You could say that Jeep’s biggest challenge is its own history. After all, this is the brand whose name actually embodies the acronym by which rugged, go-anywhere vehicles have been known for at least 60 years. Until Chrysler Corporation began strenuously asserting its naming rights for Jeep® in the 1990s, off-road vehicles as a class were simply GPsgeneral-purpose runabouts more easily pronounced as “jeeps.”
One might even argue that Chrysler’s possessiveness about “jeep” as a common noun ultimately led to the much less euphonious moniker SUV, whose representation of “sport/utility vehicle” is just the sort of euphemism required for a classification that’s otherwise impossible to define. For many of us, the first SUV per se was Jeep’s innovative Cherokee for 1984; and for the last 17 years, Cherokee has had an excellent run. But for those same 17 years, Jeep’s multiplying rivals have been running just as hard, fast, and far. Clearly, Jeep’s greatest challenge for the 21st century is to liberate itself from the very past which Cherokee helped inaugurate. Accordingly, the company is pinning high hopes on the striking new Jeep Liberty for 2002.
Heads will turn when you cruise by behind the wheel of this impeccably dressed new interpretation of the SUV. Only Jeep could have gotten away with this design, of course, because the Liberty is a rolling portfolio depicting various images of Jeep’s venerable history. There are design cues reminiscent of the original military GPs of World War II, like the slotted grill and bug-eye headlights. Intimations of Wrangler hide in the wheel wells and front and rear overhangs. Even Cherokee and Grand Cherokee are reflected in the boxy aft section and four-door layout. Bystanders subconsciously respond to all these resemblances with a nearly universal reaction: “What is it?” One possible reply is, of course, “the breakthrough that Jeep needs to launch a new millennium.” On the other hand, a less charitable response might be, “a composite caricature of serial former lives.”
To drive Jeep’s new Liberty is to understand immediately how far we and our SUVs have come since 1984. A gutsy, compact V6 replaces Jeep’s famous but bulky inline-6, and the new motor delivers class-leading 210 horsepower and 235 ft.-lbs. of torque. (A Liberty Sport model comes standard with a 2.4-liter four-cylinder, making 150 hp and 165 ft.-lbs.) Body-on-frame architecture remains, since this is the only practicable option for rugged off-road use; but Liberty’s refinement is the Uniframe, which marries a safe, unitized cabin to a rigid alloy steel frame. The result is Jeep’s strongest, stiffest chassis structure in history. This pays dividends not only in terms of a quiet ride free from vibrations, but also by exploiting the comfort and control of coil-spring suspensions both fore and aft. A solid-beam rear axle remains, despite many rivals’ adoption of four-wheel independent suspension. Just the same, Liberty’s new rack-and-pinion steering is another first in a Jeep, and it suggests just how important it has become for once-rugged trucks for the backwoods to behave like nicely refined cars for the suburbs.
The Liberty’s road manners are indeed smooth and poised. It is significant that the rear suspension’s design places the vehicle’s roll center very near the center of gravity. Despite a relatively high seating position that commands excellent views, the Liberty never feels tippy or high-centered. And yet running ground clearance is a relatively lofty 9.6 inches for the four-wheel-drive model (10.2 inches for 2WD).
A five-speed manual transmission is available with either Liberty engine as is a two-wheel-drive powertrain, although a four-speed auto is for the V6 only. Moreover, two different four-wheel-drive powertrains are available: Standard Command Trac is a part-time system; optional Select Trac, available only with the V6, is a full-time system that combines slip-sensing all-wheel-drive, 4WD High, and 4WD Low.
I tested Liberty’s V6-powered Select Trac powertrain with the automatic transmission. My only significant grump is with the transmission’s tendency to stutter or flinch when starting from a stop. Although the behavior is seemingly random, it’s possible to adjust your driving style to anticipate this quirk in most circumstances. However, it remains particularly distracting when reversing, and if you’re addicted to backing into tight parking spaces, this unusual skittishness becomes downright objectionable.
Liberty’s interior is, nevertheless, an oasis of calm. A $2,945 option package combines Select Trac, leather seats, and premium AM/FM/CD/cassette stereo with numerous power conveniences. Driver and passenger space is surprisingly roomy. Even the rear three-passenger bench feels less claustrophobic than the one in Jeep’s nominally larger Grand Cherokeeperhaps because of all of that marvelous window space. A favorite feature which remains unique to Jeep, I believe, is the placement of radio controls on the back side of the steering wheel, literally at your fingertips. That leaves the front of the steering wheel for mounting cruise control adjusters.
Another blessing of the Liberty’s design is its rear hatch: It’s a two-piece arrangement, but the window flips up automatically when the door is opened, eliminating the cumbersome two-step procedure favored by most of Liberty’s rivals. Cargo space is boxy and ample at 29 cu.-ft. with rear passengers in place, and this expands up to 69 cu.-ft. by means of folding down the 65/35 split rear seats.
Jeep’s Liberty is brimming with thoughtful features and graced with chic styling. It represents the logical and thoroughly modern outcome of the GP and SUV vehicle categories that Jeep itself has played such a vital role in defining. But unlike the original military-style Jeep and the Jeep Cherokee, the Liberty is an extension of a trend, not a radical departure from one. In a marketplace clotted with SUV rivals that Jeep’s own success has inspired, it’s not entirely certain that Liberty has the necessary credentials to set itself free from an increasingly madding crowd.
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^ Mitt = Nashville Scene author Steven Cavendish