Jeep's Sweet Liberty

The new 2008 Liberty is bigger, wider and more powerful, making it a better off-roader than ever

With all the four-wheel-drive SUVs out there, it's surprising that more don't ever venture off-road. I mean really off-road. Not on a dirt road. But really off-the-road-into-the-woods-on-a-trail-that-scares-you kind of off-road. And honestly, it's too bad because that kind of off-roading is really a lot of fun. Just imagine the feeling of ascending an incline so vertical that all you see out the windshield is sky…or descending a path so steep you're literally hanging in your seat belts. It's a rush worth experiencing that has no on-road equivalent.

For 2008, Jeep offers true off-roading capabilities to those drivers who mostly need a practical five-passenger SUV for commuting and family duties. And for 2008, they can have a more capable vehicle with more content at a lower price than 2007.

Jeep's Liberty is new for 2008. With the exception of the tried and true 3.7-liter V-6 (210 horsepower/237 lb-ft torque) and its two transmissions, everything else is fresh or majorly tweaked. This capable ute takes its place among the largest range of Jeeps ever offered, from the mainstream not-Trail-Rated front-wheel-drive-Caliber-based Compass to the ever-popular Grand Cherokee. Thanks to the Compass and Patriot models, the Liberty was able to move out of role of Jeep's entry-level vehicle.

Compared to the outgoing model, the 2008 Liberty grew in wheelbase (by 1.8 inches), width (0.5 inch), and overall length (2.5 inches). Overall, the styling is Commander-esque. It looks good in person, with a particularly good angle being the powerful looking front fenders. Moving around back, the Wrangler-esque rear-mounted spare tire has been banished from its exterior mount on the cargo door. It now resides to under the load floor. The change is aesthetically and functionally welcome.

The Liberty 's incremental growth is put to good use inside, with the lion's share of it going to rear-seat legroom and cargo capacity (now up to 31.2 cubic feet behind the rear seats). Longer rear doors make getting in and out easier. Decked out in multiple tones of grays, silvers, and black, the interior décor is contemporary. Functionality is good, with an upright driving position, plenty of storage cubbies, a 115-volt outlet, and purposeful features like a reversible cargo floor (carpeted on one side, a washable plastic load surface on the other). An under-floor well in the cargo area is the perfect spot for muddy boots or the catch of the day.

Comfy ride, Adequate Power

Over the road, the new Liberty delivered a genuinely comfortable ride. For a truck, it felt softly sprung so there were no harsh jolts, but it never wallowed. Engineers succeeded in refining the Liberty 's on-road ride without compromising its off-road capabilities.

Unlike many small SUVs, Jeep eschewed front struts for a short/long arm front suspension, as the design provides greater articulation for trail work. In back, a live axle is suspended by a new five-link arrangement. The rack-and-pinion steering responded quickly, and the chassis followed suit by delivering flat cornering. Over the road or on trails, the interior proved quiet, with nary a squeak or rattle. This is truly noteworthy given the twisting forces working on the body when one or two wheels are off the ground scrabbling for traction.

As for acceleration, consider it adequate, which corresponds directly to the 3.7-liter's lackadaisical approach to revving up. Expectedly, with the optional four-speed automatic, the Liberty ' performance is mundane - rather dull. Choose the standard six-speed manual, however, and that changes. The gearbox has somewhat long throws if you're used to a Miata, and the acceleration doesn't suddenly transform this Jeep to a Jaguar, but the gear changes feel mechanically perfect, precise, and purposeful. This simple HMI (human machine interface) totally changes the character of the Liberty and compensates for any other shortcomings, real or perceived.

In today's world of drive-by-wire throttles and computer-controlled variable steering ratios, the pure "snick" of a shift lever connected directly to whirling gears is a rare and genuine automotive pleasure.

Off-roading by Intel?

Not that everything on the Liberty is so mechanically pure. To enhance the SUV's off-road capabilities, Jeep employs plenty of electronic technologies. For example, when off-roading, it's beneficial to have locking differentials - they ensure power is always flowing to wheels with traction. Most vehicles, however, have open differentials - meaning that that power flows to the wheel with the least resistance. Obviously, when off-road, open diffs can become a great impediment to your progress (sometimes to your great detriment).

Jeep's solution with their improved Selec-Trac II four-wheel-drive system (that uses open differentials) is to use the SUV's anti-lock sensors to recognize when a wheel is spinning under power. The brake on any free-spinning wheel is then activated, causing torque to shift to the opposite wheel, simulating the action of a "locker." The result is dramatically effective, as the Liberty we drove climbed trails that rarely allowed all four wheels to be on the ground at any one time. The system's operation, however effective, sounded rather inelegant to this old-school off-roader. The rapid clicks of the pulsating brakes seem completely unnatural and distracting. However, the technology works.

Two other newfangled technologies are Hill Descent Mode and Hill Start Assist. Operational when the center transfer case is in 4-Wheel Low and the transmission is in first gear, these features can save your hiney on the toughest trails. Hill Descent Mode enables you to flat-foot steep grades. This means that after you nudge the vehicle's front wheels off the edge of just about anything short of a cliff, your feet should stay flat on the floor. No throttle. No brakes. The Liberty does it all, using engine compression braking (greatly amplified through the transfer case's lower gearing) and precise computer-activated braking. Your downward progress is regulated to just a mile per hour or so. It's an odd feeling to be literally hanging in your belts only steering as the Liberty defies gravitons and deliberately makes it way down (seemingly) impossible hills.

When going up steep grades at rock crawling speeds, sometimes you stop. Reversing back down is not often an option, so to reach the top you must start again, and Hill Start Assist kick in here. It holds the vehicle stationary for up to two seconds, giving even people with slow reaction time the ability to move their foot off the brake and onto the throttle. This prevents the SUV from lurching backwards down a hill as soon as brake pressure is released.

The Liberty is so capable off-road that it can make even novices feel like experienced rock hoppers. And this SUV will go places many competitors (Ford Escape, Honda CRV, and even the new Toyota Highlander) can't.

Reflecting the competitiveness of the segment, Jeep lowered the Liberty 's suggested retail price for 2008 while adding close to $1400 in content. Starting at $20,900 for a Liberty Sport 4x2, the Liberty certainly warrants consideration for those wanting a practical five-passenger SUV. Full Jeep Trail Rated performance is available for $22,660 in the Sport 4x4 that truly delivers the freedom to wander off the beaten path. Because the Liberty is well equipped in its standard form, paying for the expansive Sky Slider retractable canvas roof ($1200) doesn't seem outlandish.

If people knew how much fun off-roading can be, more than five percent of SUV owners would venture from the firmness of the pavement. If the hobby's siren call is now playing in your ear, consider the Liberty . Among the ranks of compact and mid-size SUVs, it's completely at home off-road or on, providing a practical dual-purpose solution.

2008 Jeep Liberty Sport 4x4

Base price: $22,660

Engine: 3.7-liter V-6, 210 hp/235 lb-ft

Transmission: Six-speed manual or four-speed automatic, front- or four-wheel drive

Length x width x height: 189.3 x 72.2 x 56.7 in

Wheelbase: 107.9 in

Curb weight: 4222 lb (4x4)

Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 16/22 mpg

Major standard features: Power locks/windows/mirrors; air conditioning; two-tone cloth seats; illuminated entry system; split-folding rear seat; AM/FM/MP3 audio system with CD player and audio input jack; tilt steering column; remote keyless entry

Safety features: Dual front, side and curtain airbags; anti-lock brakes, traction and stability control; tire pressure monitoring system

Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles

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