2012 Jeep Liberty- Begging To Be Released Into The Wild

Owning a Jeep Liberty could be likened to possessing an exotic animal, such as a tiger or a serval.  Sure, it’d be fun and a little wild, and your neighbors would think of you as being adventurous and fearless.  Heck, they may even be a little envious.  But life with a Liberty, or that aforementioned serval, could get tiresome and unwieldy once the novelty has worn off.

Like any exotic critter, the Liberty doesn’t belong in the city.  It’s natural habitat is in the great outdoors.  All Libertys, and most Jeep models, proudly wear a “Trail Rated” badge on their flanks.  That isn’t just some overcrazed marketing hype- it’s the real deal.  Any Jeep model that can pass the challenging Rubicon Trail in the high Sierras or overcome Moab is given the lofty status.  The main idea of the Liberty is to be a serious off-roader first and a comfortable boulevard cruiser second.  This is both the Jeep’s biggest strength and also exposes its most obvious flaws.

Unfortunately I didn’t get to take this Liberty off-road.  The entire test was done within the Los Angeles city limits.  In the past year I have driven a Wrangler, the poster child of the Jeep brand, through some serious mountain trails and came away amazed at its capabilities.  With low and high settings on Jeep’s exclusive Command-Trac 4WD and grade descent assist I have no doubt that this Liberty tester would be extremely proficient as well. 

All Libertys are powered by the same 3.7 Liter V6 that produces 210 horsepower.  The engine has a throaty note, and sounds aggressive under heavy throttle.  It’s very much like the old American cars of yore.  Though not lightning fast, acceleration is responsive and isn’t at all sluggish. Even with a car load of people and negotiating some uphill grades- the Liberty never felt strained.  Shifts from the four-speed automatic were smooth and well-timed.  All in all it’s a well sorted powertrain.  Sadly, fuel economy is much like those old American cars as well- the EPA estimates fuel economy of 15mpg city and 21 highway.  With a mixture of driving conditions and my light foot- we averaged 14mpg. Ouch!  Also like those cars- steering feel is finger light and there’s not much feedback about where the car is heading.  Surprisingly- the Liberty did feel well planted and not tipsy in hard cornering.

Unlike those old beasts of years gone by, but true to the Jeep experience, the ride is very harsh.  Every imperfection on the road was felt with a jolt or a bump.  There was a lot of jiggling over Southern California’s notorious haphazard road surfaces.  A few hours in the Liberty will leave anyone with bruised kidneys.  To be fair though and true to its nature, this would be an advantage in rough terrain, but in everyday life it’s just brutal.

Where the Liberty really shines in its suburban duties is hauling around cargo and people.  The tall roofline affords enough headroom for everyone to wear a bowlers hat (but would they really want to?).  With 60/40 split seats- the rear hatch is cavernous.  The rear liftgate is hinged to the roof and the rear window can pop open for smaller gear.  Be careful when you it open though as it swings up directly toward the operator’s head with the ferocity of a guillotine.  Folding the rear seats can be cumbersome as the releases are located at the bottom of the seatbacks, but once down, the back hatch area affords a generous 62.4 cu. ft.  The rear loading area is wide and square, allowing large items such as a television to be loaded easily.  Considering the Liberty’s modest 176.9in. length (about the same as a Ford Focus)- it’s very versatile, and allows the car to be easily parked in tight spaces.

Rear seat legroom is decent- but entry and exit are hampered by tight openings in the rear doors.  There’s not enough room between the rear seat cushions and the B-pillar to allow someone’s foot to pass through without having to do some acrobatics.  Ironically, this was also a problem with the Cherokee- the Liberty’s long-deceased but highly regarded predecessor.  The driving position is comfortable with ample foot, elbow, and head room.  The steering wheel tilts but does not telescope.  Regardless, it was still a pleasant place to sit.  The front passenger doesn’t have such luck.  Below the front airbag, protruding from the dash toward where the passenger’s knees would be, is a massive grab bar.  Remember the Liberty’s main priority- to be an off-road vehicle first and foremost.  This bar is to held onto if the going gets tough on some back road.  Although convenient for that purpose, it’s a downright nuisance at any other time (which for many will be ALL the time).  It intrudes into precious cabin space and adds a claustrophobic feeling to an otherwise airy cabin.

The dash is easy to negotiate and all controls are where they should be.  The gauges are clear and simple as well.  Overall, there is nothing about the Liberty’s ergonomics that will confuse a unitiiated driver.  Everything is to-the-point and won’t cause driver distraction- which is very important while negotiating fallen rocks and tree stumps.  The interior styling is hard-edged and purposeful.  Storage space is abundant- there are pockets in the door panels and a massive compartment under the center armrest for CDs and sodas.  Attached to the sides of the console are some nifty and durable bungee cords to hold bottles of water.  Visibility is very good all around- with generous glass area, thin pillars, and a very upright windshield- much like the SUV’s of days long gone.  The Liberty is one of the few vehicles that hasn’t benefited from Chrysler’s recent resurgence- interior plastics feel cheap and although everything seemed to fit together well- there was an aura of low quality in the cabin.  This is a reminder of what all Pentastar products were like not so long ago and how far they’ve progressed since.  Don’t be surprised if the Liberty exhibits an all-new interior in the coming year or so.

Exterior styling is chunky- with an almost Lego block look to the car.  There’s a clear family resemblance to the Jeep Patriot and discontinued Commander and Cherokee, as well as some Hummer H2 cues too.  The squared-off look works well for the Liberty and its intended purpose.  Ask any child to draw an SUV and they will come up with something that looks like the Liberty.  The only styling touch that seems questionable are the squashed-in square headlights and huge wheel flares- there’s an unfortunate touch of the untasteful Dodge Nitro there.  The round headlights on the previous Liberty looked much better and had a direct lineage to other Jeeps.  Otherwise, kudos to Jeep for not giving in to the latest trends and designing an SUV that looks more like a minivan- Ford’s Escape and Nissan’s Pathfinder come to mind.

Our tester had exactly 20k miles on the clock and there were no rattles or squeaks.  The only defect as a loose power outlet at the bottom of the console.   The Liberty’s MSRP starts at $23,360.  Our Sport version came with the optional four wheel drive- bumping the price up to $24,975.  Not a bad price for a comfy, well-equipped 4X4 that can handle almost anything.

Choosing to own the Liberty comes down to priorities.  If you deal with unpaved roads on a regular basis and need the right vehicle to contend with it then look no further.  If you are just trying to impress those nosey neighbors- it may become a burden like that last pet was. As much as I admire the rugged nature of this beast- I have to grudgingly give it 2.5/5.0 boomerangs.

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