By on June 12, 2018

Jeep Liberty 2012, Image: Jeep

Somewhere in my basement there’s an issue of Roundel, the BMW club magazine, that contains an extremely passionate and forceful article regarding a new vehicle from Munich. The author goes on in considerable detail regarding the new car’s size, weight, and insane complexity. He rails against the dilution of BMW’s Autobahn heritage and the compromises the firm is making to attract a wider audience. Lastly, he offers his sincere condolences to the shade-tree mechanics because this new car will be impossible to service anywhere but a dealership.

Those of you who read Roundel back in the day will no doubt guess that this flabby, super-computerized BMW was, in fact, the 1977 320i.

But here’s the thing: All of the complaints in the article were valid. It’s just that the E30 which followed made the E21 320i look fairly simple. The E36 was a rocketship compared to its predecessor and the E46 was a spaceship. Each time the cars changed, the enthusiast base swore loyalty to the relative simplicity and fitness-for-purpose of the old one. Then, as the stock of decent used inventory dwindled and the parts became impossible to find and the lap times continues to sink, that base made a slow and painful transition to the next model in line. This in no way invalidates criticism of the old cars. It’s just that for most people, they had no choice other than to upgrade. It’s possible to keep an old mechanical watch in daily use; it’s not tough at all to keep carrying a Remington-Rand-made Colt pistol from 1942. But cars are vastly more complex than either of those machines.

When the Jeep Liberty replaced the old “XJ” Cherokee, it was universally reviled as a cutesy piece of garbage better suited for the mall crawl than the rock crawl. Alas, tempus fugit and it’s now time for the old Liberty to get a second act.


It seems impossible to believe now, but the XJ Cherokee was not universally loved when it appeared at the bitter end of the AMC era. That’s because the potential buyers for the thing weren’t Jalopnik nerds trying to buy street cred for $2,999 or less, but rather families and working men who were spending real money for a vehicle that was expected to compete heads-up with everything from the S-10 Blazer to the Isuzu Trooper.

Viewed in that context, the Cherokee wasn’t much to get excited about. It was a unibody, which offended the conventional trucky people. But it was a heavy unibody, which stole the last gasps of motivation from its ancient powertrain and made it feel ponderous on the move. Interior room was, to put it mildly, at a premium. Cargo space was also a little disappointing. Fuel economy was miserable. Last but not least, it wasn’t cheap, particularly not in the “Limited” trim so beloved of dealership general managers.

Oh, and they fell apart. Quality on those early Cherokees was much closer to the (AMC) Concord than the (Honda) Accord. The internet considers the 4.0 bulletproof nowadays, the same way they sing the praises of the Benz W123, but in-period both of those items were far from reliable.

What changed? Well, DaimlerChrysler managed to raise the quality of the product even as they were lowering the quality of everything else they sold. More importantly, the combination of a long model run and freefall depreciation made the XJ an affordable alternative for people who couldn’t afford a TJ or YJ Wrangler in good condition. The aftermarket sorted some of the most common issues.

The arrival of the Liberty enshrined the XJ as the enthusiast’s Jeep SUV the same way that everybody with an old E30 felt additionally virtuous when the slope-nosed E36 arrived. The rest is history, and that history is about to repeat itself.

A quick check through the forums shows that “KJ” Liberties from 2004 and on have joined “KK” Liberties as valid choices for Jeep fans on a budget. (The 2002 and 2003 models have been permanently besmirched by a history of engine maladies.) They are dirt cheap; one of my co-workers just picked up a 75,000-mile KK in good shape for $3,500 plus auction fees. The aftermarket is starting to get involved.

The newest Cherokees are now 17 years old. A solid KK Liberty, by contrast, is a decade old if that, and parts are still available at the dealer if you need them. It’s also a considerably more pleasant vehicle to operate on a daily basis. Nobody will ever confuse a Liberty with a proper highway vehicle, which is why the road-focused Dodge Nitro derivative was basically the automotive equivalent of straight-to-DVD release. If your existing yardstick for NVH and directional stability is an XJ Cherokee, however, you’ll really enjoy what the 21st century has in store for you.

How’s the Liberty off-road? As was the case with the XJ Cherokee, it’s acceptable in stock form but after that its prowess is a direct product of your prep and equipment choices. Nobody likes to hear this, but the 3.7-liter V6 offers more torque at every point in its useful rev range than the venerable inline-six 4.0. The off-roaders complained for a decade or so about the new Jeep, then, when the price dropped sufficiently, they started building them. If you live in a state that salts its roads, your Liberty build will be easier and cheaper than an equivalent Cherokee project.

