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First Drive: Jeep Liberty

Posted in Vehicle Reviews on March 1, 2001 Comment (0)
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First Drive: Jeep Liberty
Photographers: Jeep

New Jeeps don’t happen very often. And as rare as a new Jeep product is, even more rare are new Jeeps so completely new, and so completely different from the rest of the Jeep family, as the 2002 Liberty, code-named KJ, is.

The Liberty originally was intended as a replacement for the Cherokee, aka the Jeep XJ, and was first known as XJR. But now Jeep spokesmen tell us that Cherokee will be built and sold alongside the Liberty for the next 12-18 months, and a decision will be made after that time about the Cherokee’s future.

For lots of reasons, replacing the Cherokee is a gamble. Never mind that the Liberty’s styling is a study in, well, call it Jeep moderne, with smooth, rounded lines taken from the Jeepster and Dakar show vehicles as opposed to the XJ’s traditional look. A much more important potential trouble spot here is that the Liberty sports independent front suspension (IFS)—a first for Jeep since an abortive effort in 1963/64.

Two things seem especially interesting about this first look at the Liberty. First, Jeep showed it to Four Wheeler not within the sterile confines of a styling studio or a proving ground but out on the trail, where a Jeep belongs. Make that the Rubicon Trail, in fact, of which all Jeep vehicles have to be worthy, according to a diktat from DaimlerChrysler management. Second, it showed us the vehicle in early prototype form, something that’s quite unheard of in Detroit, where secrecy about models that aren’t finalized is paramount. Jeep is making its jump to IFS very carefully. In part, engineers are eager to prove that they can do a proper IFS, one that will provide grip and articulation; and in part they’re forced to adopt IFS because of their desire to make the KJ a truly formidable on-highway vehicle.

Both goals mostly have been accomplished. On the highway, the Liberty drives like something born to blitz pavement. And if the Liberty’s off-highway capabilities need help in any way, put that mostly down to the tires: pavement-oriented P235/70R16s. For sure, the Cherokee’s tires (215/75R15s and optional 225/70R and 22575R15s) are very similar in size to the Liberty’s. Jeep engineers confessed that somewhat bigger—but not wider—tires could be fitted inside the Liberty’s wheelwells. So this presents interesting possibilities.

Comparison drives in the Cherokee and Liberty indicate that if you like a truck, the Cherokee is your vehicle. But if you’ve ever wished that the Cherokee was a little less crude, you’ll want to take a look at the Liberty. On the road, it’s very solid, refined, and quiet, with mostly neutral handling that progresses into push the harder you flog it around corners. It’s really a lot of fun to drive hard and fast. Jeep engineers have spent a lot of time with Liberty’s suspension, and it shows. As part of its pavement competence, however, Liberty exhibits plenty of roll stiffness, and while this contributes to solid, secure pavement handling, it also minimizes articulation when you depart the pavement and head for the trails.

The all-new optional 3.7L V-6 under the hoods of the units we drove is smooth and powerful, building 210 hp at 5,200 rpm, and 225 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm. It transmits power through a New Venture 242, Command-Trac, two-speed T-case with a low-range ratio of 2.72:1, pouring power into 3.73:1 differentials. The base Liberty engine is a 2.4L DOHC Four, and Jeep expects about 20 percent of Liberty production to be equipped with that engine. Additionally, the prototypes we drove all had four-speed automatic transmissions, but the NV3500 five-speed manual also will be available. The engines and transmissions we sampled both are wonderful on-road and off, with the engine providing excellent torque for rockcrawling and the transmission shifting smoothly.

Coil springs support all four corners, with IFS, very stout cast lower A-arms, and rack-and-pinion steering up front, with a beam axle that’s located by trailing arms in the rear. Why rack-and-pinion? Because it is easier to package than a recirculating ball system, easier to certify for crash safety, and provides good, precise feel.

Out on the Rubicon the Liberty works well enough, though not as well as it would work with a rear locker and serious off-pavement tires. Lots of grinding, however, was heard from meetings of Rubicon rock and Liberty engine/trans/T-case skidplates. In one case the skidplate and transmission pan were so seriously mashed as to shut down the transmission. This caused trailside repairs and some heavy thinking by the engineers. Interestingly, we found that Liberty’s plastic fender flares fold completely up when brushed against obstacles, then pop right back into shape. We’ve learned the hard way that the same obstacles peel the flares off a Cherokee.

Liberty might look compact, but it rides on a 104.3-inch wheelbase, three inches longer than the Cherokee’s. The vehicle’s tidy styling makes it look smaller than the Cherokee, but it isn’t. The Liberty’s back seat is a bit more commodious than the Cherokee’s, and importantly, the rear doors are marginally wider—enough wider that folks with large frames who can’t get into the back of a Cherokee can get into the back of a Liberty. They’re not going to be wonderfully comfortable back there, but at least they’ll be in and riding.

KJ’s interior is far more car-like than anything ever seen on a Cherokee or a TJ. A large black-on-white tach and speedo are flanked by fuel and temp gauges under a dash brow that has roughly the same arc as Liberty’s steering wheel. The driving position is comfortable and natural, and the front seats themselves offer a high driving position and generous side bolsters to help keep you where you belong. There’s lots of head and leg room, but the Liberty’s transmission tunnel encroaches into front-seat foot room, just as it does on the Cherokee. This is because of packaging requirements for the fairly bulky 45RFE four-speed automatic, the same trans used in the Grand Cherokee.

The Liberty will be built and sold as a 2002 model in an all-new plant in Toledo, next to the current Wrangler plant, and will be available this spring. Capacity is 200,000 Libertys per year, with officials expecting to build 150,000 the first year. Some of these will be sold in Europe as part of Jeep’s sales plan in 91 countries. And some of those will be powered by a 2.5L turbodiesel engine. Eat your hearts out, diesel fans. At the end of the day, one consideration most on the minds of the folks from Jeep is this one: Never mind its IFS and modern shape, they insist, the KJ/Liberty is all Jeep. Its adaptation of pavement-oriented IFS suspension and its resulting very solid highway comfort and handling has not diluted its Jeep DNA. They’re convinced of it. Our view, however, is that time will tell.

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