Compact Liberty 4×4 is Jeep’s old-school stepchild

Jeep’s midsize Liberty sport-utility is decidedly old school. Consider it as a sort of “modern” replacement for the much-loved Jeep Cherokee, a vehicle that had its origins way back in 1984 when the late American Motors owned the Jeep brand. Back then, the Cherokee broke new ground by employing a unibody structure in place of the traditional body-on-frame construction common to off-road vehicles. The Liberty also goes the unibody route, as do nearly all the current compact crossover vehicles, but for Jeep duty it’s a very heavy-duty unibody structure. The Liberty’s suspension is biased toward off-road application, which means that although it’s tough enough to handle rough stuff in the boonies, it’s also fairly softly sprung. Toss in long suspension travel and a high center of gravity, and the on-road result is a fair bit of body roll through corners, but a relatively comfortable highway ride. Thus designed, the Liberty 4×4 traverses rocks and ruts other CUVs wouldn’t — or shouldn’t — dare attempt. The tall, boxy styling permits upright seating and plenty of head room, along with excellent visibility. The well-padded front seats in our Sport-model tester were quite comfortable; the rear bench seat not so much. The cabin feels narrow, exacerbated by the huge transmission hump that eats into footwell space and the intrusion of front-door armrests. The dash and doors are clad with uninviting, industrial-looking, hard black plastics. Big, round  gauges are easy to read, and the secondary controls are simple, sturdy and generally self-explanatory. The overall effect is a design that’s at least a generation behind the Liberty’s fresher competitors, but still functional.

But where the Liberty really falls behind the times is its propulsion.

Power comes from a 3.7-liter V-6 producing a modest 210 horsepower and 235 pound-feet of torque. Shackled to an archaic four-speed automatic transmission, acceleration is at best sluggish, and fuel economy is mediocre.

Chrysler will discontinue production this month of the 3.7 V-6 and possibly replace it with a smaller, 3.2-liter version of its much-acclaimed 3.6-liter, DOHC Pentastar V-6 when a modern, redesigned Liberty is introduced early next year as a 2014 model. No doubt a new transmission will accompany the engine upgrade. Assuredly the redesign will address all the issues that keep the current Liberty from being very competitive in an ever-expanding market niche.

But count on this: The new Jeep will dominate the segment in off-road ability. It will still be a Jeep, after all.

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