2008 Jeep Liberty Limited 4WD Review

By Igor Holas with Melissa J. Sanchez

05.07.2008


Somehow it happened that Melissa and I are mostly reviewing SUVs – after the Taurus X, Escape Hybrid, and the LR2, we are now presenting the Jeep Liberty Limited (and have 6 more SUVs scheduled before the summer). Luckily for you – the reader – this repetitive exposure to the SUV segment lets us assess each car relative to its competition in a manner similar to the actual car shoppers.

We have to admit that going from the exquisitely crafted Land Rover cabin to the Jeep Liberty was a adjustment – to say the least – but we were surprised to find a number of details about the baby Jeep that stood out, and made this small SUV very attractive in the marketplace. Unfortunately, then we turned it on, and fell out of love in a hurry. In the end, the Liberty is a great tough little truck if you can use all its abilities; if you cannot, there are choices that are simply better.

What we drove
We drove a fully loaded 2008 Jeep Liberty Limited 4×4 (base price $26,125). The installed packages include the Trailer Tow Class III Package ($395), Skid plate package ($225), and Active Full-time 4WD ($445), all of which make Liberty a more rugged SUV, capable of more serious off-roading, and towing 5,000 lbs. This ruggedness and capability is well beyond other small crossovers. The Premium Group I ($995) added adds leather power heated memory seats, automatic headlamps, and remote start system, while the Sky Slider ($1,200) replaced the usual metal roof (or a glass sunroof) with a power operated fabric covered full open roof. Finally, the MyGIG Entertainment System ($1,550) added touch screen navigation, stereo with hard drive, and U-Connect hands-free communication system. Overall, the tested car was priced at $31,595 including destination charge.

Given all the features installed, the Liberty is quite cheap. Using True Delta Feature-Adjusted price comparison, the Liberty costs about $500 than a comparable Ford Escape, which itself is cheap for the segment. Compared to the Toyota RAV-4 the Liberty is about $2,000 cheaper.


Exterior
Like the Escape Hybrid and the LR2, the Liberty maintains a typical SUV look with boxy shape, and upright windshield. However, the Liberty takes this SUV look to an extreme, toy-like level. If you even remotely seek a more wagon-like, or hatchback look, the Liberty’s design will not be to your liking. However, this new 2008 model successfully updates the design of the original Liberty, which was a little bit more rounded around the edges, and while there is nothing particularly exciting about the exterior, there is nothing wrong with it either. The look is clean, recognizably Jeep, and maximizes the interior space to boot.


Interior
After driving the Land Rover LR2, you can understand that stepping into the Liberty’s interior was a little – shocking. The interior on our tested car was all-grey without much flare, or design to speak of. The materials were cheap, and even though some areas were soft(ish) they did not really make up for the overall impression.

After this initial shock, however, we realized that the interior is not really that bad. We would rate it a little worse than the Escape Hybrid, but really not too many crossovers seem to have the kind of interior Melissa and I would call “good”. The Liberty interior might not get you excited with design or craftsmanship, but it gets the job done – especially with a number of smart features built in. So while we might gripe about extremely cheap air vents, unfinished lumbar support lever, and rattle from the center stack, the simple truth is, that the Liberty has more features built into its interior than the “luxury” LR2. From the well-designed Navigation/Stereo system, to impressive message center, to amazing sunroof, to thoughtful storage, the Liberty serves the owner with value built in – so we did not mind the lack of flash.

While these three features convinced us that the Liberty is a car worth consideration, it did not stop us from evaluating the rest of the interior. The steering wheel does not telescope and the pedals do not move, so some drivers might have trouble finding comfortable driving position. Luckily, Melissa and I had no such issues, and surprisingly, despite a seven-inch height difference our preferred seat position was practically identical. The optional memory feature on our Liberty not only adjusted the seats, and side mirrors, but also changed the radio station – another nice touch. Finally, after me being uncomfortable with the LR2’s side mirrors last week, Melissa found using the Liberty’s side mirrors difficult, and was not confident she had a good view of the surroundings.

