2002 Jeep Liberty vs. 2002 Nissan Xterra

    Which Should You Own?

    Trent RiddlePhotographer, WriterCraig PerronnePhotographer

    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.

    ’02 JEEP LIBERTY LIMITED
    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

    Pluses
    “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.”

    Minuses
    “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.”

    LIBERTY

    Pluses
    “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.”

    Minuses
    “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.”