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Jeep’s new Liberty breaks out of the cute-ute mold byoffering genuine offroad capability. You know the cute-utes: The class was established by the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 and includes the new Ford Escape and Mazda Tribute. Comfortable and convenient, they are good for carrying gear but struggle in slippery terrain.

A completely new vehicle for 2002, the Jeep Liberty offers a smooth ride, agile handling, and sharp steering. Smaller and less expensive than the Grand Cherokee and other midsize SUVs, the Liberty is convenient and pleasant for commuting or running errands around town. Yet it’ll go just about anywhere offroad.

Priced to Move
The Jeep Liberty costs much less than the $35,000 midsize SUVs: Base suggested retail for a Liberty 4×4 is just $17,960, though air-conditioning ($850) and other options quickly add to the bottom line. Replacing the four-cylinder engine with a V-6 adds $850; swapping the five-speed manual for an automatic transmission, another $820. The V-6 Sport-trim automatic that I drove retails for $23,350 when equipped with options such as Command-Trac four-wheel-drive and offroad skid plates. A Limited model with the V-6, A/C, power windows, and other conveniences starts at $22,720.

In short, the Jeep Liberty is perfect for outdoorsmen who want a smaller, less expensive SUV that can go anywhere on weekends and still serve as a comfortable wagon during the week.

A Foundation for Liberty
The Liberty uses a unit-body chassis. It’s similar in concept to the Grand Cherokee and recently discontinued Cherokee chassis, but all the chassis load points have been reinforced for strength and rigidity. Traditional trucks use body-on-frame construction, good for heavy loads and offroad travel, but in theory not as good for handling and ride quality.

The Liberty’s suspension is far more substantial than what’s found on the cute-utes, reducing the chance of damage in the woods. Eight inches of suspension travel, about 8 inches of ground clearance, and generous approach and departure angles mean the Liberty can traverse deep ruts and clamber over big rocks. It’s also rated to tow up to 5,000 pounds.

Two versions of four-wheel-drive are available:

| | 2002 Jeep Liberty Prices (MSRP): Sport 4WD, $17,960; Limited 4WD, $22,720 Engines: 150-hp 2.4-liter dohc 16-valve in-line 4; 210-hp 3.7-liter sohc 12-valve V-6 Transmissions: five-speed manual; four-speed automatic (V-6 only) Max. towing capacity: 5,000 lb. Wheelbase: 104.3 in. Ground clearance: 7.8 in. Curb weight: 4,115 lb. (V-6 automatic 4WD) Fuel economy (EPA): 16/20 miles per gallon (V-6 automatic) Jeep’s tried-and-true Command-Trac part-time system comes standard. Shift from 2WD to 4WD on the fly with a slight pull on the hand lever. Stop, shift into neutral, and pull the lever up higher for low range. Optional is Jeep’s Selec-Trac. It offers the part-time benefits above but adds a full-time all-wheel-drive mode for slippery conditions. Either way, be sure to order the optional limited-slip rear differential for improved traction offroad.

Most people are buying the Liberty with the 3.7-liter V-6 and automatic, but the V-6 is also available with a heavy-duty five-speed manual. The Liberty’s V-6 is essentially the Grand Cherokee’s high-tech 4.7-liter overhead-cam V-8 with two cylinders lopped off. Smooth and powerful, it’s rated at 210 horsepower and 235 foot-pounds of torque, and it works well with the automatic.

The 2.4-liter twin-cam four-cylinder engine comes only with a fivee-speed manual. I found it a smooth combination, although I suspect it may struggle at higher elevations with 150 horsepower pushing the Liberty’s hefty 3,826 pounds. Besides the lower initial cost, the four-cylinder rates an EPA-estimated 19 city, 23 highway miles per gallon versus 16 city, 21 highway for the V-6.

A Good Daily Driver
The front seats are comfortable, and two adults can ride comfortably in back. Getting in and out is easy, an important consideration when running around town. Yanking on the outside rear door handle causes the glass hatch to swing up as the door itself is swinging out, saving time and effort. Biggest gripes: The cargo floor isn’t perfectly flat when the rear seats are folded down, the rear seats are not readily removable, and there is less storage capacity than that found in the Cherokee it replaces.

Practical during the week, the new Jeep Liberty is a well-designed piece of equipment you can depend on in the backcountry. That’s the kind of outdoor gear we like.