The rear seats were reasonably comfortable for this size of car. The legroom was adequate, and the seating position was comfortable. There is no pretense of lateral support and the seat back of the second row is completely flat. The headrests were positioned well, but in a cost-cutting move, they were the same as on the front seats and were excessively bulky and blocked rearward visibility. The seat backs reclined and folded with a pull on a single strap – no need to flip the cushion like on the Escape Hybrid, or LR2. However (as usual) the front seat has to be far-enough forward, or the headrests have to be removed, for the seats to fold flat. The front passenger seat also folds flat creating a cavernous flat loading floor. The rear seats have no HVAC or audio controls, but there is a household 115 volt power outlet that should allow one to plug in a DVD player, or a laptop. Household outlets are still a very rare option on cars so this was yet another nice touch from Jeep.

The cargo area was simple with roll-back cover and a few tie-downs. There is a removable floor panel hiding a deeper plastic wet trunk. The floor panel can also be flipped for a plastic-lined surface for those muddy gardening boots. The spare was accessible from the bottom.


Sky Slider Open Roof
I already mentioned our three favorite features of the interior: roof, message center, and navigation/audio system. While we like beautiful and well-crafted interiors as much as the other guys, we are slowly realizing that in small SUVs, a “perfect” interior is a rare breed, if existent at all. With this realization comes prioritizing – would we rather have a pretty interior, or a well-thought-out one? Would we sacrifice features for better materials?

By far, the best feature of the Liberty is the roof. The optional Sky Slider open roof beats any sunroof we have heard of or tested. This roof was an especially pleasant surprise after the disappointingly small opening of the LR2’s “panoramic sunroof.” The Sky Slider features a fabric roof stretching from the very front to the very back of the car. With a push of a button, the roof slides back and leaves a completely unobstructed open space from above the driver’s head all the way to cargo area. Some people might mind that the roof is not see-through when closed, but in exchange you get an almost-convertible feel when open. The fabric construction of the roof means that more noise makes it into the cabin, but it was not disruptive.

Message Center
Second of these “winning features” was the message center of the gauge cluster. Melissa and I liked different pieces of the message center, but we both agreed that was a very useful, and valuable feature. The center is very information-rich and Jeep places two prominent switches on the steering wheel to navigate through all the information. In its default mode the menu shows the direction and outside temperature, but just below also shows information about the audio you are listening to. Moreover, when using the navigation, the message center shows the next-turn information complete with the street name, and distance. Once we used this system we did not want to look at the main navigation screen any more. The position – right there with all the other information – meant that we only had one place to look to get all the information we needed. It was convenient, and it freed up more time for watching the road. Besides showing navigation and audio information, the message center lets you check tire pressure for each tire, change options and check the vehicle status. The information presented was useful and easy to navigate, and we believe it should be on all cars. Ford has some of these features, but not all by far, and the Land Rover did not compare at all. We have heard GM uses similar, and maybe even more advanced message center, but have not had a chance to see GM’s information center for ourselves, so we have to reserve judgment until later.


Navigation – Audio – MyGIG – UConnect
Finally, the Navigation/Audio system proved to be a very user-friendly system. The visual design seems fresh and built-in features, such as real-time traffic, 3D display, and others were useful and well integrated. We also found the audio controls extremely simple to use, and finally had a chance to fully explore the brave new world of satellite radio; something we did only partially with the Fords and were completely unable to do with the Land Rover thanks to its confusing system. We now have favorite Sirius channels, and actually use the satellite service on the test vehicles.

One part of the audio system that was not very user-friendly was the U-Connect voice-command system. On the surface, this system is similar to the SYNC technology from Ford, especially paired with the MyGIG hard drive, but unlike the extremely user-friendly SYNC, U-Connect was baffling. For example, despite the presence of the navigation screen (all U-Connect vehicles have navigation screen), there is no visual interface for phone pairing – the process is completely driven by voice commands and voice responses. Moreover, unlike the Taurus X and its SYNC, and unlike the Land Rover, I failed to successfully pair my phone with the system. Unlike the other two systems which initiate the pairing process and prompt my phone for connection, I was told to initiate the U-Connect pairing from my phone. I am reasonably familiar with using Bluetooth on my phone, but I could not find the U-Connect signal and consequently could not pair my phone with it. We are driving the Jeep Wrangler this week, so I will give it another go.

