After nearly two decades of tackling trails, the boxy, iconic Jeep Cherokee was replaced by the cuter, more civilized Liberty in 2002. In the three years since that time, the sport/ute has proven its capability to many of its predecessor's devout followers, most notably through the introduction of a bolder, more muscular Renegade model. In a marketplace dominated by car-based mini-utes, the Liberty remains true to the Jeep faithful, with rigid construction and low-range four-wheel-drive.
Outside, there are plenty of elements to differentiate Sport, Limited, and Renegade models. The grayish-black plastic fascias and trim pieces slathered on the Sport have been a Jeep feature since the '80s. For the $4,000 premium attached to a Limited model, Jeep will go to the effort of painting each and every body panel and replace stock 16-inch wheels and tires with a 17-inch set. Fashion-conscious buyers will want to upgrade to chrome rims to complement the chrome adorning the grille and headlight surrounds. While all Liberty models featured a front-end freshening for '05, the range-topping Renegade was made even more distinct with a flat hood, body-color grille, and updated foglamps, tow hooks, and fender flares. The roof-mounted light bar is now optional.
Visually, the interior is quite pleasant, even a touch upscale in certain models, and much more civilized than the old Cherokee's or current Wrangler's. However, despite a 2005 freshening, the dash and door panel plastics don't match the finish and tactile quality of those in import competitors. Front perches are a bit on the small side, which may be an issue for larger drivers. There is an impressive list of stereo/electronics options, including Sirius satellite radio, Infinity speakers, a six-disc in-dash CD changer, Bluetooth, and navigation. We advise avoiding the navigation system, which for $1,500 gives you a screen barely larger than a mobile phone's. A notable new feature for 2005 is white-on-gray gauges.
With the rear seats in place, a Liberty will carry a modest 31 cubic feet of cargo, accessible through a split rear hatch with an upward-swinging top window and a side-swinging lower tailgate section. The setup is easier to use than that of a Honda CR-V, which has a door that swings toward, rather than away from, the curb, but most drivers likely would prefer the one-piece, upward-swinging liftgates of the Chevrolet Equinox and the Nissan Xterra, which are simpler than the Jeep's and easier to use in tight parking spaces.
Like nearly all of its competitors, the Liberty comes with standard ABS and dual front airbags. A tire-pressure warning light also comes standard on Limited and Renegade models, and more safety-concerned drivers can upgrade to a full pressure monitoring system. If money is a factor for you, we suggest passing on that system and instead opting for the optional front and rear side-curtain airbags. This added security seems important, since seat-mounted side airbags and a stability-control system are both missing from the options list. Although Chrysler promises that every SUV it produces will have Electronic Stability Control (ESP) by next year, side airbags and stability control both are now standard on the Honda CR-V, as well as the smaller Hyundai Tucson and Kia Sportage twins. Nissan and Toyota entries also offer a higher level of safety gear; only GM and Ford are similarly lacking in safety features.