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The Jeep Liberty is quite capable off road, one of the best in its class, with terrific off-road prowess and bold, upright styling. It's tall and angular, somewhat reminiscent of the much-loved, rugged but crude 1990s Jeep Cherokee. It rides nice and smooth, as well, but maintains the ruggedness for which Jeep is famous.
All Liberty models come with a 3.7-liter V6 that makes 210 horsepower. A four-speed automatic is standard; but in these days of six-speed automatics, the four-speed is somewhat antiquated, and we don't think it gets the most out of the 3.7-liter V6, an engine that could use a little help. When it comes to fuel economy, the Liberty's weight and powertrain provide numbers that are on the lower end of the class.
Jeep has made an effort to refine the Liberty and add premium options. Snow Belt drivers will appreciate the full-time all-wheel drive system available in addition to the part-time system. Both four-wheel-drive systems make the Liberty highly capable off road, and they are aided by Hill Start Assist and Hill Descent Control.
Jeep engineers set out to give the Liberty pleasant road manners and, when it comes to ride quality, they succeeded. The Liberty rides firmly, but irons out most bumps quite well and is stable on the highway. The Liberty sacrifices handling for off-road prowess, however. The Liberty leans in turns and has a floppy feeling in quick changes of direction. Still, it's rugged and capable off road; if we were heading up a rough logging road, we'd be pleased to be in a Liberty.
Inside, the Liberty has plenty of room for five. However, we view it as not quite up to expectations in terms of materials quality and fit and finish, with a lot of hard-plastic surfaces. Still, it's not an unpleasant cockpit. Cargo room is a plus. The Liberty's second-row seats fold flat, as does the front passenger seat, to provide plenty of room for hauling boxes, bikes and life's other accessories.
For 2010 the changes are minor in nature. Front seat active head restraints are standard on all models, and the Limited trim level has leather seating surfaces and power and heated front seats. There have also been changes to some option groups and there are some detail feature enhancements.
With a maximum towing capacity of 5,000 pounds, rugged off-road capability and plenty of cargo space, the Jeep Liberty is a good choice for small families or couples that tow boats or go camping. If your travels don't often take you off-road, other small SUVs will deliver better fuel economy and better handling, but few will match the Liberty's capabilities.
The Jeep Liberty is offered in three trim levels. The Sport 2WD ($23,255), Sport 4WD ($24,865), Limited ($27,125), and Limited 4WD ($28,735) are available with two-wheel drive or four-wheel drive. The Renegade ($27,860) is available only with four-wheel drive. The lone engine is a 210-horsepower 3.7-liter V6, mated to a four-speed automatic transmission.
The base four-wheel-drive system is Jeep's Command Trac, a part-time system designed for off-road use. Also offered is Selec-Trac II ($445), a full-time system that allows use of four-wheel drive on dry pavement. Both systems have low-range gearing.
The Sport features include cloth upholstery, air conditioning, tilt steering wheel, 65/35 split folding rear seats, heated power mirrors, power locks, power windows, remote keyless entry, AM/FM/CD/MP3 stereo and auxiliary input jack, vehicle information center, and P225/75R16 all-season tires on aluminum wheels. Floor mats come standard. Sport options include a Sky Slider canvas sunroof ($1,200); a regular sunroof ($850); Class III towing package with trailer sway control ($545); 235/70R16 all-terrain tires ($180-350, depending on other equipment); skid plates ($225) for the 4x4 model; and the Popular Equipment Group ($995), which includes cargo compartment cover, fog lamps, roof rails, cruise control, external temperature display and compass, and deep-tinted glass.
The Renegade includes skid plates for the transmission, transfer case, front suspension, and engine; transmission oil cooler; tow hooks; and fender flares. It is fitted for the more rugged off-roading experience. Its options are similar to those of the Sport.
The Limited comes standard with a 368-watt Infinity sound system with eight speakers, cruise control, leather-wrapped steering wheel with redundant audio and vehicle information center controls, auto-dimming rearview mirror, roof rails, six-way power driver's seat, fold-flat front passenger seat, universal garage door opener, anti-theft alarm, fog lamps, and 235/65R17 all-season tires on aluminum wheels. Limited options include an AM/FM/CD/DVD system with HDD navigation ($1,505): the Comfort and Convenience Group, which includes automatic climate control, rear park assist, and remote start ($590); and the Premium Wheel Group, which includes P235/60R18 all-season tires on chrome clad alloy wheels ($1,125). Most of the options available for the Sport are also available for the Limited, where applicable.
Safety features include dual front airbags, plus head-protecting side-curtain airbags with rollover sensors, front side airbags for torso protection, and active front-seat head restraints. Active safety features include anti-lock brakes with brake assist, hill start assist, traction control, and electronic stability control with rollover mitigation. The antilock brakes have rough road detection; when rough conditions are detected, the system holds the brake pulses longer to better slow the vehicle. Hill descent control is standard on 4x4 models. Optional safety features include trailer sway control and rear obstacle detection.