The hardcore Cherokee enthusiasts will point out that the older vehicle is easier to service, easier to understand, easier to upgrade. Those complaints were also true at a given time for everything from the E46 BMW to the flathead Ford. Some people will never leave the Cherokee, the same way there are still people building E30 race cars from Nevada shells. The majority will nod respectfully at those people and move on like George Soros waving his checkbook at a website.

So now’s the time to get on the Liberty bandwagon. Get the best KK you can and put some big axles under it and paint it with a rattlecan. You can even put Cherokee badges on it, because the Liberty was sold as the Cherokee everywhere else but here. Once you have your bad-ass Rubicon-ready KK Jeep ready, you can get on the forums where you can post about “the lifestyle” and all that crap. You can even help move the Overton Window of Jeepness a bit by posting sharp complaints regarding the current Cherokee. It’s too complicated, too expensive, too soft. If you’re not sure how to do it, just open up a Cherokee forum, cut-and-paste a comment about the Liberty from 2007 or thereabouts, and replace words where appropriate.

It’s a Jeep thing, and I don’t understand. But you will.

[Image: Fiat Chrysler Automobiles]

Get the latest TTAC e-Newsletter!

Recommended

50 Comments on “No Fixed Abode: Is the Liberty Ready for Its Cherokee Moment?...”


  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    It’s a Jeep thing, and I don’t understand. But you will.

    This is why a part of me fears buying a Jeep. I’m afraid I’ll become addicted like many other poor souls I know.

    I know one who has owned everything from a 90s Wrangler (when it was already a decade plus old) to a Patriot. At least to her credit they’ve all been 4×4.

    • 0 avatar
      Lou_BC

      I know several fellows who are hardcore Jeepophiles. I guess it is no different than being a hardcore fan of a sports team. What ever makes you happy and doesn’t harm anyone.

      • 0 avatar
        PrincipalDan

        I shook my head hardest when she had an FJ Cruiser (low mile private party purchase that was well equipped {winch etc.}) and the 90s Wrangler (hardtop, heavily modified but wasn’t even watertight.) I drove the Jeep once when she was trying to get it into Gallup for some repair at a local shop. I told her it was the fastest farm tractor I’d ever driven.

        Eventually she decided that she could only afford to keep one for her daily driver… So she sold the Toyota.

        Who does that?

        • 0 avatar
          Sub-600

          I had two Wranglers, which I thoroughly enjoyed, yet I was never assimilated into the “lifestyle”. I would do the obligatory Jeep thing and raise four fingers from the wheel to “wave” at other Wranglers, it became second nature and was no big deal. I didn’t purchase any aftermarket stuff though or wear Jeep clothing. I sometimes think about getting another one but they’ve become sissified with car-like interiors and automatics and four doors…ugh.

        • 0 avatar
          Lou_BC

          My neighbour has an old TLC BJ40 and an old CJ5. He used to daily drive the BJ40 but I’ve never seen the Jeep turn a wheel. He is retired now and his girlfriend is starting to pressure him to offload them. My son wants both of them. I’d gladly take both off his hands so my son can learn to wrench on simple machines.

  • avatar
    nlinesk8s

    Hmmm…Now you have me wondering if I could buy metal equivalents for all the plastic parts in an E46 cooling system. If only… I still have memories of blowing out carb jets and replacing points on the roadside, for my round-taillight 2002.

    Here in Ohio, late XJ’s without rust are asking over $5k; more if you can find a standard transmission model that hasn’t already been stripped down for an offroad rig. The Liberties look like good values by comparison.

    • 0 avatar
      PrincipalDan

      “if I could buy metal equivalents for all the plastic parts in an E46 cooling system.”

      There’s always the plumbing department of your local Home Depot. ;-)

    • 0 avatar
      Ratsnake

      It looks like you can go most of the way to metal, for a price:

      http://www.zionsvilleautosport.com/store/bmw-e46-3-series/

    • 0 avatar
      krhodes1

      Or you can just replace the plastic parts every 80K or so before they fail. They aren’t particularly expensive. Every 60K if you want to be super anal about it. That’s every 4-5 years for the typical driver – will you even have it that long?

      • 0 avatar
        Ratsnake

        True that. For road-driven BMWs, the case to replace the thermostat is the weakest, because the link to the ECU will probably fail before the plastic housing fails, so there is no need. I could see the case for the radiator, water pump, and the overflow tank to be metal though, if you have an M car or some other reason to expect the future is more than 4 years.

