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The Jeep Liberty offers a great balance for someone who enjoys the outdoors. On the highway the Liberty is quiet and responsive. Turn off the pavement and it can go just about anywhere. It can carry five people and their gear. Fold the rear seats and it can move some serious cargo.
Introduced as a 2002 model, the Jeep Liberty is significantly revised for 2003. Better brakes, a lowered suspension, a revised automatic transmission, and new convenience features improve safety, drivability, and comfort. A new Renegade model, introduced late in 2002, is available in a premium trim level with leather for 2003. New wheels and new colors freshen the appearance of the 2003 models.
True to Jeep heritage, the Liberty stands apart from the new generation of less-capable compact sport-utility vehicles. It doesn't ride or handle as well as some of them on the road. But the Liberty is among the best of the small sport-utilities for drivers who need serious off-road capability on the weekend, and refinement, practicality, and affordability during the week.
For 2003, Jeep lowered the ride height of the Liberty slightly to improve handling. Though we didn't have the opportunity to drive them back to back, the 2003 model seems a bit less ponderous than the 2002. New shocks, springs, and jounce rubbers are designed to improve the ride quality.
Steering effort has been reduced for to ease maneuverability in parking lots. Winding roads are an enjoyable experience with rack-and-pinion steering and the Liberty felt quite capable on crowded freeways around Los Angeles. The Liberty doesn't ride as smoothly on the road as a Ford Escape, particularly over bumps and other irregularities, nor does it handle as well. But it doesn't beat the driver up as much as a Jeep Wrangler does. The wider tires of the Limited model seemed to offer more stability than the narrower tires of the Sport.
The 3.7-liter V6 works well with the automatic. Smooth and powerful, the V6 is rated at 210 horsepower and 235 pound-feet of torque, enough for Jeep to give it a 5000-pound tow rating. Engine and transmission are responsive to the driver's wishes. The throttle seems overly sensitive at tip-in, however, calling for a soft touch when starting out.
The 2.4-liter twin-cam four-cylinder engine comes standard on the Sport 2WD model and is only available with a five-speed manual gearbox. I found the four-cylinder with manual transmission to be a smooth combination, though I suspect it may struggle when moving 3,826 pounds of Jeep at higher elevations. Besides the lower initial cost, the 150-horsepower four-cylinder rates an EPA-estimated 19/23 mpg city/highway versus 16/21 for the V6.
The Liberty is fully capable of tackling the Rubicon Trail, the mother of all unpaved roads, and has done that. We drove a Limited 4WD model over a gnarly trail used at the annual Camp Jeep event near Lovingston, Virginia. A Jeep engineer and I followed a modified Wrangler driven by an off-road club member. A Ford Escape or a Toyota RAV4 would not have made it, but the Liberty crossed steep ditches and gullies, where its short front and rear overhangs paid off. It wove through stands of tightly spaced trees, where its tight turning radius was a benefit. It clambered over big rocks and fallen trees and slowly forded boulder-strewn creeks with 18 inches of rushing water. (Jeep says it can handle 20 inches at 10 mph.) Its traction up steep, muddy banks was truly impressive, with no wheelspin.
In addition to rear-wheel drive (2WD) models, two versions of four-wheel drive are available: Four-wheel-drive models come standard with Jeep's tried-and-true Command Trac part-time system. It works great. Shift from 2WD to 4WD on the fly with a slight pull on the hand lever. When the trail is looking really ugly, slow to 2-3 mpg and while still coasting, shift into neutral, and pull the lever up higher for low range. It works great. Our only complaint is that the Sport model's rear wheels bind up on dry pavement when accelerating out of a tight corner.
Selec Trac is an optional system ($395) that offers the modes above but also lets the driver shift into full-time 4WD for year-round conditions. The full-time mode is ideally suited to inconsistent conditions: patches of ice, gravel roads, wet, slippery roads. It also works on dry pavement.
Either way, you can order the optional limited-slip rear differential, called Trac-Lok ($285), for improved traction off road.
Like most small SUVs, Liberty follows the trend away from body-on-frame to unibody construction. Jeep calls it "uni-frame" because it's a beefed up unibody with frame-like reinforcement rails. This gives it increased strength and rigidity. That rigidity allowed the chassis engineers to finely tune the suspension without having to compensate for a Flexible Flyer-type chassis. The Liberty suspension uses coil springs at all four wheels, with independent forged steel control arms in front.
As with last year's model, the 2003 Liberty offers eight inches of suspension
The Jeep Liberty strikes a good balance between off-road capability and on-road sophistication. It's a good choice for drivers who like to venture into the backcountry, but need comfort and practicality in a daily driver.
Its go-anywhere capability is what separates the Liberty from other small SUVs. Though slightly less agile on the road than the car-based cute-utes, such as the Ford Escape and Toyota RAV4, the Liberty is vastly superior once you leave the pavement.