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2002 Jeep Liberty

By Mike "TXJEEPER" Cohn
Photos by Mike Cohn and Jenifer Cohn

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And Now...The Real Test!
By now, you've probably read enough about what the Liberty is and how it drives in grocery-getter mode. Either that or you skipped ahead. Shame on you if you did.

Morning came quickly and we headed out to Jim Oliver's Smokehouse, where the morning's rides would gather and leave. Being a Friday morning, the lot had but three other Jeeps in it when we arrived. We parked the Liberty three spaces over from the three very-built TJ's and headed inside the screened pavillion to eat our breakfast. What ensued was fascinating!

As we sat there grazing, the TJ owners were gazing. Curious as could be, they were dying to take a gander at the KJ parked just a few feet away. They would inch closer and slide sideways when they got within ten feet of the Jeep and then they'd circle back to their TJ's. It was as if there was an invisible force field around the Liberty. After about 10 minutes of watching this bizarre behavior, I had to go outside and talk to them. Walking out, I said "Y'all can step closer and look. It won't bite you." Laughing, they did just that and the question and answer session began.

The next stop was in an area to the side of the parking lot where we parked to take some glamour shots. As people began pulling in and untrailering their rigs, they said things like "You aren't planning on wheeling that are you? I hope you don't mind breaking it." We giggled a little and moved on to the RTI ramp where we gave a spectacular display of articulation (or lack of it).

The whole experience reminded me very much of my first Jeep Jamboree with my TJ back in 1997. The TJ was all-new and I can remember like it was yesterday, how the CJ and YJ owners sneered at me. I remember the mean comments. I remember how none of them would speak with me. They all resented the new TJ and said it wasn't a Jeep. Sound familiar? Now look who's all running coil springs these days!

Once we were done messing around in the lot, we got together with a small group of trucks. Friday was not really an official event day so the mood was light and nobody was out to break parts yet. Our friend, Neal Tew and his buddies were very curious to see first-hand what the Liberty could do and though they were more than prepared for most of the trails around Monteagle, they chose to head out with us. Our leader, Doug Rasberry, was also very eager to check out the Liberty and would prove to be a great help during the day. We discussed what we felt the KJ was capable of doing and decided to hit the Trail Between the Highways.

The trail got its name because it is just that - the trail between the North and South lanes of Interstate 45 as it climbs up the 6% grade mentioned earlier. We aired our Goodyear SR-A's down to about 18 pounds and headed into the narrow trails. Most of the trails around Monteagle are not maintained so with just over 1,600 miles on it, we braced ourselves for plenty of pinstriping on this brand new Jeep.

Those of you who have followed our Project TJ know that it has been down for most of this year, so I have actually only hit the trails a few times this season. Not having driven the Liberty off-road yet, I was a bit uneasy as we headed in.

Driving the Liberty would prove to be a wonderful experience for me. It has been years since I have driven a stock vehicle off-road and I have never driven an automatic off the pavement. In addition, I have never driven anything with a limited slip rear end. I could tell right away that a wonderful driving experience lay ahead.

It wouldn't take long before we'd sink our 29" tall all terrains into the gooey stuff. It had rained every day for the last week or so - and rained hard. Once Doug headed up the first muddy hill, he cut through the crust and left us a hill full of moosh.

Undaunted, I hit the gas and headed for the hill. I was doing great, going up...up...up...stop. I was spinning and digging my little tires into deep, smooth ruts. I sawed the wheel back and forth and gave it everything I had to no avail. It seemed like the limited slip just wasn't kicking in. Then I realized it was time to learn the ol' brake trick to get it to engage. I slammed on the brakes as I gave it gas and each time I did, the Liberty lurched forward a bit at a time. After trying several times I decided I just wasn't going any further and tossed our strap out to Doug.

We would later find more mud and take the strap again when needed. Let's face it, stock all terrains were never intended to challenge Tennessee mud and succeed. Even the guys with big ol' mudders had some trouble here and there.

As the trail progressed, we came to a very long, steep hill climb. Yes! This is what I was hoping for. The hill reminded me very much of 4x4 Hill in Clayton, OK. It's covered with rocks and you really don't want to break down anywhere along the way. Filled with glee, I put the Jeep in gear and started crawling. I was absolutely amazed! The Liberty moved upward at a slow and steady pace, never spinning a tire or hesitating! The motor's timing retarded and I could feel the torque doing its thing. The Jeep took on the trail like a real pro. At the top I got out and screamed "Yes!" with excitement. The Liberty has a real low range! It IS a Jeep!

After the hill we got to some nice flat rocky sections to test our Liberty on. The Liberty's low range would prove more than adequate. Not having to shift gears made easy work of guiding the Jeep over any obstacles in our way. I have to say, I really enjoyed learning to "drive" again. Having low clearance and not much articulation is a far cry from my 35"-shod, fully-locked up TJ. Driving over rocks was much more than just point and shoot. It took finesse, patience, and a good bit of memory. The view from the cockpit of the Liberty is mostly hood, too, so even leaning out the window, you can't see your tires. You have to memorize what's ahead of you before you get there. It was a wonderful exercise and I really enjoyed the experience of it all.

At one point, we got to a bit of a rock field. There appeared to be no safe way through without scraping the heck out of the Liberty and possibly damaging a rocker. Great spotting got me most of the way, but, alas, we just were not tall enough - especially with our tires aired down. We got hung up on our rear differential and there was no way off without damaging a rocker panel in the process. We tried rocking, lifting and pushing to no avail. I finally asked Doug to gently tug me free with his winch line.

