A certain Mr. E. Ferrari used to refer to Jeep as 'America's only real sports car.' I never fully understood the Italian automaker's claim until I handed the keys to my Cherokee to my SUV-hating girlfriend. As my liver busied itself processing bourbon, she kicked the Jeep's 4.0-liter straight-six into life. Carving through the Silver Lake hills, the Jeep's right-now acceleration, scrappy handling and elevated driving position pleased her almost as much as I did. Enzo was right: Jeeps are a buzz. When DCX lent me the new Jeep Liberty Renegade, I slipped on my steel-toed Wolverines and readied myself for a good 'ole thrash in America's redneck Ferrari.
The model replacing Jeep's venerable Cherokee exchanges the Cherokee's near-perfect two-box design for something that looks like a VW Bug after a visit to Barry Bonds' doctor. Macho dignity is upheld (literally) by the Renegade's seven slot grill and its over-sized, over-compensating wheel arches– attached by marble-sized bolts as garish as diamond teeth. Rock rails and fog lights (disguised to look like KC lamps) reinforce the strong man aesthetic. That said, as I admired the Renegade on my drive, a desperate homemaker walked up and commented, 'That's cute.' Yes, well, the Liberty's UniFrame construction makes it stiffer, lighter and more crashworthy than the body-on-frame construction used by truck-based competitors. So it's still as tough as nails (the metal kind).
Inside, Mr. Macho's gone all schizo. The cabin boasts three types of fake carbon fiber, phony grip-tape, fake leather and at least two other non-related textures — all of which feel like feel like the mats found under Taco Bell's sinks. The driving position gives this Jeep's name a distinctly ironic edge. Restricted seat travel pretzels anyone over 5'10', while limited vertical motion turns the Liberty's front chairs into reverse ballet teachers (you have to slouch to see out). There's no dead pedal for your left foot or resting place for your left arm. Five miles from git-go and an average-sized adult will feel ninety-years-old.
The Renegade's instrument binnacle highlights the fact that Jeep is aiming the Liberty at drivers who'd no more exploit its full off-road capabilities than take up BASE jumping. Slide the transfer case in 4W-High and a yellow light illuminates. Turn off the electronic stability program and an orange light appears. Flip on the fogs, and it's one, two, three; green light! Turn off the overdrive and another orange light materializes. Call me ergonomically obsessive, but when a dashboard looks like a Lite-Brite, something had better be amiss. Renegade my toches.
If straight line speed is the question, a Bruno Magli loafer in Enzo's mouth in the answer. America's sports car? Assigning a numerical value to the interval between standstill and 60mph for is like trying to keep track of the federal deficit. In the pursuit of fuel-efficiency, the Liberty's antiquated four-speed (a six-speed is available) up-shifts at 2500 rpm. While she'll cruise all day at 80mph with under three grand on the clock, a prodded Renegade doesn't so much kick down as kick up a fuss. The 3.7-liter mill might pull 5000lbs., but there are faster tree slugs. Handling at the limit? Tackling the twisties? Freshly-laid asphalt is no match for the Liberty's short wheelbase, high center of gravity and heft. Above 60mph, you'll swear you're strapped onto a malfunctioning washing machine.
Thankfully, the Liberty is still a Jeep. Slow down, rest your arm on the window sill and the world starts to look abuser friendly. Thanks to 40 days and nights of torrential rain, I had ample opportunity to mix it up in the gunk. On a waterlogged hillside construction site, I switched into 4-Low and… sank the Liberty to its doors in mud. I turned the wheel to lock, goosed the throttle and sat in amazement as the Liberty dug its way out of the bog. Again and again, the Jeep's suspension geometry's massive articulation never let me down. The burly soundtrack also rocked– which is a bit like admiring Taylor Rain for her fashion sense, but there you go.
The new Jeep Liberty Renegade is the real deal: a genuine mud-plugger with, um, limited on-road acumen. Despite the SUV feeding frenzy of the last decade or so, only the Renegade's Wrangler stable mate and Nissan's pricier Xterra can claim this level of off-road authenticity. Saturn Vue? Toyota Rav4? Ford Escape? Land Rover Freelander? BMW X3? Posers. No low gears means no sale for consumers who buy their SUVs for their intended purpose– or the bragging rights derived there from. On broken, mangled or mushy paths, roads where no Italian vehicle would dare tread, the Jeep Liberty Renegade is an F430 at the Nürburgring. The Liberty may be a bit woosy and disjointed around the edges, but it's still a Jeep. 'Nuff said.
[Jeep provided the vehicle reviewed, insurance, taxes and a tank of gas.]