  • avatar
    saturnotaku

    If I want a boxy Jeep of this era that’s cheap and gets less than 20 mpg, I’d sooner take a V8 Commander.

    • 0 avatar
      PrincipalDan

      “That car was unfit for human consumption,” Marchionne said of the Commander. “We sold some. But I don’t know why people bought them.”

      Even Sergio isn’t sure what that vehicle was allowed to exist.

      • 0 avatar
        dividebytube

        A co-worker of mine bought a Commander – 170k miles later and he’s still driving it. Some minor repairs but nothing major yet.

        He’s a long-time Jeep guy – Wranglers and Cherokees before this Commander.

      • 0 avatar
        MRF 95 T-Bird

        The Commander also seemed just out of proportion with too much rear overhang. They convince you that Jeep should never build a three row. Also Daimler era quality is subpar.

        As far as the Liberty is concerned I see plenty around really reasonably priced, even some with manuals. The KK with the retractable soft roof looks fun. I actually don’t mind the Power Wagon styled Nitro.

      • 0 avatar
        dukeisduke

        Peter DeLorenzo (The Autoextremist) called the Commander “…the answer to the question that no one is asking”.

      • 0 avatar
        JohnTaurus

        My aunt had a Commander, I drove it a lot as I was working for my uncle at the time. She hated it, I hated it, and everyone was glad to see it traded in on a 2010 F-150 SuperCrew Lariat.

        It handled horribly (even for a large SUV, it made a Tahoe or Expedition feel like a sports car in comparison), the mid-level V-8 was underpowered and drank like a sailor on shoreleave. The third row was absolutely useless for passengers and took up valuable cargo space.

        In short, there was very little to like about it. Plus, aside from quality issues during the warranty period, it started puffing blue smoke at around 60k miles. It was traded in shortly thereafter.

    • 0 avatar
      geozinger

      +1. And they’re far better looking, too.

  • avatar
    30-mile fetch

    That thing looks like a stormtrooper. They could have made serious money on special editions if the Star Wars reboots had arrived earlier. I prefer the pre-refresh rounded headlight version. I like the honesty of the matte-plastic clad base versions:

    https://tinyurl.com/ybuoa5q9

    If you want a moderately competent stock off-roader and choke on used 4Runner and Xterra prices, these might be the ticket. Why anyone would buy one for street use is beyond me, though.

    • 0 avatar
      gtem

      Used Xterras are fantastically affordable IMO. 6spd Liberties are kind of neat and at least have coils in the back versus leaf springs, but if I’m cheap non-Toyota-tax off-roader shopping, I’d go straight to a Mitsubishi Montero Sport. Dirt Everyday did a beater Liberty build and the way it snapped the lower control arms in half (!!) was quite a spectacle, and kind of telling IMO. Those old Monteros are massively more overbuilt.

      • 0 avatar
        30-mile fetch

        Used Xterra prices went up quite a bit when they were discontinued, at least around here. 2-yo ones were a freaking steal during the last few years of production.

        I like the looks of those Montero Sports, I wish my 4R had that exact exterior styling. Don’t see them around much anymore.

        • 0 avatar
          gtem

          I was thinking moreso of the gen1s and higher mile gen 2s. Kind of crude to drive but the gen 2 gets you a hell of a motor compared to what else exists in the SUV space in that lower price range that’s worth buying. Gen 1s with the vg33s are dogs with the automatic but much cheaper than a comparable 3rd gen 4Runner generally. Montero Sport is basically 90% of a 3rd gen 4Runner for 50% of the price.

  • avatar
    ajla

    “So now’s the time to get on the Liberty bandwagon.”

    Maybe when someone makes a kit to swap in a GM engine/trans combo.

  • avatar
    dukeisduke

    “Those of you who read Roundel back in the day will no doubt guess that this flabby, super-computerized BMW was, in fact, the 1977 320i.”

    The E21 320i? Wow. I’d hardly call that car insanely complex. Our next-door neighbor bought one new in 1977, in maroon, with the four-speed. He traded in his high school graduation present, a ’67 Cougar with 289 and automatic, to buy the BMW.

    Now I kick myself wondering why I didn’t buy a 320i, too, instead of that stupid Audi Fox. I probably would have been a lot happier.