The Liberty is a true Jeep, with off-road prowess and bold, upright styling. Its tall, upright, angular styling fits with the current Jeep design idiom while also recalling the 1990s Cherokee. The look is intended to attract an even split of male and female buyers. The most noticeable aspect of the front end is Jeep's characteristic seven-slot grille. The grille is body color on the Sport and chrome on the Limited. The front fascia is body color on all, and the front air dam is removable to provide more ground clearance for off-roading.
From the side, the Liberty has tall windows in a squared off greenhouse. The Limited's chrome theme extends to the side with chrome side trim and roof rails. These components are black on the Sport. In an attempt to give the Liberty the open feel of a Wrangler, Jeep offers the Sky Slider sunroof. Jeep says this canvas power sunroof is four times the size of an average sunroof.
A notable feature of the rear is the lack of an exterior spare tire. The spare is mounted inside and the rear is accessed with a liftgate with a separate opening rear glass.
Though not luxurious, the interior of the Jeep Liberty is functional. Most drivers will like the high seating position. Head room in the front seat is plentiful, but the tallest drivers will want more available front leg room. The side mirrors are large and the cabin has a lot of glass, making for fine rear visibility.
The gauges are easy to spot and the controls are simple to use. The climate functions are controlled by three simple knobs and the radio and other vehicle controls are straightforward. There is a useful cubby on the center of the dash top, and a sizable grab handle is located just above the smallish glove box. The center console is deep and has a removable tray on top. There is also a small tray next to the shift handle. In 4WD models, a small electronic switch replaces the previous generation's transfer case lever.
The dash is all plastic with no soft-touch surfaces. The same goes for the tops of the doors, where passengers might rest their arms. The only padded surfaces to be found here are the door armrests. The center console also has a little give to its surface, but it's not padded, either.
That said, the Limited interior includes a leather-wrapped shift knob with a chrome cap; and leather accent stitching on the console and door armrests, grab handle, and parking brake boot.
The Sky Slider sunroof is much larger than a standard sunroof. It is made of canvas and creates an open air feeling, especially for rear seat passengers. However, it also creates wind noise at highway speed when closed. That's a shame because without the Sky Slider the cabin is impressively quiet. Wind noise and tire noise are well checked, and the engine is only noticeable under hard acceleration.
The second row offers lots of head room. Leg room is decent, even with the front seats all the way back. Toe space is plentiful under the seats, but there is an annoying hump on each side next to the transmission tunnel. The second-row seats aren't the most comfortable, however; they're flat and short with little thigh or shoulder support and they lack a fold-down center armrest. Getting in the second row is an easy step in, but the opening is a bit small, so it requires some ankle twisting.
Cargo space is about average for the class. The second-row seats fold flat in an easy one-step process to yield 60.9 cubic feet of cargo space. With the seats up there is 25.2 cubic feet of cargo room, which is plenty of room for hauling groceries with the kids in the vehicle. The available fold-flat front-passenger seat allows for loading long items. In back, Jeep provides a shallow under-floor storage area with a reversible cover that is carpeted on one side and formed into a plastic tray on the other. This is a useful feature for stowing muddy boots. Cargo tie-down hooks are also provided to secure loose items. The load floor is fairly low, making it easy to load heavy cargo. The rear glass panel opens separately, so groceries can be set inside without opening the tailgate.
The Jeep Liberty offers a pleasant driving experience. The ride is generally firm, but the Liberty smoothes over most bumps and is never punishing, even with the available 18-inch wheels.
When it comes to handling, the Liberty is relatively tall and heavy, so it is not as nimble as most of its compact SUV competitors. It leans more than most in turns and struggles to regain composure in quick changes of direction. Its solid axle rear suspension is designed for the more rugged chores of towing and off-road capability.
In off-road conditions, however, the Liberty is quite good. With generous approach and departure angles and low-range gearing for 4x4 models, it can crawl over large rocks and logs. Four-wheel-drive models have Hill Descent Control, which pulses the brakes through the ABS to limit the vehicle's speed when driving down steep grades. Hill Start Assist is also standard. It holds the brakes on hills when the driver releases the pedal to prevent the vehicle from sliding backward. We drove the Liberty on a technically challenging off-road trail where it performed well.
With the available towing package, the Liberty is capable of pulling a load up to 5,000 pounds. This towing capability combined with the Liberty's off-road prowess make it a good choice for families that like to camp, ski, or vacation at locations off the beaten path.
The 3.7-liter V6 is only adequate in this vehicle. It has decent pickup from a stop, but doesn't provide the willing punch to make passing easy. The four-speed automatic transmission kicks down readily to provide what passing power there is.
With EPA fuel economy rating of 16 mpg City and 22 Highway with 2WD (and 15/21 for 4x4 models), the Liberty is harder on fuel than most of its competitors.
The Jeep Liberty has better off-road capability and more towing capacity than most of its competitors. It offers generous cargo space and a high seating position. But it's heavy for a compact SUV, and it lacks the handling and fuel economy of most of its rivals. If off-road capability is important, the Liberty is a good choice; otherwise several rivals will handle better and go easier on gas.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Kirk Bell filed this report from Indianapolis.