As more and more people in the United States become interested in fuel economy-even if the prices we pay here are nothing compared with what Europeans pay at the pumps-the decision by Jeep to bring in a diesel version of its Liberty SUV is pretty smart thinking. SUVs are the most egregious gas guzzlers you can buy, so if you can still provide reasonable fuel economy and maintain SUV virtues such as a high seating position and all-around versatility, what's not to like?We recently drove the Liberty Sport diesel in England-where it is called, no kidding, the Cherokee-and found that you don't give up anything in the name of saving the planet. (OK, so the California Air Resources Board and our technical editor, Don Sherman, have issues with diesels, but if you believe that global warming is real, then cutting CO2 emissions is a must. Cars aren't the only culprits, however-just look at the current American trend to build houses that are way too big and take massive amounts of energy to heat and cool.)
Back to the truck. The Jeep's 2.8-liter, four-cylinder, DOHC, sixteen-valve, direct-injection, common-rail turbo-diesel clatters at idle and lacks some refinement, but it provides mighty torque to make up for its modest power output. The Liberty makes 148 horsepower in Europe, an alarmingly small number for such a comely vehicle, but it also has 266 pound-feet of torque on hand, which turns the vehicle into a really good hauler. We know, as we used it to tow an old racing car at unseemly speeds. The engine's characteristics are as well matched to the five-speed automatic transmission as Michael Moore is to hip shots. U.S. diesels are rated at 160 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque and have a tow rating of 5000 pounds.
Just before we drove the Liberty, we were testing a Kia Sorento, which proved that the U.S. industry needs to pay attention to the Koreans-and also that the Koreans will never really conquer world markets unless they wake up to what consumers demand. The Liberty scores over the Kia dynamically, because it has pretty nice steering allied to a firm, well-controlled ride, although it can get choppy on the poorest country lanes. It is actually wieldy and can be entertaining on the twisties. The Sorento, on the other hand, is a dynamic disaster. It rides OK on a freeway, if you don't mind floatiness, but falls to pieces as soon as you enter on off-ramp or try to drive in a sporting vein along a country road. The steering seems barely connected to the chassis, which, in turn, doesn't do anything you ask it to. Yikes.
But to give Kia credit, the interior is spectacular for the money, with lots of nice soft-touch plastics, Japanese-style panel gaps, and a really upscale feel. The Jeep, on the other hand, is all hard plastics, a Toys "R" Us special. There is nothing inside the Jeep that says quality to you; instead, it shouts, "We are making a profit at your expense!"
Which is a shame, because the Liberty is a nice vehicle in any form. We'd say that the diesel version, available in Sport and Limited editions only, is actually the nicest of the lot, sacrificing a bit of straight-line acceleration for better gas mileage-we averaged a little more than 21 mpg, driving hard-and hauling ability, as well as an easy cruising gait.