Cher·o·kee-itis: A disease that infects the minds, hearts and wallets of Jeep buyers who cannot accept that there was, is, or ever could be a replacement for the Cherokee, sometimes referred to as the XJ.
Yes, we just made that up, but the fictitious symptoms of Cherokeeitis do afflict a great number of SUV aficionados. After all, the original Jeep XJ was, if not the very first mid-size SUV on the market, the definitive sport utility vehicle from 1984 straight through to 2001.
Interestingly enough, Cherokeeitis seems to infect Jeep's engineers, designers and product planners as well. To wit, nearly every Jeep developed since the final XJ rolled off the line at the company's Toledo-based factories has been designed to conjure up images of the 1984 Cherokee. Such is the case with the Patriot, Grand Cherokee and the mostly forgotten Commander. Only the iconic Wrangler and hitherto unloved Compass have strayed from the XJ.
It's also true of the current Jeep Liberty, which was last restyled in 2008 to look less like a four-door Wrangler and more like the butch Cherokee it was designed to replace. Nobody ever said supplanting an icon would be easy. But just how successful was that mid-life makeover, and is the Liberty worthy of consideration for those in the market for a mid-size SUV?
Photos copyright ©2011 Jeremy Korzeniewski / AOL
Before getting into exactly what the Jeep Liberty is, it would be helpful to spend a few moments considering what it is not: a crossover. We will not be saying things like 'smooth,' 'buttery,' 'refined' and especially not 'carlike' (whatever that means) when describing the Liberty. Those adjectives may apply to the vast majority of so-called utility vehicles available today, but the Liberty stands apart, for better or for worse, as an honest-to-Bear-Grylls SUV.
Or rather, for better and for worse.
First, The Better. The Jeep Liberty needs no fancy computer-controlled techno-wizardry to travel off the beaten path. All the essentials for off-road treks are present and accounted for: a torque-rich powerplant, low-range gearing, sturdy suspension with plenty of ground clearance (7.8 inches) and, of course, shift-on-the-fly Command-Trac II part-time four-wheel drive. We used the Liberty to ascend some rather unfriendly terrain in the mountainous deserts of Arizona, and it passed each successive test with ease. If you live in an area where the weather consistently throws a wrench in your plans, consider the Selec-Trac II full-time four-wheel-drive system. Naturally, it's Trail Rated, to use Jeep's marketing parlance.
For the record, that last paragraph could have been written almost verbatim a decade ago in reference to the old-guard Jeep Cherokee XJ. Taken in that context, you may think we're knocking the Liberty for being laden with old technology. In fact, we mean just the opposite; the Liberty features all tried-and-true bits built right in to tackle the fabled Rubicon Trail.
Or, you know, that one particularly nasty speed bump on the way to little Jimmy's Kindergarten class.
It's been so long since the classic sport utility vehicle was a marketplace darling that we feel the need to remind you that most of them will have absolutely zero need for all of this off-road hardware. That said, if your own personal needs do include as much time spent off roads as on, you could certainly do much worse than a proper SUV like the Liberty.
But is the Jeep Liberty the kind of SUV you take home to Mom and Dad? Well, no... not really. It's time to consider The Worse. We'll be blunt: the 3.7-liter V6 and four-speed automatic combination isn't merely uncompetitive, it's just plain unacceptable. Worse yet, there are no other options. If you want a Jeep Liberty, this is your only drivetrain choice.
You'll have to make due with 210 horsepower, delivered at 5,200 rpm. The numbers themselves don't sound that bad... anything over 200 horses should be plenty for the daily grind, right? Sadly, it seems Chrysler managed to corral the 210 sickliest, overworked and over-the-hill ponies this side of True Grit. In part-throttle situations, you won't really notice a lack of power; problem is, a progressively stronger application of the throttle seems to have no affect at all on your overall rate of forward progress. You do, however, create quite a racket in the process.
Perhaps these 210 ponies would be better served by a more modern automatic transmission. Four forward ratios may have cut mustard when the original Macintosh came out, but today, that's really two shy of a full stable. Not only is acceleration and highway travel compromised by the gearbox, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates the Liberty will achieve just 15 miles per gallon in the city and 21 on the highway. We averaged 16 combined in our week with the brute, which, for a vehicle this size, is dismal. Eschewing four-wheel drive will earn you one additional mile per gallon in each test, but then what would be the point?
Both inside and out, the Jeep Liberty is a sport utility vehicle in the classic sense. Exterior styling was done with nothing but a compass and a protractor... though in an age of evermore swoopy and organic styling, some squared-off, broad-shouldered machinery is a welcome diversion. On the inside, there's plenty more straight edges, along with a smattering of tough-wearing cloth (leather is optional) on seats that put your body into a bus-like sit-up-and-beg driving position. Suffice it to say, there is a lot of hard plastic. On the positive side, all buttons are within easy reach and can be operated with gloves on, the gauges and digital displays are all easy to read at a glance and there's plenty of room for four occupants and their cargo. Just don't expect much style or fancy technology.
Steering is very quick and almost comically light with next to zero feel, which is not uncommon for this aging class of vehicle. As you would expect from an off-road-oriented Jeep, the turning circle is a tight 17.7 feet. The solid rear axle is great for off-road articulation, but makes its presence known on rutted, undulating surface streets, especially in gradual arcing turns at higher speeds. It's all very truck-like, both in the ride and handling department and in appearance.
Another thing to consider if you're in the market for a new Jeep: The Liberty slots in as something of a middle child below the Grand Cherokee and above the Patriot and Compass twins. Though the Sport edition starts at around $23,000 (a hair over $24K when fitted with four-wheel drive), a reasonable dosage of options (leather interior, sunroof, premium audio, premium wheels) can push the sticker up so that it nudges $30,000... and that's Grand Cherokee territory.
If you're shopping in a Jeep showroom and your chosen Liberty crests $30K, well... maybe it's time to save a few more pennies and step up to the next rung of the Jeep ladder. It goes without saying that the Grand Cherokee, with its new Pentastar V6 and five-speed automatic, is a much better vehicle than the Liberty. Fitted with four-wheel drive, a Grand Cherokee Laredo starts at a hair under $33,000.
On the lower end, a loaded-up Patriot with all the bits and pieces to earn a Trail Rated badge can be had for the price of a much more basically equipped Liberty. The same can be said of the heavily redesigned 2011 Compass, which inherited some slick new sheetmetal designs from the Grand Cherokee. Both of these vehicles offer significantly better fuel economy (21-23 city, 26-29 highway, depending on how they're equipped) and an equal number of seats. What's more, the Patriot offers almost exactly the same amount of interior room and luggage capacity.
To put it another way, you'd have to really appreciate the Jeep Liberty's unique blend of blocky styling and off-road capabilities to drive away from the dealer in this particular SUV.
It's worth mentioning that our test car was a 2010 model-year Liberty, but there aren't any significant changes that would sway our review one way or the other. Clearly, this 'ute is more than due for a replacement. One of Chrysler's recent and largely successful refreshes has not been prescribed for the Liberty. And that brings us to some potentially good news: Chrysler's new Italian parents at Fiat have promised a new mid-size SUV (which is really more likely to be a crossover of some sort) based on Fiat-bred architecture.
All of which means, if you do want a shiny new rough-and-tumble SUV wearing the coveted Jeep badge and really (really?) can't afford to spend a little bit more for a lot better Grand Cherokee, the Libery is your best (and only) choice. That said, it's certainly no XJ.
Seems we've got a minor case of Cherokeeitis ourselves...
Photos copyright ©2011 Jeremy Korzeniewski / AOL