Buyers of the first generation KJ Liberty fell into two camps: those who appreciated the trucklet for its off-road, severe weather and towing capabilities; and those who thought it was adorable. Let’s face it: the oh-isn’t-it-darling? brigade made the Liberty a star; they drew it to their collective bosom like a Hollywood starlet clutching the only real friend she ever had (a Chihuahua). The Liberty became one of America’s hottest selling mini-SUVs. As fashion dictates, those days are gone. Upon the redesigned Liberty, dubbed the KK, Chrysler’s cute ute comeback hopes reside. But this time its neither fish nor foul.
The new Liberty's reworked front-end reflects the Jeep engineers' aesthetic angst. The YJ model Wranglers were roundly criticized for square headlights. So Jeep fitted a round peg into a squared-off hole. It's not a terrible solution– until you consider the Liberty's 70'-style bumper treatment. Although removable for off-road work, the bulbous bumper gives the vehicle a silly-ass milk mustache (at least in white).
Otherwise, the Liberty’s sheetmetal offers an ironic return to unrelenting angularity (the curvaceous last gen Liberty replaced the sharp-edged Cherokee). Like its Dodge platform partner, the new Liberty boasts clean, Range Rover-esque creases. Still, denied the Nitro's more aggressive blingery, the result is deeply, profoundly generic. Nine vehicles, one look; not good.
The KK is 2.2-inches longer and .6-inches wider than before, transforming the Liberty into a Commander mini-me. [NB: that’s not a compliment.] Despite blessing the rear seats with an additional 1.5” leg room, ingressing and egressing passengers must still perform a Beatles tribute (twist and shout). And according to Jeep’s published specs, the KK's cargo capacity is 4.8-cu.ft. smaller than the outgoing model's.
Nothing says cost-cutting construction quite like hard, cheap plastic– and this sucker brought a megaphone. The Liberty’s dash could be scrubbed with a wire brush without offense. On the plus side, Liberty soldiers on with an excellent sound system, the window controls are back where God intended (on the doors) and sun and wind worshipers will love the [optional] Sky Slider Roof.
The “all new” Liberty contains the same thirsty but dependable 3.7-liter V6 that's graced every non-four cylinder Liberty since its 2001 debut. Ye Olde SOHC is to its competitors’ powerplants what wool is to cashmere. Luckily, the configuration's abundant torque (235 ft.-lbs. @ 4000 rpm) eliminates the need to constantly prove the point. The six' workman-like manners also ensure that the trucklet will not shy away from DIY or the great outdoors (tow rating: 5000 lbs.).
In 2003, rollover lawsuits were all the rage. Jeep responded by chopping the Liberty’s ground clearance by an inch and stiffening the suspension. The resulting ride quality made an arthritic camel seem like a more comfortable option, especially at walking speeds. Hit a bump at 10mph in the old Liberty and rear seat passengers launched heavenwards. On the positive side, the old Liberty cornered with surprising poise for a porky truck standing nearly six-feet tall.
This stiff-legged problem has been well and truly sorted. The new Liberty’s independent front suspension (upper and lower “A” arms, coil springs, low-pressure gas shocks, stabilizer bar) and five-link rear (live axle, upper and lower trailing arms, track bar, coil springs, stabilizer bar, low-pressure gas shocks) make it float over broken surfaces with all the aplomb of Luke Skywalker’s speeder. If you’re looking for a Jeep that feels nothing like a Jeep, this is the non-Jeep Jeep to have. And yet…
Jeep's engineers sacrificed driver control. The Liberty’s over-boosted rack and pinion steering lacks any on-center feel; it tracks back and forth on the highway like an OCD bloodhound. You’d have to pay a professional boxer millions to take the kind of dive the Liberty executes when you stomp on the brakes. And any abrupt handling maneuver is followed by rebounding tremors. The Liberty’s sloppy handling dynamics are only bested (or should I say worsted) by the dreadful Chevy Trailblazer.
I've got one thing to say about the Liberty's off-road prowess: Wrangler. There's no question that the Liberty's trick Hill Descent Control (look Ma, no feet!) and Brake Assist (we don't need no stinking locking differential) git 'er done, leaving "real" cute utes mired in the mud or scrabbling for purchase. But anyone with serious off-road aspirations would be nuts not to stump up the extra $4k or so for the phenomenally capable, visually similar four-door Wrangler. Must choose: magic carpet ride or off-road acumen.
Aye, there's the rub. Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of a genuine 4X4, or take comfort in a sea of cute utes, and by opposing them, make a lifestyle statement. Actually, chances are the cute uters won't bite. So who will prize Liberty above all? Hey, don't look at me.