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It’s a Jeep!

A Closer Look at the New KJ Liberty

John CappaWriterCole QuinnellPhotographerDaimlerChryslerPhotographer

Everyone gets excited when a new bundle of joy comes into the world. Although a diaper-filling, drooling, whiny, burping baby hardly tops our fun list, a new Jeep is a different story.

DaimlerChrysler had been hinting at an all-new Jeep for some time. Spy photos began to trickle in, so it proved to be more than a snipe hunt. Jeep soon after invited us on a prerelease trip over the Rubicon with the new vehicle, then known only as the KJ. We also got a hold of some declassified spy photos from the Jeep proving grounds. As the introduction date drew closer, Jeep finally gave a name to the vehicle: Liberty.

The Liberty is unlike any of the current-model Jeeps. Don’t fret, we were told, it is not designed to replace any of them. It does, however, fill an empty niche in the Jeep line. If you’re looking for a vehicle that has all the creature comforts of an SUV but doesn’t drive like one or cost more than a small island, the Liberty is probably for you. In spite of this, its off-road capability hasn’t been severely compromised. In fact, the KJ has more off-road-friendly features than any of the vehicles in its class. Simply possessing a low range is enough to make most cute-utes inferior to the Liberty.

For drivetrain, the KJ features a standard 154hp 2.4L four-cylinder with a five-speed manual in two- and four-wheel-drive configurations. An all-new optional 3.7L V-6 with 210 hp and 225 lb-ft of torque is available. The new engine is designed with features similar to those on the current 4.7L V-8 found in the Grand Cherokee. Once again the States get hosed on the diesel engine. Overseas Jeepers will enjoy a new 2.5L Direct Injection diesel with 140 hp and 253 lb-ft of torque.

The transfer case is the standard Jeep Command-Trac (NV231) or the optional Selec-Trac (NV242). Both have an admirable 2.72 low range. The Selec-Trac provides the option of running full-time four-wheel drive or part-time. We noticed an interesting damper on the rear driveshaft of the KJ that should control the driveline vibrations that are commonly associated with the shorter Jeeps.

The suspension of the KJ is also different from any of the current models. It’s actually very different from most older Jeeps, too. The rumor of IFS is true. The Liberty utilizes a coil-sprung A-arm front suspension that is directed by a rack-and-pinion steering. The lower arms look way overbuilt so impacts with trail obstacles shouldn’t be a problem. The front axle centersection is an aluminum version of the crush sleeve Dana 30 found in the TJ. CV-jointed half-shafts transfer power to the wheels. In the rear, a Dana 35 is located by a three-link and coils much like the rear of a Grand Cherokee. The two-wheel-drive KJs will have a Chrysler 8.25 rear axle. An Up Country package will provide a slight lift and larger tires. The front axle and oil pan skidplates on the KJ are standard. Optional transfer case and fuel tank skidders are available.

The KJ chassis is of a unibody design similar to Cherokees and Grand Cherokees. However, the KJ chassis is the stiffest design to date. The increased stiffness is said to optimize ride and handling performance, and lower passenger compartment noise and vibration.

The inside of the KJ was derived from the Jeepster concept vehicle. Leather is available in the premium model. A unique 65/35-split rear seat with a one-handed folding operation allows cargo and passenger flexibility. The rear is accessed by a flipper glass that can be activated with the optional key controller or through the single-action swing gate.

During our testdrive over the Rubicon, we found that the KJ worked surprisingly well. The KJ was easier to maneuver though obstacles than an XJ. This was mostly due to the improved approach and departure angles. We also had a Grand Cherokee on hand which, no doubt, has some killer driveline and suspension components. However, the low hanging sheetmetal and body cladding hurt its maneuverability. The KJ also had less head toss (rocking side to side) than the Cherokee. We could drive the Grand and the XJ through the same obstacles, but the KJ was more of a no-brainer to drive. Check out the captions for some other KJ details.