At long last, Liberty. Since the upscale Jeep Grand Cherokee arrived in 1992, the entire sport-utility category has exploded. By 1999, SUV sales topped 3 million as U.S. buyers could pick from four dozen models. But, first Chrysler and now
DaimlerChrysler, failed to fully capitalize on the potential and strength of the Jeep name. After all, it's easy to trace the rugged Wrangler back to World War II. And, some say, the four-door Cherokee that arrived in 1984 started the modern era
of sport-utilities. Then, in 1992, just as Chrysler was in the middle of a wonderful product renaissance, the more luxurious Grand Cherokee made its debut. But, since then, nothing or next-to-nothing in terms of product innovations. But
the 2002 Liberty that arrives in showrooms next month will change that. It'll be a hot entry in the hottest segment for new SUVs, the smaller or so-called mini-sport-utilities. This Cherokee replacement will join such newcomers as the Ford Escape,
Mazda Tribute and Hyundai Santa Fe as well as the recently redone Toyota RAV4 and the needs-to-be-redesigned Honda CR-V in the segment. What'll make the Liberty sell is the Jeep name, of course, and the legendary off-road prowess that accompanies
it. (Yes, despite having an independent front suspension, the Liberty did fine on the ultimate off-road test -- the harsh Rubicon Trail near Lake Tahoe.) But, this one also has good looks inside and out -- something that has long separated the
Jeep brand from the rest of the fashionable Chrysler family. The Liberty combines those age-old Jeep cues, such as round headlights and a seven-slot vertical grille, with a nicely rounded body, large wheel wells and easy-to-grab door handles.
Inside, white-faced gauges are surrounded by chrome as are the instruments in the center of the dash. The rounded air vents, funky interior door handles and the leather bucket seats on our test vehicle created a contemporary cabin that skirts the fine
line between rugged and refined. On the road, the Liberty is impressive. The stiff body and new front suspension really improve the road manners of the Liberty compared to past Jeep models. But acceleration was only adequate, and our test
model was the Limited Edition with the all-new 210-horsepower, 3.7-liter V-6. Jeeps says this engine provides tops-in-class horsepower, besting the Ford Escape (200 horsepower) and the Hyundai Santa Fe (181) as well as the four-cylinder motors in the
Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V. But the new Jeep is very heavy -- more than two tons and more than 600 pounds more than a 4x4 Escape. (A 150-horsepower, 2.4-liter four-cylinder is the base engine in the Liberty.) Who will buy the Liberty,
which is priced from $17,035 for the two-wheel-drive, four-cylinder Liberty Sport model to $23,305 for the four-wheel-drive, V-6-equipped Liberty Limited? That used to be the price range of the so-call
ed mid-size sport-utilities but the Explorers, TrailBlazer and Highlanders of the world have moved above that now. Instead, it's now the range of such grazers as the Nissan Xterra and Isuzu Rodeo as well as the aforementioned Escape, Tribute,
Santa Fe, RAV4 and CR-V. All those vehicles emerged in the years since the Cherokee was allowed to grow old and ordinary. Now, with the Liberty, Jeep will once again return to many shopping lists. The question that many buyers will have to answer,
however, is whether the $1.7 billion investment in making the new vehicle will result in a better-quality machine than the Cherokee, which makes several appearances in Consumer Reports' used-cars-to-avoid list.