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Flagging appeal hampers Liberty

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Jeep is synonymous with off-road prowess and has been for 70 years.

Jeep’s compact Liberty carries on that proud tradition. Its heavy-duty underpinnings are designed to take you where car-based, pseudo-ute crossovers don’t – or shouldn’t – dare to tread.

But that’s both the Liberty’s beauty and bane. Its off-road performance isn’t the problem – its on-road abilities are.

2011 Jeep Liberty Sport 4×4 70th Anniversary Edition
VEHICLE TYPE: Four-door, five-passenger compact SUV
BASE PRICE: $24,865
PRICE AS TESTED: $28,710 (incl. delivery fees)
POWERTRAIN: 3.7-liter, SOHC V-6; 210 horsepower; 235 lb.-ft. torque, four-speed automatic transmission, four-wheel drive
WHEELBASE/LENGTH: 106.1″/176.1″
CURB WEIGHT: 4,290 pounds
EPA FUEL RATING: 15 mpg city/21 highway

Those trail-tough components add up to weight, nearly 4,300 pounds of it. And with a wheezy, 210-horsepower V-6, well past its expiration date, paired with a dull-witted four-speed automatic transmission, sluggish acceleration on street or highway is the best the Liberty can muster.

Chrysler’s new 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6 is scheduled to replace seven aging engines across its product lines, and for the Liberty it can’t come too soon. In addition to an 80-some horsepower bump over the current powerplant, the Pentastar would also help alleviate the Liberty’s thirst – 15 miles per gallon in town and a measly 21 mpg on the highway.

All that avoirdupois also adversely affects the Liberty’s handling. There’s a fair amount of body roll through corners, a typical trait of many tall SUVs, and the steering’s generally numb feel and languid response don’t help.

On the bright side, the Liberty rides well on the highway, sopping up broken pavement with ease.

Our tester featured a 70th Anniversary Package consisting of mostly trim bits and attractive olive-dyed leather seat upholstery. Too bad the rest of the interior’s plasticky materials and rectangle-based design look woefully old-fashioned.

The neatest feature of the Liberty is the full-length, lined-cloth sunroof. Even backseat passengers can enjoy the open-air experience with minimal buffeting.

In Jeep’s defense, the Liberty seemed solidly constructed, virtually free of creaks and rattles.

The new, much-praised Grand Cherokee shows the heights Jeep is capable of scaling, both in design and execution.

The lagging Liberty deserves no less.