The Jeep Liberty offers a great 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 can go just about anywhere.
True to Jeep heritage, the Liberty offers serious 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 refinement, practicality and affordability during the week.
Just two years old, the Liberty debuted as a 2002 model. It was significantly improved for 2003 with improved on-road stability. The 2004 model offers further, substantial upgrades in safety equipment, and in comfort and convenience options. For example, Chrysler's Enhanced Accident Response System (EARS), which unlocks doors and turns on interior lights five seconds after an airbag deploys, is standard for 2004. New options include a tire-pressure monitor; and UConnect, a clever bit of hardware and software which integrates your cell phone into the Liberty's stereo system.
The 2004 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). Two engines are available: a 2.4-liter inline-4 and a 3.7-liter V6. The four-cylinder engine is only available with a five-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.
Sport ($18,060) and Sport 4WD ($19,570) come standard with the four-cylinder engine, five-speed manual transmission, cloth interior, wind-up windows, manually operated mirrors, and 16-inch tires on steel wheels. A six-speaker stereo with CD player is standard. 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).
Limited Edition models offer upgraded interior amenties and a better grade of cloth upholstery. Limited ($22,750) and Limited 4WD ($24,260) come standard with the V6 engine and automatic transmission. Leather is available as part of a big option package ($1,145) 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.
Renegade is a specialty model with a roof-mounted light bar, rock-rail protection, and black body-side moldings. Renegade 2WD ($22,910) and 4WD ($24,520) models come standard with the V6; heavy-duty five-speed manual transmission; air conditioning; cruise control; tilt steering; 16-inch graphite-painted aluminum wheels; power windows, mirrors, and locks; illuminated keyless entry; roof rack side rails; and many other features. Renegade 4WD models include a skid-plate package. 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 is 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 off 174.4 inches, it's slightly longer than the Ford Escape. It's longer than Jeep's classic Wrangler as well, but 7 inches shorter and as much as 500 pounds lighter than the Grand Cherokee.
The Sport model is trimmed with a gray front fascia, and accent-color body-side moldings and wheel flares that give it a rugged, youthful look.
Limited models are distinguished by body-colored trim and unique aluminum wheels that create a more sophisticated appearance.
The Renegade is instantly distinguished by a bold light bar integrated into the leading edge of the roof. It also features a roof basket, bolt-on fender flares, removable side steps, unique graphite-painted aluminum wheels, and a body-colored front fascia. The activity light bar houses four halogen lamps designed to light rocky terrain or a nighttime game of beach volleyball. (Be aware that operating roof lights may not be legal on your roads.) The Renegade was inspired by Jeep's Dakar concept. It comes in a limited choice of colors: Bright Cactus Green, Light Khaki, silver, and black.
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 comes with a roomy interior that can accommodate five passengers and a generous amount of cargo, with good usable space behind the second row of seats. Sitting in the Liberty gives the driver a sense of spaciousness with acres 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 in the Sport model feel firm in the middle, but the side bolsters are too mushy to provide much side support. Also, there's no seat-height adjustment. In short, I found the Sport seats uncomfortable. But the cloth upholstery has a hard finish that 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, 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 Liberty's rear seats are comfortable, capable of holding three people. Two adults should be happy here. There is lots of rear headroom, and lots of space to slide your feet under the front seats, but knee room is limited. Getting 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 putting any well-dressed guests back there.
The Liberty offers a generous amount of cargo space behind the rear seats, though not quite as much as the Ford Escape does (29 cubic feet for the Liberty vs. 33.1 cubic feet for the Escape). Our 155-pound puppy was happy to ride behind the rear seats. Two full-size garbage cans fit side-by-side back there, something that can't be said for 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, virtually the same as the Escape does (69.0 cubic feet for the Liberty vs. 69.2 cubic feet for the Escape). 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 my 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. The Renegade gets brushed aluminum (real aluminum) highlights on the instrument panel that give it a machined look consistent with the exterior theme.
The 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 and less convenient than if they were on the door. The manually operated heating/air-conditioning controls work well, though the mode selector demands attention. The radio works well, but uses a separate and poorly located button to preset stations, an unnecessary distraction when driving.
A new option on Liberty is UConnect, Chrysler Gro
Jeep lowered and re-tuned the Liberty's suspension for 2003 for better ride and handling. Jeep also reduced the steering effort for easier maneuverability at low speeds (parking).
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. It's relatively slow steering and off-road suspension add up to lethargic transient response in lane-change type maneuvers. That said, the Liberty rides reasonably well. 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. I've found winding Virginia backroads to be an enjoyable experience with Liberty's rack-and-pinion steering. The Liberty also felt quite capable on crowded freeways around Los Angeles.
The 3.7-liter V6 works well with the automatic transmission, responsive to the driver's wishes. The V6 is rated 210 horsepower and 235 pounds-feet of torque. That's enough to give the Limited model a 5000-pound tow rating (though I don't think it's the best choice for pulling a trailer that heavy).
The 2.4-liter twin-cam four-cylinder engine comes standard on the Sport 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 20/24 mpg city/highway, versus 16/22 for the V6 (or 17/21 for the V6 with automatic transmission). A slightly larger fuel tank on the 2004 models gives them a little more range.
The Liberty is fully capable of tackling the Rubicon Trail, the mother of all unpaved roads, and has in fact done just 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. If you need a vehicle to negotiate rugged terrain or slog down muddy trails, the Jeep Liberty is an excellent choice.
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 mph 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 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 adds a planetary center differential that 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, V6-powered Liberties can also be ordered with 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 Liberty's construction "uni-frame" because it's a beefed up unibody with frame-like reinforcement rails. This gives the Liberty increased strength and rigidity. That
Jeep Liberty strikes an excellent 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.
Go-anywhere capability separates the Liberty from other small SUVs. Though less agile on the road than the so-called cute-utes, such as the Ford Escape and Toyota RAV4, the Liberty is vastly superior once you leave the pavement.