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2002 Jeep Liberty vs. 2002 Nissan Xterra

2 Car Comparison View
Trent Riddle | Writer
Posted November 1, 2001
Photographers: Craig Perronne

Which Should You Own?

Step By Step

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  • The Xterra we tested was powered by the new supercharged version of Nissan’s 3.3L SOHC V-6. This engine produces 210 horsepower at 4,800 rpm and 246 lb-ft of torque at 2,800 rpm when backed up by the automatic transmission. Our test Liberty was powered by a 3.7L SOHC V-6. This engine produces 210 horsepower at 5,200 rpm and 235 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm. Even with the supercharger, the Xterra proved slower than the Liberty, and it requires 92-octane fuel.

  • The instrument panel in the Xterra incorporates three round cockpit-style gauges that look good, but are a little too dark to be easily readable. The Liberty’s instrument panel and center console are a reverse of the Xterra’s. In this case the radio is above the heater and A/C controls. Like the Nissan, the Liberty’s instrument panel incorporates three round gauges. In the Liberty these gauges have white faces, and are not inset like the Xterra gauges. This makes the Liberty gauges very readable.

  • Nissan and Jeep take two different approaches to the rear of their vehicles. Nissan puts the spare tire under the body and makes the entire rear door hinge upward to gain access to the back. Jeep mounts the spare tire to the back of the Liberty and splits the opening into a swing-away door and lifting glass. The Liberty system provides the ability to keep the rear door closed and

  • load long items in through the lift glass opening. The trouble here is that the front passenger seat on the Liberty doesn’t fold forward and the headrest doesn’t come off. This means you won’t be stacking 8-foot 2x4s in the back. Ironically, the Xterra’s front passenger seat does fold forward and has removable headrests but the rear liftgate makes it impossible to carry long materials.

  • In this side-by-side comparison, you can see that the Xterra has a bit more air under its door sills than the Liberty does. This makes the Xterra a little taller than the Liberty. Actually, all these vehicles’ outer dimensions are very similar.

  • In our trail testing, we found that the Xterra didn’t exhibit as much suspension articulation as the Liberty, but the difference was minimal. In addition, the limited slip in the Xterra might as well have not been there for all the good it did. The Liberty wasn’t much better. We had to forcefully use the hand brake and throttle to make the Liberty’s limited slip function even slightly. In the Xterra’s favor is its greater ground clearance. The numbers show that the ground clearance difference between the two is 0.45 inches. While this may not seem like a lot, the noises made when the Liberty banged into rocks on the trail indicated it means a lot in the real world.

  • The tires on the Xterra were P265/70R16 BFGoodrich Rugged Trail T/As. These tires are a great choice for both the street and trail. We found that the performance of this tire on the trail seemed to be better than the tires on the Liberty.

  • The Liberty was shod with P235/70R16 Goodyear Wrangler SR-A tires. These tires performed respectably, and were our favorite for pavement.

  • The specs.

Two of the most interesting SUVs to come along in a while are the Nissan Xterra, revised for ’02, and the Jeep Liberty. Yes, the Liberty is new and the Xterra is a few years old, but both are compact, trail-oriented, sport-utes that have attracted a great deal of interest from buyers and potential buyers. With both Nissan and Jeep targeting their advertising campaigns toward enthusiasts with active lifestyles, it seemed only logical to compare these two vehicles.

As we do with all our tests, we took both rigs to the dragstrip to develop acceleration and braking numbers. Then it was off to Area 85, our test loop in the California desert, to see how they performed off the pavement. We found the Xterra and the Liberty to be very similar in size and performance. Both are fine examples of their respective manufacturers’ attempts to provide real 4x4s rather than just cute, car-based SUV-lites. Although similar in size, there are some distinct differences between these two rigs. Read on and decide which one you want to take for a test drive.

’02 Nissan Xterra SE
For 2002, the Xterra received a face-lift. The new front fascia incorporates round headlamps and some styling changes that make the Xterra look more masculine. In addition, the hood now has a slight bulge to fit the optional supercharger. The 3.3L SOHC V-6 engine’s output jumps from 170 to 210 horsepower at 4,800 rpm and from 200 to 246 lb-ft of torque at 2,800 rpm with the addition of the supercharger. But this power comes at a price, as the use of 92-octane fuel is recommended. Also, our tests show that fuel consumption is increased—this test yielded 13.5 mpg versus an average of 16.7 mpg in the last unsupercharged Xterra we tested.