Toward the end of this field, we realized that we had mud impacted in the bead of one of our front tires. It was leaking fast. I tried blaming our stuck on the lowered tire but nobody bought it. I grabbed our Power Tank out of the back and juiced up the tire so we could move on. We were probably the only stock vehicle at the event carrying CO2 and air tools. Be prepared!

The tire was leaking pretty fast so we decided that if we found an out, we'd better get back to town and get it fixed up. Before we could go, though, we'd get one more chance to test out 4LO. We came to a long descent that was covered in slick mud. Putting the Liberty into 1st gear, I gently eased onto the slope. I have to admit that I did not read up on all the specs and new goodies on the Liberty prior to leaving, so I did not know that the ABS and engine firing would retard when put in 4LO. However, I learned it on my own. I could feel the motor holding me back under compression as we went down and I could feel a definite difference in how the brakes felt. The Liberty did wonderfully and I kept full control of it all the way to the bottom.

Once we reached the bottom and found a clearing where we could get back onto the highway, we pumped up the bad tire once again, thanked the gang for all of their help, and headed back to town. Two more air stops got us back and we had the local tire shop remount and balance the tire for us. We were set for Saturday!

Saturday
Saturday rolled around and we met up with our group. Robert Fuller would be our trail leader. I've met Robert before and was more than happy to hit the trails with him. Like the gang on Friday, he too was eager to see how the Liberty would fare. Our trail for the day would be Coppenger's Cove. Robert warned us that the trail was on private land and was not maintained. So, expecting more scratches on the new Jeep we headed out!

Our group started out with just a couple of TJ's and a Samurai. We began our 45 minute ride to Coppenger's Cove but didn't make it very far before some other Jeeps joined the group. They had missed their trail ride and wanted to tag along with us. The Jeeps were modified and were over-built for the trail ahead.

When we arrived at the trailhead, we aired down the KJ and waited for the others to finish preparing their rigs. Once again, the Liberty jokes started. One Jeep owner said, "I hope you brought spare parts." I replied by saying, "for what?" After getting closer looks at some of the rigs later in the day, I began wondering if he was really asking if I had spare parts for his rig.

My wife, Jenifer, had driven us to the trail and we decided that it was her turn to try the Liberty off-road. The first few miles of the trail were over a dry creek bed. The river rocks proved our suspension to be a bit on the stiff side. We did take comfort in knowing that despite the tooth-jarring ride, it would have been a whole lot worse in our built TJ.

Jenifer took us down the long and winding trail and we eventually came to some bigger rocks. I got out and spotted her as she drove like a champ over the rocks, guiding the Liberty through without incident. This would be the case throughout the rest of the day, wherever we encountered rocky sections.

The only trouble spot we got to was a massive mud pit. Jenifer gave me the wheel as I assessed our options. There were two ways to go and neither one looked good. Had we met our match? We attempted the main route, which looked more like the bypass. It was a nearly-straight drop into a deep, muddy pit. The pit was about the same size as the Liberty. The "bypass" was a nasty mud pit which was already swallowing up the other Jeeps as we inched into the big hole. I was afraid a rocker would get munched so I eased on in. Sure enough, the rocker caught and I was trapped. A tug of the strap got me free and I pondered my route through the other side.

Plan B was to hit the mud pit as hard as I could and drive as far as I could get. Then, I'd get strapped between some trees to the other side. I jumped in with everything I had. I mashed the gas pedal and slammed on the brakes while sawing the wheel back and forth. The brakes locked the Trac-Lok quite well and I made it more than half-way through! I began to get sideways and my rear end was getting a bit too close to the tree-lined edge for comfort. I called for the strap.

The remainder of the trail was pretty straight-forward and the Jeep did great.

Jeep Liberty on RTI
Not bad flex, really. We had a little further up to go but spun in the rocks.

Jeep Liberty clearance
Though Liberty isn't a high-rider, it does have a very flat underside..

Jeep Liberty Neal Tew
Neal Tew's CJ-7 had a bit more clearance, though.

Jeep Liberty on the trail.
Our Liberty did quite well on the muddy hills. Especially, considering we had 29" all terrains with very subtle tread.

Jeep Liberty  hits the trails
Here's why many four wheelers dislike Independent Front Suspensions. With a solid axle, my front tires would most-likely both be on the ground. Not so with IFS. There's only so far each wheel can droop before you catch air.

Jeep Liberty  hits the trails
We suppose you've never taken the strap before? After almost two weeks of rain, the steep hills were slicker than you know what. Even the big dogs did a little sliding around.

Jeep Liberty  hits the trails
Neal Tew helps keep an eye on a tree stump while I kept my eyes on the rocker-eating rock on my side.

Jeep Liberty  hits the trails
We got by with a little help from our friends when our rear got hung up on a rock. We also had to keep an eye on our leaky tire.

Jeep Liberty  hits the trails
The dry river bed's rocks were no fun. They went on for a couple miles with few obstacles but lots of bone-jarring.

Jeep Liberty  hits the trails
Jenifer had a blast guiding the Liberty through Coppenger Cove's many rocky areas. The Jeep's low range and automatic made easy work of the rock field.

Jeep Liberty  hits the trails
This was the "bypass" mudpit on Coppenger's Cove. Come on, do you really expect anything with 29" all terrains to get through this?

Jeep Liberty  hits the trails
Heavy use of the throttle and serious brake modulation got the Trac-Lok working and kept the Liberty moving forward.

Jeep Liberty  hits the trails
We got pretty far, though, considering. It wasn't until my back end was in danger of getting too much into the trees that I called for the strap.

Jeep Liberty  hits the trails
The Liberty was a lot of fun to hit the trails with. It did make us think and plan our lines carefully. We enjoyed learning where our boundaries and limits were and the challenge of keeping within them.

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