Chrysler Suicide Watch 12: Give Me Liberty Or…
Once upon a time, a loafer-wearing businessman buried the front end of his rented Oldsmobile in a dune on the barren southwestern point of Galveston Island. I retrieved my Jeep Liberty and drove it to the Olds across a sea of tidal dunes carved into the coast like three foot swells; the Liberty loped from crest to crest in a spray of sand. Within minutes, I dug out enough of the Olds’ front bumper to affix a strap and pull the trapped car onto smooth packed beach. So how does this Jeep lover rate the prospects for the new 2008 Jeep Liberty? D.O.A.
Codenamed KJ, the current Jeep Liberty came to market in 2001 as an ‘02 model. In the U.S., its introduction overlapped production of the ancient, outgoing Jeep Cherokee by about six months. It was a sensible move; dual production kept the assembly lines running and assured the new Liberty a soft launch to major league success. The Liberty has been America’s best selling compact SUV since 2005.
The redesigned 2008 Liberty, code named KK, will roll off the assembly line this fall. Looking to revive the Cherokee’s now legendary styling, the KK is shaped like a brick on wheels. Aficionados have dubbed the new Liberty a mini-Commander (Lieutenant Commander?). In case you’re wondering, that’s about as far from a compliment as a Jeep lover can get without dropping the F-bomb. The Commander, an unmitigated sales disaster, is being quietly dropped from Jeep’s multi-model roster.
But questionable looks aren’t the only reason why the Liberty’s segment-leading success will soon be over. The new Liberty is destined to be a dud because the existing Patriot and four-door Wrangler Unlimited will cannibalize its sales.
To test my suspicions I turned to L.O.S.T. (Liberty Owners Special Team). Most of this club and web forum’s members are apex users; they modify their cute-faced grocery-getter with lift kits and larger, knobbier tires and take them to places that SUV critics say SUV owners never go. The members’ antics prove that the current Liberty’s solid frame, low gear transfer case and stout-hearted rock crawlin’ engine make it a “real” Jeep.
Granted, this hardcore owner group’s behavior doesn’t represent the mainstream suburban Liberty owner. But L.O.S.T. members are living the dream that draws all of the lifestyle wannabes to the brand. I submit that their leading-edge opinion is a good bellwether of the platform’s future. So I polled their website’s visitors about the new Liberty’s place within Jeep’s lineup.
Although the survey was unscientific and the sample population small, the results were decisive. By a factor of two to one, L.O.S.T. members said they prefer the new four-door Wrangler Unlimited over the forthcoming KK Liberty (62% Wrangler, 29% Liberty).
No surprise there. Most of these owners purchased their Liberty because it’s the best compromise between off-roader and family taxi. Now that the Jeep Wrangler’s ride has been greatly improved and can plausibly seat four passengers, it can pull double duty. And so it will.
Again, most Liberty owners are not mud-plugging militants with dirt, grease and blood under their fingertips. The model’s sold to well manicured urban and suburbanites seduced by the Jeep’s round-eyed headlights and smiling bumper; buyers so smitten by the Liberty’s cuteness that they ignore the harsh ride, heavyweight handling, cramped quarters and horrendous gas mileage.
Those days– and sales– are numbered. The new Lego-shaped Liberty has the cuteness quotient of a shoebox. Of course, such stylistic determinations are subjective. But beholders with an eye for sassy will more likely find Jeep’s own Patriot or even [dare I say it] Compass more suitably adorable. Furthermore, the non-jeep Jeep twins are less expensive and more fuel-efficient. They’re better “cars.”
And consider this: Jeep now sells seven models in the U.S. The situation is so confusing that the brand’s American website has a widget to help a Jeep buyer “find the vehicle that best matches your needs by selecting your preferences from the filters below: Price Range, Seating Capacity, Towing Capacity.” Select the $20k to $30k price range from the drop-down menu and… all seven models remain highlighted.
Put another way, a customer with $25K burning a hole in their pocket can purchase a Patriot Limited AWD, Liberty Limited, Grand Cherokee Laredo or Wrangler X. How’s THAT for model overlap and price point confusion?
Jeep is generally regarded as the Pentastar’s crown jewel, the one brand that’s survived its German owners’ neglect and mismanagement relatively unscathed. As the Commander and new Liberty prove/highlight, DCX has somehow found a way to kill the golden goose. They’ve diluted the brand’s carefully crafted off-road image while failing to produce a credible competitor to Toyota’s RAV4 or Honda’s CR-V. If anyone wonders why Chrysler’s on life support, well, there’s your answer.
More by William C Montgomery
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