    Edit: I just looked up the original base price for a 1978 320i – $9,315 – yikes! I paid $7,428 for the Fox, and I couldn’t have swung another two grand for the Bimmer. Oh well.

  • avatar
    cgjeep

    The reason the Cherokee is beloved by the Jeep faithful and the Liberty isn’t is because the Cherokee (XJ) has a solid front axle and the Liberty has an IFS. The liberty is much nicer to drive on road but he XJ just kills it off road. Plus the XJ is much easier and cheaper to modify to make it even better. Very limited stuff to do to a Liberty. While the 3.7 in the Liberty might make more power it weighs so much more the power to weight is far better on the XJ. I sold Jeeps in the 90s and my wife had a 06 Liberty while I had a 02 Wrangler. When my twins were born I got rid of both and got an 01 Grand Cherokee (WJ). That is even better than the Cherokees offroad, easier to modify, and cheaper still. Plus can get it with a V8.

  • avatar
    dukeisduke

    My oldest daughter (about to go off to college) wanted a first-gen Liberty, so we looked at a few. It seemed like a decent enough vehicle, but the interior materials looked like they were meant for a Little Tykes car, especially the dash vents. I test drove one (a Sport with the 3.7 V6 and 4WD, 129k), and the front wheel bearings were so loud that I needed earplugs, and the thing demanded all of my attention just to go in a straight line.

  • avatar
    FormerFF

    Hmm, until recently most of the Liberties I saw around here were driven by teenage girls. In fact, one of them backed into me while I was picking up my daughter from her dance rehearsal. From a quick glance at Auto Trader, it looks like most of them will be 2WD. No bueno for offroading.

    I wonder how much longer Jeeps will be the favored vehicle for offroading. It seems like those side by side ATVs are taking over.

    • 0 avatar
      dukeisduke

      Teenagers? Yeah. There’s at least two or three kids in my kids’ high school band that drive them (first-gen and second-gen models).

      I see plenty of first-gen models with 4WD, but most of the second-gen are 2WD.

  • avatar
    Pete Zaitcev

    For all the low-effort journalist qveetching about hidebound enthusiasts, the evolution of the car did a major damage to the ability of enthusiasts to tinker.

    • 0 avatar
      FormerFF

      Very true. You almost need a lift to work on your own car these days.

      • 0 avatar
        JMII

        Plus some ECU tuning software and specialized tools. The days of bolt-on power are gone. Put an aftermarket air intake on a modern car and the MAF sensor detects the extra air flow and trims the drive-by-wire throttle accordingly. No more HP for you!

        • 0 avatar
          danio3834

          These have just become other tools in the toolbox. Practically anyone can crowdsource a tune for nearly anything and figure out the equipment to load it. The internet and aftermarket abide.

  • avatar
    SixspeedSi

    While I’ve never really cared for the Liberty in either generation, I can sort-of see the appeal. For what it’s worth, these things seem to be more reliable than originally anticipated. One of my best friends has a 08 with around 130,000 miles on it. Never any big issues, just general maintenance. He doesn’t take it off hardcore roads, but lots of backroads, fishing stuff. It’s decent for that. Would be cool with a couple little mods.

    I will say they drive like garbage, just the way old off-roaders like! I think people who want a low budget, decently competent off-roader will pick these up and build them like Jack predicts. Real enthusiasts with more expendable money will continue with Wranglers.

  • avatar
    agent534

    The Liberty has a really small interior for such a big exterior.
    I have a Patriot, and a friend has a Liberty and there isn’t really any more space inside the Liberty. A check just now of interior dimensions confirms that I was not imagining this.

    No need to get a Liberty and the lower mpg when that is the case.

    I would have to say look to a Commander if you want a bigger Jeep product.
    For day to day driving, I have no complaints on the Patriot, I rather like it.

  • avatar
    stingray65

    It is very difficult to replace a legend, because a legend typically takes a long time to develop, and is usually accompanied by a lots of growing pains in the early years, and sustained by selective memories in the later years. It is also much easier to become a legend if you are replacing a turkey.

  • avatar
    RobbieAZ

    My wife had a 2008 Liberty for 8 years. It never experienced any power train trouble, but the climate control system was garbage and had to be repaired several times. An unreliable A/C unit in Arizona is not a good thing. Though she generally liked the vehicle and was kind of sad when we traded it, I was never that fond of it.

