Jeep debuts a five-passenger sport utility vehicle with a newly designed V-6 engine.
By Jim Brightly, Technical Editor
DaimlerChrysler’s Jeep division slides its newest sport utility vehicle (SUV), the 2002 Liberty, into the niche between its rugged Wrangler and the super-plush Grand Cherokee. The Liberty will take the place of the recently retired Cherokee. This puts the new SUV in direct competition with Toyota’s RAV4, Honda’s CR-V, and Subaru’s Outback, among others. The Liberty, which is approved for flat towing, should do well in this market segment.
The Liberty’s macho front styling, with retro round headlights and a vertically barred grille, immediately indicates that this vehicle is all Jeep. However, its relatively low stance may cause some concern for the hard-core off-road enthusiast. But Jeep officials note that a stock Liberty conquered California’s famous Rubicon trail, a test that all Jeep vehicles must master before they can bear the Jeep name. For the average motorhome owner looking for a capable, all-around towed vehicle, its low stature merely adds to its tractability on the highway.
How does the Liberty perform? While I wouldn’t go so far as to quote American Revolution patriot Patrick Henry — “Give me Liberty or give me death” — for this new Jeep, I did enjoy driving it. The somewhat diminutive SUV impressed me with its excellent compromise between on-road manners and off-road capabilities. Although relatively heavy (the test vehicle weighed 4,300 pounds full of fuel) for its size (104.3-inch wheelbase), the Liberty can scoot along the freeway. I recorded a 12.2-second 0-to-60 mph acceleration average during my test of the vehicle. Gas mileage during the test was 17.4 mpg at highway cruising speeds. Off-road, the Liberty averaged 12.4 mpg. Combined, the vehicle averaged 14.3-mpg for the entire test.
During the evaluation, I took the Liberty around the Los Angeles basin and over a well-known Southern California four-wheel-drive trail to fully examine its capabilities. The Limited model that I was provided to test includes as standard equipment the new 210-horsepower 3.7-liter Power Tech V-6 engine (which was designed similarly to the Jeep Grand Cherokee’s very popular 4.7-liter V-8); a four-speed automatic transmission (with alternate second gears — more about this later) with overdrive; and a solid “live” rear axle. These features combined to give this small SUV superb street handling.
On the lower-priced Sport model, the same engine and transmission configuration is available, as well as two other power train choices: the 3.7-liter V-6 with a five-speed manual transmission, or a 150-horsepower 2.4-liter Power Tech I-4 engine with a five-speed manual transmission. In all models, the Liberty features front coil springs, rear link-coil suspension system, stabilizer bars, and Jeep’s UniFrame construction.
On road, the Liberty’s short wheelbase and tight turning radius (35.9 feet) made it a breeze to pull into compact parking spaces at the local mall. Its short, steeply slanted hood allows the driver to see and identify potential obstacles close to the front bumper. The spare tire also is plainly visible from the driver’s seat, so it’s easy to keep track of the rear while backing up.
Let me explain the alternative second gear of Liberty’s multi-speed automatic transmission. When upshifting, the transmission uses the 1.67:1 gear for easier towing and climbing. But the 1.50:1 second gear ratio is used during downshifting to ease the torque demands on the engine while slowing down. It’s almost like having a five-speed automatic transmission. The Liberty is available with two four-wheel-drive transfer case options (Command-Trac or Selec-Trac), or as a two-wheel-drive model.
Seating five full-sized adults, the Liberty offers a one-handed, 65/35 percent split-folding rear seat as standard equipment, and the roof rack is a must for outdoor and multi-sport enthusiasts. As a sporty utility vehicle, the Liberty also offers excellent cargo-carrying capacity: 29 cubic feet with the rear seats up and 69 cubic feet with them folded down. To load the vehicle, just hit the cargo door button on the available remote keyless-entry key fob. It will unlock the swing gate and simultaneously release and raise the flipper-style rear glass window — without unlocking the other four doors. Another button on the key fob unlocks the doors and turns on the interior lights at the same time. The key fob also operates the optional vehicle security system, which includes a “panic” button.
All Liberty models are flat-towable and have no limits on towing speed or distance traveled. However, the owner’s manual includes a specific sequence of steps that must be followed to prepare the vehicle for towing and prevent the driveline from being damaged. To begin, depress the brake pedal; shift the transmission into “Neutral”; shift the transfer case into “Neutral”; start the engine; shift the automatic transmission into “Drive” or the manual transmission into any forward gear; release the brake pedal and make sure there is no vehicle movement; shut off the engine and place the ignition key in the unlocked “Off” position; shift the automatic transmission into “Park,” or ensure the manual transmission is in a forward gear; apply the parking brake; attach to the tow vehicle; and release the parking brake.
Fast Facts: 2002 Liberty Limited 4WD
Engine: 3.7-liter V-6
Horsepower: 210 @ 5,200 rpm
Torque: 235 @ 4,000 rpm
0-60 mph: 12.2 seconds as tested
Transmission: four-speed automatic with overdrive
Wheelbase: 104.3 inches
Mileage: 14.3 mpg as tested;
EPA average — 16 mpg city, 20 mpg highway
Fuel capacity: 18.5 gallons
Weight: 4,300 pounds as tested (fuel tank full)
Warranty: 3 years/36,000 miles
Base MSRP: $22,720