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The Jeep Liberty offers a good balance for someone who enjoys the outdoors. Day in and day out, it takes the place of a car or wagon. The Liberty seats four comfortably and can carry up to five people and their gear. Fold the rear seats and it can move two people and some serious cargo. Turn off the pavement and it's able to negotiate most trails with confidence.
True to Jeep heritage, the Liberty offers legitimate off-road capability. In this respect, it stands apart from the herd of compact sport-utility vehicles, few of which offer true off-road capability. The Liberty gives up some refinement and road agility to do this. On the road, it does not ride or handle as well as some of the other small SUVs. But the Liberty is among the best of the small sport-utilities for drivers who need serious off-road capability on the weekend yet need practicality and affordability during the week.
For 2005, the Liberty gets a new engine and two new transmissions. With the addition of an advanced, 2.7-liter common-rail diesel engine, Jeep becomes the first midsize SUV available with a diesel engine in the U.S. The Diesel is backed by a five-speed overdrive automatic transmission. A new, six-speed manual transmission replaces the previous five-speed manual.
The Liberty Renegade has seen the most change for 2005, having been fitted with a flatter hood, taller grille, off-road foglamps and taillamp guards. The Renegade now has functional rock rails, four skid plates, and new options, such as taller P235/0R16 all-terrain tires, a GPS navigation radio and an overhead light bar.
The fresher appearance extends across all 2005 models. All receive a new front fascia, grille, foglamps fender flares, and body side-moldings. Interior refinements include relocated power window switches, new instrument panel cluster graphics, and improved seat comfort.
The 2005 Jeep Liberty is available in three trim levels: Sport, Limited Edition, and Renegade. Each is offered with two-wheel drive or four-wheel drive (4WD).
Three engines are available: a 2.4-liter inline-4, the 2.8-liter turbo diesel, and a 3.7-liter V6. The new diesel engine is available on both Sport and Limited models. The four-cylinder engine is only available with a six-speed manual gearbox. The V6 is available with a heavy-duty five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic that was revised last year for smoother, quieter operation. A five-speed automatic is standard on the diesel.
Sport ($19,190) and Sport 4WD ($20,700) are entry-level models, but receive visual changes for 2005 that add the look of custom details. Both Sport and Sport 4WD come standard with the four-cylinder engine, six-speed manual transmission, cloth interior, wind-up windows, manually operated mirrors, and 16-inch tires on steel wheels. Command Trac, a part-time 4WD system, is standard, as is a six-speaker stereo with CD player. Air conditioning ($850) is optional, however. Power windows and other features can be added as options. The optional V6 is available with manual transmission ($850) or an automatic ($1,675). The Common Rail Diesel, or CRD, is available for the Sport 4x4 ($24,515).
Limited Edition models offer upgraded interior amenties and a better grade of cloth upholstery. Limited ($23,525) and Limited 4WD ($25,035) come standard with the V6 engine and automatic transmission. Air conditioning is standard. Limited 4x4 is available with the diesel engine ($26,734).
Leather is available as part of a big Customer Preferred option package ($1,576) that also includes a programmable overhead console, power seat adjusters, deep-tint glass, power heated side mirrors, a security group, and an AM/FM/cassette/CD stereo with steering-wheel-mounted audio controls and Infinity speakers.
On 4WD Limited models, the same package ($1,690) includes Jeep's SelecTrac full-time four-wheel drive. The diesel version includes a bigger battery, P225/75 tires, 6x7-inch aluminum wheels, four-wheel antilock brakes, and an engine block heater. Other options include the Trailer Tow Group ($285), a Trac-Loc locking rear differential ($285), power sunroof ($700) and Sirius satellite digital radio ($195). While the tire pressure monitor and simple warning signal are standard, a roof-mounted tire pressure display, which shows the actual pressure at each wheel, is optional ($75).
Renegade 2WD ($22,910) and 4WD ($24,520) models come standard with the 3.7-liter V6, six-speed manual transmission and Command-trac part-time 4WD system. Renegade comes standard with air conditioning; cruise control; tilt steering; 16-inch graphite-painted aluminum wheels; power windows, mirrors, and locks; illuminated keyless entry; side rails; and many other features. Renegade 4WD models include rugged tubular side rails and rock rails. Automatic transmission ($825) is optional. A premium package ($1,240) adds the automatic, power leather seats, and upgraded door trim panels, along with an overhead vehicle information center that allows the customer to program automatic locking, lighting, and other features.
