Perhaps the most difficult challenge any car manufacturer can face is having to live up to its image. Jeep has a reputation for building solid off-road vehicles that are ready to go right out of the box, but as many Old West marshals have noted over the years, a reputation can be a hard thing to live with. People come to you with certain expectations, and they are less than forgiving when you let them down. Fortunately for Jeep, the company has decades of experience backing up its promises, so it comes to the table with the deck loaded.
Over the past decade, Jeep has found new ways to reinvent itself, keeping the Jeep icon current while still incorporating the traditional themes and elements that have placed it in the vanguard of real SUVs. The TJ was and continues to be a phenomenal success. The Grand Cherokee, which many thought was outside the traditional Jeep envelope, has proven popular with both grocery-getters and four-wheelers alike. And now...
Now we come to the latest chapter in the evolution of Jeep: the Liberty. At first sight, it is apparent that the design engineers borrowed some of the KJ's outward styling elements from various Chrysler concept vehicles. Up front, the grille and the headlamps are reminiscent of those found on the Jeepster. And at the rear, there is something decidedly Dakar-like about the lines. But the new unibody flows quite nicely, offers 45 percent better bend resistance, and 30 percent better torsional rigidity than the WJ.
The Liberty is equipped with an independent front suspension with rack-and-pinion steering and McPherson struts. For greater strength, the front upper and lower control arms are made of cast steel rather than being stamped and welded. The front differential is a special Dana 30 that features a raised vent line to help prevent the entry of water.
In back you will find a three-link suspension that is virtually identical to that in the WJ. The four-cylinder models will come with a 35-C rear axle, while the six-cylinder versions will be equipped with the 8.25 axle, both with raised vent lines. (Unfortunately, only the South American models will get the Dana 44.) Overall, this suspension offers about 8 inches of travel, which, if you read the February 2001 issue, was enough to get the Liberty over the Rubicon Trail with no major hang-ups.
For those who would like more off-road options in stock trim, Jeep offers the Up-Country package, which includes skidplates for the front, transfer case, oil pan, and fuel tank; the Trac-Lok differential; a heavy-duty cooling system; heavy-duty gas shocks with load-leveling control; and P235/70R16 all-terrain tires with a fullsize spare.
In the powertrain department, Jeep will offer the standard 2.4L four-cylinder engine with the five-speed manual tranny, but we're betting that most people will opt for the brand-new 3.7L V-6, which is available with either the manual or automatic transmissions, in both two-wheel drive and four-wheel drive. The new V-6 was basically derived from the WJ's V-8 and puts out 210 hp at 5,200 rpm and 225 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm. During our tests in Detroit, we found that the V-6 accelerated smoothly and quickly, more so than we were expecting from a six-cylinder engine.
The Command-Trac four-wheel-drive (NV231) system will be the standard transfer case on all four-wheel-drive models, while the Selec-Trac system (NV242) will be an available option with the 3.7L V-6. Something new for Jeep is the fact that when Low range is selected, the computer will now enter a modified program for better idle speed on the trail and will defeat the clutch interlock on the manual transmission.
Inside the Liberty, the appointments feel very familiar, even with all the new styling. Headroom is much improved over the XJ and WJ, which came as a great relief to us. The rear seats can be folded down flat in an easy one-handed maneuver to provide reasonable storage in back. And the controls for the wipers, the dimmer, the interior lights, and the headlamps are all on the same stalk beside the steering wheel rather than on the dash. The only thing we found troublesome was the power window controls, which are in the center console and not on the door. We continually found ourselves locking and unlocking the doors every time we wanted to raise or lower the windows. Over time, we'll likely become more accustomed to this.
And so it is that another generation of Jeep is introduced. It is different, unique in its way, and has a personality all its own; yet, it is undeniably a Jeep. Overall, we like this little sport ute, and we think many others will as well. Perhaps more importantly for Jeep, people will want to like it. After all, there is nothing like owning an icon.