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KJ vs. The Competition

Posted in Project Vehicles on September 1, 2001
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'02 Jeep Liberty.

By the time you read this the new, er, Jeep—the Liberty—should have been at the dealership for a while now. You’ve probably seen one driving down the road, and if you are a true Jeep freak you already own one. If you’ve got one outside we can hopefully help you learn a thing or two about your new ride. If you don’t have one, pay attention and take notes since you will be tested on this stuff later.

Generally speaking, hard-core Jeep fans are scared of phrases like “superior on-road refinement,” or “independent front suspension.” Have no fear—somewhere under that cute façade beats the heart of a true Jeep. How do we know, you ask? Well a few months ago, the DaimlerChrysler corporation allowed us to drive the new KJ both on- and off-road. The result was that we were pleased with how the Liberty dealt with the obstacles of modern road driving and some fairly tough off-road trails that would make many of the new car-based SUVs pee in their car-based pants.

The KJ's rear hatch is very easy to use. Pull once and the window pops up; pull twice and the gate swings open.

Why the Liberty has Big Shoes to Fill
The Cherokee won 4-Wheel & Off-Road’s 4x4 of the Year both times it was entered.
The first time the XJ won it had a GM 2.8L V-6. If that didn’t keep it from winning we can’t imagine what could.
The Grand Cherokee won 4-Wheel & Off-Road’s 4x4 of the Year five times.
The Cherokee was first introduced in ’84—that’s 17 years without a major body or frame redesign.

The 3.7L V-6 is kin to the Grand Cherokee's 4.7L V-8.

On-Road Driving Impressions
We had the opportunity to drive the KJ with both the 3.7L V-6 and the 2.4L I-4. The V-6 model was an auto although we pined for the manual, which would definitely be a bit more spirited. The V-6 provides plenty of power, but lacks the flat torque band of the older 4.0L I-6. The automatic did a good job of shifting, and even seemed to downshift while on the highway when a steep decent was encountered with the cruise control engaged. The four-cylinder provided good low-end power but was left struggling up longer higher-speed inclines to the point of somewhat aggravated downshifts and hands patting the dash while chanting “come on, come on, come on.” Both KJs had smooth but sportive on-road handling despite being somewhat heavier than a Cherokee. This extra weight of the KJ seems to nullify the added 20 or so horsepower that the KJ’s new V-6 has over the XJ’s straight-six.

These cast-iron lower control arms mean business. You are gonna have to work hard to damage one of these things.

Off-Road Driving Impressions
With 4 inches of compression and 4 inches of droop this may be one of the better IFS setups for off-road, but like most IFS trucks the KJ gets most of its flex from the rear suspension. The visibility is great but the lack of a definitive front corner makes sharp turns between trees difficult without compromising the front fender flares. We used the skidplates a lot off-road, but with good approach and departure angles, and with the optional limited slip we were able to get through some very tough sections of the trail without too much trouble. For a stock truck the Liberty works darn well on the trails.

Some cool new ideas have been employed on the KJ.
Comfortable ride on- and off-road.
The four-cylinder has good low-end power for a four-cylinder.
Good approach and departure angles.

The hood is rounded at the corners for visibility like a TJ, which is good. The problem is now you can’t see where the fender ends. This increases the chance that you will unintentionally introduce your fender to a rock or tree along twisty trails.
All four-wheel-drive KJs should come with tow hooks and skidplates.
Where is the Up-Country suspension?

The Competition

Jeep provided us with a few examples of what they consider the KJ’s competition, and we have chosen this as an opportunity to make fun of them.

We have said it time and time again: Do not attempt to convert your car into a truck. Now, not only do we have to deal with some joker from Alabama with a Renault Le Car that runs 35-inch mud tires and wants into Jp because it’s got a Dana 30 from a Jeep, we also have to deal with huge car companies trying to make cars more off-road worthy. Check out the sidebars below to see what they're really like.

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