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2002 Jeep Liberty

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

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Hitting the Road
OK, so let's hit the road. With any new vehicle, you first want to know what it's going to be like to drive around in your every day life. I drove the Liberty around for the next two days both downtown and around the suburbs. My personal vehicles include two TJ's and a Chevy Tahoe. Our Project TJ, of course, is miserable to drive around town, while our 2001 stocker is a fun get-around Jeep. The Tahoe is huge and bus-like, and just isn't as nimble for running errands. The Liberty turned out to be the perfect in-the-middle vehicle. It was fun to drive around town in and would prove to be a great utility vehicle during the next week.

Though the 3.7L V6 is by no means a speed demon, it proved to be a very nice match for the just over 4,000 pound Liberty. Anyone buying a vehicle like this isn't looking to make record-breaking 0-60 times, so you shouldn't be surprised that the Liberty does this in roughly 11 or 12 seconds. However, the Liberty seems quick enough for a daily driver and did offer some fun when tossing it in and out of traffic.

It was interesting to drive a vehicle with a 104.3 inch wheelbase and a height of just a hair over 6 feet. Though the Jeep felt stable when hitting sharp curves or darting in and out of traffic, it did tend to feel like it wanted to wander on longer, faster curves. This was most prevalent on the highway at speeds over 50 miles per hour. At times, it did feel like I needed to back off in order to keep body roll to a minimum. But let's face it, it's sport utility, not a race car! The sooner people get this through their heads, the better off we'll all be.

The independent front suspension was added to the Liberty with the idea of improving the ride on the street for the every day drivers. Trucks like the Ford Explorer and just about everything else in it's class have had IFS for years and are selling like hot cakes. Jeep has been behind the times in respect to giving the mass market what they want. The days of using the "It's a Jeep" excuse for poor ride handling are over and Jeep wants everyone to know about it.

There's a definite feel difference in the IFS'd Liberty compared to its solid axle brothers, the Wrangler, Cherokee and Grand Cherokee. The steering is very easy - dare I say, too easy. When driving around town at speeds of 20-40 miles per hour you could feel many of the bumps and potholes in the roads. When hitting them, the wheel would jiggle a bit. It's almost like there was a touch of bumpsteer going on. Nothing serious. Don't get me wrong here. It was just something I noticed, so it's worth mentioning.

And We're Off!
The weekend came and it was time to pack up the Jeep and head to Monteagle, Tennessee. Unlike our Wranglers, the Liberty's 60/40 split back seat folds forward and provides cavernous space for all of your junk. The headrests in the rear seats are removable with a little bit of physical coersion, which allows the seats to go down even when your front seats are back all the way. Unfortunately, the seat bottoms don't fold up like they do in the Grand Cherokees, so they do not lay flat. If you have anything that has to sit flat it must stay all the way in the back. The seat backs do have some built-in tie-downs, as well does the floor. We crammed a TON of stuff in the back of the KJ and would fit even more in there later in the week.

Getting into the rear is an easy task. You can press a button on the remote to release the rear glass or use the door handle. The Liberty has an interesting new back door design. The rear is split in the middle, horizontally. The "flipper glass" goes up and the bottom swings open to the driver's side. Opening this way seems odd to me, considering most of the time I would get in the back, I would be the driver. Walking around the gate seems a bit inconvenient to me.

Opening the back is a neat new experience. Pulling slightly on the handle or hitting the remote button pops the rear glass. No hands needed! Pulling the handle all the way brings the door open as the glass flips up automatically. One hand is all that is needed. This was great and convenient once I learned to keep my chin out of the way!

Once we had the Jeep loaded up, we set out into the darkness for the night ride. The ride would take a few hours and would be all interstate driving. The Liberty had very good night visibility, however, the fog lights really didn't do as much as I'd hoped. Having a TJ, I'm used the driving lights which throw a wide beam to the sides of the road. This is not the case with the KJ. However, the big round headlights did quite well at lighting up the road ahead.

Though the Liberty is not going to win at your local drag strip, it did come alive on the highway. There was a very noticable vibration at 77mph and above, though, even with the dampers. But doing 80 mph through the rolling hills of Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee were not a problem at all. In fact, there is a four mile stretch of road heading toward Monteagle that is a 6% uphill grade. The road has many turns and will put any vehicle to the real test. The Liberty passed with flying colors, pushing us up the hill at a 60 mph clip, which was fast enough to make us nervous on some of the sharper turns.

The highway ride was quite nice from a drivability standpoint. The Liberty's suspension sucked up most of what the highway department left unfixed, providing us a very smooth ride. Keeping in mind that this is a SUV and not a car, the Liberty was more than acceptable and we really enjoyed driving it.

The stereo was doing a great job at covering up what we found to be a very high noise level inside. Though we couldn't feel any air rushing through the seals, we could certainly hear it. Compared to our built TJ, of course, the Liberty is deathly quiet, but compared to our Tahoe, it was very loud. It's all a matter of perspective, but there was a very notable amount of wind noise.

The only real beef we found with the Liberty on the road was the seats. There's no other way to say it but to be perfectly honest. The seats were very uncomfortable. For $27,000 we expected comfortable seats. The seats in our Sport model were worthy of a car half its price. The only adjustments were manual fore/aft and recline. The seats felt hard and the lumbar supports were supportive to the point of feeling like hard bulges in my kidneys.Perhaps narrower folks may find the lumbar just right. I think that even a manually-adjusted lumbar would have been a big plus.

By the time we got to Monteagle, we were stiff as boards and once we did a weekend of trailing, well, forget it. I haven't sat in a Limited yet, but judging by the photographs, they look to be worth the price of admission.

Jeep Liberty Packed
Give us space and we'll fill it! More than enough room for our stuff.

Jeep Liberty Packed
The Liberty was perfect for our ready-for-Fall trip to the local do-it-yourself emporium. That's 4 giant pots of mums, 2 bags of soil and 2 60-pound bags of mulch in there. Plenty of room for more!

Jeep Liberty  Glamour Shot
The P235/70R16 OWL's did great on the road. With more aggressive tires, the Liberty would do great on just about any trail it could physically fit over.

Jeep Liberty driveline
Even with a balancer at the transfer case and a vibration damper at the rear differential, the Liberty had plenty of vibes around 77 mph.

Jeep Liberty Front End
The pre-runner-style skidplate up front is very functional, though, we'd later find out that it's a mud trap.

Jeep Liberty Front End
The rear end of the Liberty should accept a handful of aftermarket goodies, including lockers and lower gears.

Jeep Liberty  IFS
The Independent Front Suspension has been the hottest topic of debate surrounding the Liberty.



Quick Time Videos courtesy of Cole Ford and Master Drive

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