Side-impact airbags ($490) are optional on all Liberty models, and we highly recommend them. Serious 4WD adventurers may want the optional Off-Road Group ($765 for Sport, $520 for Limited), which includes skid plates for the front suspension, fuel tank and transfer case; a locking rear differential; heavy-duty engine cooling; P235/70R16 all-terrain tires; and tow hooks.
With its seven-slat grille and round headlights, there's no question the Liberty looks like a Jeep.
The Liberty's body is tall, providing the driver with a commanding view of the terrain ahead. In terms of exterior dimensions, the Liberty fits between the Jeep Wrangler and Grand Cherokee. With an overall length of 174.4 inches, the Jeep Liberty is slightly longer than the Ford Escape. It's longer than the Wrangler, but significantly shorter and lighter than the Grand Cherokee.
2005 Liberty Sport models get a new body-color grille, provisions for optional fog lamps, and higher turn lamp locations for more protection from road debris. The front bumper runs across the bottom of the grill with a twin-tube design.
Renegade appeals to a slightly different type of buyer than the basic Sport and more sophisticated Limited models. A flatter hood complements the traditional round Jeep headlimps for a distinctive Jeep appearance. A new body-color grille is part of the re-styling for 2005, as are large freestanding fog lamps with black bezels, and a new sill to protect the body sides from road blast. Tow hooks and a bright silver metallic applique across the new molded-in color front fascia are standard features. Bolted flares are also molded-in color for more durability and have chrome-plated attachment details. A new luggage side rack with beefieer molded-in color end pieces, and a brushed silver metallic tubular side rail combine to suggest a rugged appearance. The black off-road light bar, standard in prior years, is now an optional feature. Fender flares, combined with the off-road light bar and taillamp guards give the Renegade a look that stands apart from the Sport and Limited models.
A neat feature on all models: Yanking hard on the outside door handle causes the glass hatch to swing up as the door itself is swinging out, which saves time and effort. Pulling on the handle with less force causes just the glass hatch to swing up. Also, the door swings open from the right, better for curbside pickups at the airport.
The Jeep Liberty debuted as a 2002 model. 2003 brought enhancements aimed at improving on-road stability. 2004 brought upgrades in safety equipment, and in comfort and convenience options. Among them: Chrysler's Enhanced Accident Response System, which unlocks doors and turns on interior lights five seconds after an airbag deploys.
The Jeep Liberty comes with a roomy interior that can accommodate five passengers and a generous amount of cargo, with 29 cubic feet of usable space behind the second row of seats. Sitting in the Liberty gives the driver a sense of spaciousness with 40.7 inches of headroom, best in class, according to Jeep. Door panels are scalloped out for elbow rests, and a grab handle is provided on the passenger's side of the dash. Sit in the Liberty, and the first thing you'll likely notice is that it feels tall in the saddle.
The seats have been an issue in past models. Sport seats we tried in '04 felt firm in the middle, but the side bolsters were too mushy to provide much side support. For '05, they have been noticeably improved through the use of dual-density foam. Also, there's no seat-height adjustment. The side bolsters are still soft, a signal that the Liberty is set up more to absorb vibration than sling around corners. The cloth upholstery, with a diamond-plate inspired fabric, feels like it'll hold up well. The Renegade front seats are tailored with unique cloth center panels and vinyl bolsters. The front seats in the Limited are more comfortable. They are chair-like buckets, softer and more contoured than the seats in the Ford Escape.
Getting in and out of the Liberty is more difficult than it is in some of the more carlike SUVs. The door openings are relatively narrow, the step-up height is a little higher, the seats have side bolsters to get past, and your feet must clear relatively high side sills. The grab handle, located on the A-pillar above the steering wheel, is not in the perfect position to help shorter people swing inside.
The Liberty's rear seats are comfortable, capable of holding three people. Two adults should be happy here. There is even more rear headroom than in the front, and lots of space to slide your feet under the front seats, but knee room is limited. Sliding out of the back seat requires a bit of a stretch down, and your legs drag across the fender. So be sure to clean that area before sending any well-dressed guests back there.
The Liberty offers a generous amount of cargo space behind the rear seats. Caesar the 160-pound mastiff was happy to ride behind the rear seats. Two full-size garbage cans fit side-by-side back there, a feat we haven't seen duplicated in many SUVs. Grocery-bag hooks and cargo tie-downs are provided to keep things from rolling around. An optional cargo organizer opens to a shelf with compartment dividers to keep packages in place, and can be folded flat when not in use.