The instrument panel design is all new, and includes three round gauges and new heater and air-conditioning controls. We felt that the inset of the gauges looks cool but when combined with the dark gauge faces, the instruments were hard to read. Also, the glove box is 25 percent larger than before, and the center console is redesigned for better function and convenience.

We found the Xterra to be capable of mild trail-running. The leaf-sprung rear suspension provides a stiff ride on the highway but this stiffness proved an advantage on rough surfaces at speed. A downside of this layout, however, is that in soft sand the rear wheels hop violently with anything but the slightest application of power. The supercharger does a lot to improve the output of the motor but sucks fuel like a much larger engine. The Xterra is a great vehicle for the price, but we feel it needs a bigger engine that can give it even more power without the need for premium gas.

We found that the Xterra was slightly less powerful than the Liberty. It has a harsher street ride, and it exhibited poor traction in deep sand. It was more fun when running at speed in the dirt, however, and somewhat better on rocky trails. Nissan’s approach to the Xterra seems to stress practicality and a lower price point. The ’02 Nissan Xterra is a smaller SUV, built to suit an active lifestyle that has a lot of features for the money.

The Jeep Liberty is the first all-new Jeep model since the advent of the Grand Cherokee in 1993 and replaces the venerable XJ Cherokee. Though a four-cylinder engine is available as standard equipment, the Liberty we tested was powered by Jeep’s optional, all-new 3.7L SOHC V-6. This mill produces 210 horsepower at 5,200 rpm and 235 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm, and produces a surprising amount of low-end torque. It does a good job of moving the vehicle down the road or trail.

The Liberty’s instrument panel features nicely visible white-faced gauges, and the central pod includes easy-to-use heater, A/C, and radio controls. In addition, the steering wheel is fitted with convenient controls for the radio and cruise control. The interior door handles are sized for easy gripping, but unfortunately the power-window controls are in the center console rather than in the door, where they belong.

Out in the rough stuff, the Liberty’s IFS offers more travel than the Xterra’s seemed to, and its rear suspension didn’t exhibit any wheelhop at all when we applied power in loose sand. However, the Liberty does tend to drag its underpinnings on mid-trail rocks more than we’d like. The Liberty delivers a nice highway ride, but sometimes it can be too soft when traveling at speed in the dirt.

The Liberty offers more conveniences and comfort that the Xterra does, but this also means a higher price and some trade-offs in trail capabilities in order to gain highway comfort. The Liberty has a little more suds than the Xterra does, and we appreciate that Jeep obtained this power gain through the classic method—more cubic inches. The Liberty also has a crisper and more comfortable street ride than the Xterra does, but its suspension proved too soft off-pavement at speed. On the trail it offers better traction in soft sand and more compression braking, but falls short of the Xterra when it comes to ground clearance. We wish that Jeep offered an Up-Country (off-road) suspension package for the Liberty, but this isn’t currently available. The ’02 Jeep Liberty is a smaller SUV that is full of features to pamper you, but can still get let you take a few of those roads less traveled.

Testers’ Notes:


“Xterra’s rear cargo area folds almost flat for sleeping.”
“Handles twisty mountain roads very well.”
“Didn’t get hung up on as much stuff as the Jeep did when running over tough trails.”

“The Xterra demonstrates extreme wheelhop in the sand when under power.”
“It’s a little harder to see over the Xterra’s hood than it is the Liberty’s.”
“For the supercharged Xterra, 92-octane fuel is recommended. This means more dollars-per-mile for fuel, as mileage is reduced with the supercharger.”
“Steering is less crisp on-center than we would like.”


“The Liberty had very little rear wheelhop in the sand under power, and it rides very nicely on pavement—not too firmly and not too soft. It’s just about right.”
“The steering delivers very nice feel. It does not seem disconnected or vague.”
“The Liberty’s shoulder seatbelt has a wide range of adjustment to allow for occupants of different heights.”

“The Liberty’s rear cargo area doesn’t fold flat. This means it would be uncomfortable to sleep in.”
“In the Liberty, the power-window buttons are on the center console. Very European, but this location makes us grit our teeth.”
“The Liberty is very low, so it gets hung up on a lot of stuff off-road.”