there's 31.2 cubic feet of space for cargo. On the road, the Liberty's ride can get jouncy on rough roads, but it's seldom annoying. On smoother interstates, this is a good all-day tourer. Fuel mileage is nothing special, though, as it's EPA rated at 16 miles per gallon city, 22 highway.
As Jeep homogenizes the looks and personalities of its models, it seems likely the biggest competition for the Liberty will come less from other manufacturers, more from the Liberty's own blood relations: the Grand Cherokee, the Patriot, even the aforementioned Commander, which can be had with this same engine and transmission, and with discounts, at a comparable price.
Sentinel Automotive Editor Steven Cole Smithcan be reached at email@example.com.