As Chrysler says goodbye to the tumultuous year 2009, it greets the New Year and the future as a much leaner company. With help from new parent company Fiat, Chrysler is settling down and concentrating on the brands and vehicles that will make it successful into that future.
One of the core brands of the company will remain Jeep, the iconic nameplate that is almost always associated with rugged off-road vehicles. (Never mind the fact that many of them will never be used in a manner that demands ruggedness, nor taken off road.) Though the Jeep name has been diluted somewhat in recent years, Chrysler has better plans for it.
The car-based Compass and Patriot models will continue – for now – but Chrysler will refocus the Jeep brand on the true off-road models like the Grand Cherokee and the smaller Liberty. (The other, bigger off-roader based on the Grand Cherokee, the Commander, will be gone from the lineup soon due to poor sales.)
An all-new Grand Cherokee will bow later in 2010, and the Liberty gets a few improvements here and there two years after its latest redesign. Most of the changes are subtle things, but they add icing to the cake of a pretty nice little SUV. The Liberty might get overlooked for being too harsh, but it’s actually a rather pleasant vehicle.
A couple of new features come in the interest of saving fuel: A system that shuts fuel flow off completely during deceleration, and an “ECO” light on the dash to let a driver know when efficient driving is being done. Those two things don’t make for huge gains in the Liberty’s fuel economy numbers (15 city and 21 highway), but as the saying goes, every little bit helps. New active head restraints for front seat passengers also help on the safety front.
The first thing you might notice about the Liberty is its tough, chunky stance. It’s not huge, but it’s not all that small either. Plenty of room inside for four adults – five if three of them don’t mind being a little cozy in the back seat. There’s also a pretty spacious cargo hold that now features a life-flat load floor.
Only one engine choice with the Liberty, whether you choose the Sport or Limited trim models. It’s a 3.7 liter V6 that makes an impressive 210 horsepower, though it can feel a little pokey at times when trying to pass thanks to its rather behind-the-times 4-speed automatic transmission. Still, the engine is quiet and smooth enough for routine travel.
The vehicle I recently drove was a Limited with the optional Selec-Trac II full-time four wheel drive system. I never had any reason or opportunity to test out its off-road or slippery pavement behavior, but it’s probably a no-brainer to assume that this Jeep model does as well or better than anything else on the market with a “4×4” badge on it.
The Liberty Limited gets you lots of niceties that make it comfortable when on the highway or the trail. Leather seats (heated), automatic climate control, a Bluetooth hands-free phone system called Uconnect, and power adjustment for both front seats. The driver’s seat even gets two memory settings that keep track of not only seat position, but mirror settings and radio presets. Very handy for a two-driver household.
Another fun option this particular Liberty had is a huge fabric sunroof called Sky Slide. It can be opened electrically either part way or all the way back, giving an open-air feeling to the entire passenger compartment. The only downsides are a slight increase in noise making its way inside when closed, and the elimination of the standard roof rails that form the basis of a carrying system for things like skis, bicycles, etc.
The Liberty can also be equipped with a towing package that will let you pull a trailer up to 5000 pounds. Credit goes to its stout chassis, which is also what makes it a capable four-wheeler. As with other Jeep models that can truly go off road, this one has small badges proclaiming “Trail Rated” on its front fenders.
You can get into a Liberty Sport for $23,255, though that’s for a two-wheel drive model. Add another $1600 for the 4×4, and the Liberty 4×4 like the one I drove starts at $28,735. Even with a pretty generous selection of options, its bottom line sticker price was $33,965.
A lot of vehicles have blurred the distinction of what a “sport utility vehicle” or a “four wheeler” is. Some just offer the looks without the substance to get the job done. The Liberty not only stays true to its purpose as an off-road vehicle, but to the Jeep brand name as well.
I’ll see you down the road.
Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7. He’s also a car enthusiast and owns several classics. Dave can be reached at TVCarz @ pacbell.net.