Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
Improved safety for 2003.
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.
The 2003 Jeep Liberty is available in three trim levels, Sport, Renegade, and Limited Edition. Each is available with two-wheel drive or four-wheel drive. Two engines are available, a 2.4-liter four-cylinder and a 3.7-liter V6. The four-cylinder engine is only available with a five-speed manual gearbox. The V6 is available as an option with a heavy-duty five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic that has been revised for 2003 for smoother, quieter operation.
Sport 2WD models ($17,235) come standard with the four-cylinder engine, five-speed manual, a cloth interior, wind-up windows, manually operated mirrors, and 16-inch tires on steel wheels. Air conditioning ($850) is optional, but a six-speaker stereo is standard. Packages are available that add power windows and other features. The V6 is an option and can be ordered with manual ($850) or automatic ($1675). Sport 4WD ($18,745) comes standard with the V6 and automatic, but not air conditioning or power windows and locks, which are optional.
The Renegade name made its comeback to the Jeep lineup as the 2002 model year came to a close. Representing the rebellious side of Jeep, the Liberty Renegade adds special exterior and interior trim. Renegade is available in 2WD ($22,085) and 4WD ($23,695) and comes standard with the V6, five-speed manual, 16-inch aluminum wheels, air conditioning, power windows and locks, a six-disc CD changer and many other features. An automatic transmission ($245) is optional. A premium model ($1915) adds the automatic, power leather seats, and premium door trim panels. It also comes with a new overhead vehicle information center that allows the customer to program automatic locking, lighting, and other features.
Limited Edition 2WD models ($21,925) come standard with the V6 engine and automatic transmission. The Limited comes standard with air conditioning, cruise control, power windows, power door locks, power mirrors, illuminated remote keyless entry, better interior lighting, a roof rack, floor mats, cargo cover, and a CD changer. Cloth is standard; Leather is available as part of a big option package ($1540) on the Limited that includes the programmable overhead console and Infinity speakers. Limited 4WD ($23,435) also comes with an extra skid plate to protect the front suspension.
All 2003 Liberty models come standard with four-wheel disc brakes, an improvement over last year's rear drum brakes.
Side-impact airbags ($490) are optional, but we recommend them. Serious adventurers may want the optional Off-Road Group ($765 for Sport, $520 for Limited), which includes fuel tank and transfer case skid plates, 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.
Liberty Sport is trimmed with black molded bumpers, wheel flares and side molding that give it a rugged, more youthful look. Limited models are distinguished with body-colored trim and aluminum wheels, which create a more sophisticated appearance.
The new Renegade features a light bar integrated into the leading edge of the roof, a roof basket, bolt-on wheel flares, removable side steps, unique wheels, and a two-tone front fascia. The activity light bar houses four halogen lamps designed to light rocky terrain or a game of beach volleyball. (Operating roof lights may not be legal on your roads, however.) Inspired by Jeep's Dakar concept, the Renegade comes in Bright Cactus Green, Light Khaki, silver and black and features body-colored grille and moldings with a two-tone front fascia. Unique Renegade wheel flares appear wider than the standard flares with machined stainless steel bolt heads. Trapezoidal wheel openings frame the all-terrain tires mount on 16-inch six-spoke wheels. Silver tubular side steps with black step pads bolted to the chassis rails make getting in and out easier, and can be removed when it's time for some extreme off-roading.
Liberty's body is tall, providing the driver a commanding view of the terrain ahead. By 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 Ford's 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.
A neat feature: 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) and general roominess. Door panels are scalloped out for elbow rests. Sit in the Liberty and the first thing you'll likely notice is that it feels tall in the saddle. We searched in vain for a seat-height adjustment.
The seats in the Sport model feel firm in the middle, but the side bolsters are too mushy to provide as much side support as we'd like. I found the Sport seats uncomfortable. The cloth upholstery has a hard finish that feels like it'll hold up well. The Renegade front seats are tailored with flat woven cloth center panels and leather bolsters. The front seats in the Limited are comfortable, chair-like, softer and more contoured than the seats in the Ford Escape.
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 it before putting well-dressed guests back there.
The Liberty doesn't offer quite as much cargo space behind the rear seats as the Ford Escape does (29 cubic feet for the Liberty vs. 33.3 cubic feet for the Escape). However, it's quite adequate. Our 155-pound puppy was happy to ride behind the rear seats. Two big garbage cans fit side-by-side back there that had to go front-to-rear in a tall and boxy old Isuzu Trooper. Grocery-bag hooks and cargo tie-downs are provided in back.
Fold the rear seats down and the Liberty offers more cargo room than the Escape (69 cubic feet of space for the Liberty vs. 64.8 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, the rear headrests are hard to remove and install with two buttons needed 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 Renegade gets brushed aluminum (real aluminum) highlights on the instrument panel that give it a machined look consistent with the exterior theme. The Limited adds attractive satin chrome highlights to the instrument panel and doors. 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 controls work well and intuitively. The power window switches are located on the center console, however, less convenient than on the door. The manually operated HVAC works well, though the mode selector demands attention. The radio works well, but uses a separate and poorly located button to preset stations, which seems an unnecessary distraction when driving.
The Liberty is loaded with safety features: Multi-stage front airbags deploy with less force during low speed collisions, or if the occupant is unbuckled, to reduce the risk of airbag-related injuries. The Liberty is the first Jeep to offer optional side curtains to protect outboard occupants from head injury in side impacts. A three-point belt for the center rear seat is standard, a safety feature that's missing from many SUVs. Jacking equipment is stored under the rear seat and can be quickly grabbed as a unit.
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.
Sport 2WD ($17,235); Renegade 2WD ($22,085); Limited 2WD ($21,925); Sport 4WD ($18,745); Renegade 4WD ($23,695); Limited 4WD ($23,435).
Options As Tested
ABS ($600); V6 ($850); automatic transmission ($825); package 27B ($2325) includes air conditioning, power windows with one-touch down, speed-sensitive power door locks, power mirrors, remote keyless entry, illuminated entry, side roof rails, tilt steering, floor mats, illuminated visor vanity mirrors, rear power outlet; leather-wrapped steering wheel with speed controls ($300); AM/FM/cassette/CD ($225); Infinity speakers ($475); Trailer Tow Group ($325) includes Class III trailer hitch, 7-pin wiring harness, 7-4 pin adapter, heavy-duty cooling; Package discount (-$1670).
Jeep Liberty Sport 4WD ($18,745).
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