Drive
As the introduction alluded, this is where the love-fest with the Liberty ends – its powertrain. I think we will stop short of calling the 3.7 liter V6 engine “the worst on the market,” but it is definitely bad. The engine, combined with merely adequate four-speed automatic transmission gave out a distinct impression of unwillingness to go. You would press the gas pedal and the car would rev up, huff up a whole lot of noises, and then finally start moving forward. The engine’s 210hp and 235 foot-pounds of torque is nowhere near class-leading, but I would never imagine calling those figures underpowered. Indeed, when we truly needed to accelerate, and mashed the pedal accordingly, the Liberty sprung forward in a completely acceptable fashion. So it is not under-powered per se, but just like a teenager it whines and complains as it does what it is asked to do.


One possible culprit regarding this torpor is the Liberty’s weight. At 4,278 pounds the Liberty tips the scales at about 800 pounds more than the Escape and 700 pounds more than the RAV-4 (both in comparable V6, AWD configuration). Sure, the Liberty can tow more than either one of them, and probably tackle tougher trails, but that weight puts it in the company of such body-on-frame SUVs as the Ford Explorer.

The excessive weight also shows in the handling department. The Liberty feels planted enough, but nowhere near as refined and controlled as the Escape Hybrid or the Taurus X. The car was tightly sprung, reducing body roll, but transferring quite bit of road imperfections to the seat.

In spite of this refusal-to-move issue, the engine was reasonably refined, and the transmission shifted as expected, which is a compliment, given the deficit of forward gears. The one place that showed the effect of the four-speed transmission and the excess weight is mileage. In a city-heavy driving cycle we averaged 10.5 miles per gallon; this included about 9-10 miles per gallon in the city and about 22 on the highway. That sort of mileage is lower than the larger Taurus X and is quite disappointing for a car of this size. However, unless you drive a four-cylinder cute-ute, or a RAV-4, competitors usually offer at most one or two miles per gallon extra; something that could be easily justified by the Liberty’s added off-road prowess and towing ability.

Conclusions
In the end, Melissa and I cannot write a positive conclusion to this review. The Liberty is a weird enigma of an SUV; it is as small as an Escape, yet it behaves like an Explorer. It is tough and capable like an Explorer, and weighs and sucks gas just like one, but only seats five, in cramped Escape-sized confines.

However, if you can use the unique combination of features offered by the Liberty, if you can use a small, easy-to-park SUV that can tackle a trail or tow a boat, the Liberty is a great truck. Its thoughtful interior and its awesome roof will probably please you on a daily basis. However, if you are looking for a grocery-getter, look for something lighter, with a smaller engine and without the utter overkill of ability the Liberty delivers. After all, if the most challenging surface you will meet is black ice or dirt road, and you use the tow hitch to hook up a bike rack, you do not need the Liberty; its smaller brother Compass, or other small SUVs or AWD compacts will fit your needs much better.

Click HERE to see more images of the Jeep Liberty Limited.

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Author: Brendan Moore

Brendan Moore is a Principal Consultant with Cedar Point Consulting , a management consulting practice based in the Washington, DC area. He also manages Autosavant Consulting, a separate practice within Cedar Point Consulting. where he advises businesses connected to the auto industry. Cedar Point Consulting can be found at http://www.cedarpointconsulting.com.

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2 Comments

  1. Neither the Taurus-X not the Escape are SUVs. Both are unibody construction and FWD. Crossovers (tall cars) by ayones deffinition. OK, I know Ford likes to market the Escape as an SUV, but 4×4 ofroad magazine managed to get one stuck in 2 inches of sand!

    I had a Liberty for a rental last year. Horrid little car. Underpowered when merging on the freeway and the controls were in very odd places. It’s not a good feeling when driving onto a military base and you can’t find the controls to lower the window to show your ID.

  2. What if Jeep didn’t belong to Chrysler anymore? What if they belonged to VW or Subaru/Toyota? It could happen if Chrysler implodes upon itself. Think about what Jeeps might look like then. They’s still be tough Jeeps underneath (hope so, anyway) but they couldn’t help but look better inside. Probably outside, too. Just imagine.

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