Fold the rear seats down and the Liberty offers a lot of cargo space (69.0 cubic feet), virtually the same as the Escape offers. Dropping the split rear seat is a one-hand operation in the Liberty; the rear seat bottom stays in place. The cargo floor isn't perfectly flat when the rear seats are folded down, however, and that's our biggest gripe with this vehicle. Nor are the rear seats readily removable as they are in the RAV4. Also, removing the rear headrests requires pressing two buttons at once to release them.
Overall, the interior presents a round motif that looks contemporary, with round door handles, round instruments, round air inlets, a round horn pad. Textures and finishes are nicely done. Big gauges use black-on-beige graphics. The Limited adds attractive satin chrome highlights to the instrument panel and doors. We felt the interior on the Limited was nicely designed and executed with qualilty materials. The Renegade gets real brushed aluminum highlights on the instrument panel that give it a machined look consistent with the exterior theme.
The manual shifter is on the tall side, but works well. The available leather-wrapped steering wheel is comfortable and features well-designed cruise controls.
The accessory controls work well and intuitively. The power window switches are located on the center console, however, more awkward tha
The 3.7-liter V6 works well with the automatic transmission, delivering good reponse. The V6 is rated at 210 horsepower and 235 pound-feet of torque. Fuel economy is EPA-rated 16/22 City/Highway mpg with the manual, 17/21 mpg with the automatic.
The 2.4-liter twin-cam four-cylinder engine comes standard on the Sport model, and is only available with the five-speed manual gearbox. We found the four-cylinder with manual transmission to be a smooth combination, though we suspect it may struggle at higher elevations. Besides the lower initial cost, the 150-horsepower four-cylinder gets 20/24 mpg.
We've also had the opportunity to drive a 2005 Liberty with the new 2.7 Turbo diesel. The engine is surprisingly satisfying, combining the horsepower of a V6 (160) with the torque of a V8 (295 pound-feet) and the mileage of a four-cylinder. During a recent week of testing, we averaged about 21 mpg, including a fair amount of time offroad in low range. On the highway, the diesel Liberty becomes an easy cruiser, showing just 2000 rpm on the tach at 70 mph. Our highway mileage was close to 24 mpg, some 30 percent better than the gas V6. The Diesel is rated to tow up to 5000 pounds with the optional hitch.
The new diesel seems to suffer few of the tradeoffs associated with oil-burning engines of the past. There is practically no smoke, and very little noise or vibration. The technology is European, with a very high pressure fuel injection system that burns much more cleanly than earlier designs. There is no warm-up period before starting, because the glowplugs are electronicaly controlled. The turbocharger is an advanced design with variable-geometry vanes that delivers significant induction improvements at both low rpm and high rpm, and at high altitudes.
The Diesel gets the stronger five-speed electronic automatic, which benefits from advanced logic. The transmission, depending on throttle input, can deliver two separate second-gear ratios, a lower ratio for quicker acceleration, a taller one for smooth downshifts.
The Liberty doesn't ride as smoothly on the road as a Ford Escape, particularly over bumps and other irregularities where it bobbles a bit. Nor does it handle as well as the more car-like SUVs. Steering effort is relatively easy at low speeds for a 4x4, nice when parking. On the road, the steering is reasonably on-center, a benefit of its power-assisted rack-and-pinion design. But the long-travel off-road suspension, set up to absorb impact without being overly harsh, makes for lethargic transient response in lane-change maneuvers. That said, the Liberty rides reasonably well for a short-wheelbase 4x4. It doesn't beat the driver up as much as a Jeep Wrangler does. The wider tires of the Limited and Renegade models seem to offer more stability than the narrower tires of the Sport. We've found the Liberty handles winding Virginia backroads well and feels fine on the crowded freeways around Los Angeles.
We've found the Liberty capable of handling fairly gnarly trails. We've crossed steep ditches and gullies, where its short front and rear overhangs paid off. Its tight turning radius is helpful where space is limited, something we discovered while weaving through a stand of tightly spaced trees. We 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 impressive, with no wheelspin.
Keep in mind, however, that the Liberty is limited by just 6.4 inches of front ground clearance, about the same as a Subaru. Rocks will contact the skid plates, a sound we experienced although we suspect no harm was being done. Another aspect serious trailblazers should note is that the Liberty platform is less upgradeable than Jeep's other 4x4s, such as the Wrangler or Grand Cherokee. However, a locking rear differential is available as a factory
Jeep Liberty strikes a 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. A higher degree of off-highway capability separates the Liberty from other small SUVs. Though less agile on the road than the so-called cute-utes, the Liberty is superior once you leave the pavement.
New Car Test Drive editor Mitch McCullough filed this report from Charlottesville, Virginia; John Stewart contributed to this report.