  • avatar
    MoparRocker74

    Ive been a hardcore Jeep fan for some time…CJs and Wranglers are usually my focus, and I never had a problem with the Liberty for what it was–a more mainstream all around SUV. People were hating on these calling them ‘girly jeeps’ and such on account of the IFS, yet would have no problem with 4-Runners, XTerras, etc which have the same layout. Wonder how they like it now, where there are like 3 remaining true sports utilities, the rest are CUVs which are nothing but the bastard children of sedans and minivans comprised of the worst elements of both.

  • avatar
    cimarron typeR

    For on-roaders like myself I see parallels between Jeep XJ,Cherokees etc. to 1st gen 350z.Not bad for what they cost and significantly less expensive to modify and repair than performance vehicles motoring press would prefer to drive/borrow etc. Either one will allow one a motoring hobby.

  • avatar
    gespo04

    Man, it’s going to be weird in 15 years when people start taking Jeep Patriots to Moab.

  • avatar
    PuckDrop

    I’m the second owner of a 4wd 5spd ’03 Liberty with 198kms and bought it because I got a great deal on it and because I knew the previous owner. It’s been really reliable with mostly routine maintenance in the 5 years I’ve owned it.

    It’s got great torque and is big enough to haul my camping stuff. The biggest beef I have with the Liberty is the awful fuel consumption. I swear I’m single-handedly keeping the oil sands in business but the Jeep does what I need it to do and has been decent in the snow in 4 wheel drive.

    I know it doesn’t get a lot of love from Jeep purists and I am okay with that.

  • avatar
    TW5

    Cherokee was a unique situation. Jeep over promised by teasing relentlessly and playing with ideas and themes they didn’t really seem to understand. The Jeeple let their imaginations run wild without considering the harsh realities of the auto business and auto regulations. The disconnect between enthusiasts and C-suite execs caused a backlash in which people irrationally sought the XJ as the last “good” Cherokee. When enthusiasts buy and they starting seeding narratives in the public consciousness, eventually the high schoolers follow.

    I’m not sure Liberty will ever experience a similar happening, and if such an even were to happen again, I suspect WJ would be next on the list. It has 2 solid axles, body on frame, and the 4.0L inline-6 is an option. Four wheel drive options are also robust. Buyers can choose between Quadradrive II with a V8 in limited trim or Selec trac with the 4.0L in other trims. I can’t remember which transmission, but one of the 4 speeds also has a kick-down second gear that works well during incline driving.

    WJ is where it’s at, imo, even if they are much older than KK and KJ.

    • 0 avatar
      danio3834

      “It has 2 solid axles, body on frame, and the 4.0L inline-6 is an option.”

      The WJ is a uni-frame similar to the XJ. But I agree with you that the WJ is the next wave of Jeep budget build, not the KJ/KK. Similar prices and lots of availability with beefier drivetrain options.

      I recently built a 99 WJ as an overlander and didn’t even consider the Liberty as an option.

  • avatar
    Flipper35

    We had to live with a KK for over a week as a rental from our insurance company when our sedan got totaled. I would save my money until I could afford and live with a Wrangler to be honest. Or by something similar that is not a Liberty for the same price. Maybe the grow on you if you have them long enough.

  • avatar
    danio3834

    Right now is the WJ Grand Cherokee’s time for budget 4×4 builds. It sits on a similar solid axle chassis as the XJ, but is roomier, rides nicer, has a nicer interior, is available with a V8 and they made millions of them. All for around the same basement prices as the Liberty which features an IFS which is more complicated to lift and never featured a decent powertrain. The choice is obvious between the two.

    From there, Cheap Jeepers will jump right into WK1s and miled out JKs.


Back to TopLeave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Recent Comments

  • PrincipalDan: Make my Kona a type of coffee bean and keep this little Hyundai.
  • loner: Beautiful car, and a nice choice. I had never given the GS much thought until the past week, but now I’m...
  • EBFlex: Actually this is very good news. The sooner Tesla becomes water under the bridge the better.
  • IHateCars: Nice job….too bad a GS-F wasn’t doable, those things are magic. Now go and get some...
  • cimarron typeR: What no Tru Coat? I’ve always wondered how well Crown and other aftermarket...

New Car Research

Get a Free Dealer Quote

Staff

  • Contributors

  • Timothy Cain, Canada
  • Matthew Guy, Canada
  • Ronnie Schreiber, United States
  • Bozi Tatarevic, United States
  • Chris Tonn, United States
  • Corey Lewis, United States
  • Mark Baruth, United States
  • Moderators

  • Adam Tonge, United States
  • Corey Lewis, United States