It seems strange that a vehicle that was originally created to fight the Axis Powers in World War II is still on the market and caused the birth of an automotive dynasty that is still going strong 60 years later. Stranger than that is the unusual way that Mercedes-Benz ended up owning the rights to the Jeep name. (Jeep was taken over by Kaiser and sold to American Motors AMC. Renault bought American Motors, and therefore Jeep, and eventually sold AMC to Chrysler. Chrysler and Mercedes-Benz merged to form DaimlerChrysler.) Stranger yet, the company that had been directly under the thumb of dictatorial rule during the war now determines both the form and function of the very vehicle that fought for freedom in Europe -- the Jeep.

With this much unusual history as the setting, it is not surprising that fans of both Jeeps and sport utility vehicles in general were curious to see what direction DaimlerChrysler was going to take Jeep. The first challenge that faced the new owners was what to do with the Cherokee. This was a vehicle that was simultaneously wildly popular, in serious need of an overhaul, and had changed relatively little during its run (after it was downsized for the 1984 model-year and referred to as XJ) because it didn't seem to need much modification to satisfy consumers. Rumors began as early as 1999 that the Cherokee was nearing the end of its long run, but popularity among SUV buyers kept it around until 2001, the same year that DaimlerChrysler introduced its new compact SUV -- the Liberty. The Cherokee is not officially being replaced by the Liberty, which has been available at dealers since mid-2001. However, DaimlerChrysler referred to the Liberty as "a new addition to the brand. It will join Grand Cherokee and Wrangler, while the venerable Cherokee will cease production in May of 2000." While this new vehicle is sold as the Liberty in North America, it is known as the Cherokee elsewhere.

A New Look For Jeep
The Liberty is an all-new vehicle for Jeep, with styling cues that connect it to its ancestry and a powerplant that is similar to that of its big brother, the Grand Cherokee. It has other ancestry as well from two popular concept vehicles from the 1990s. The Dakar, shown in 1997, was essentially a four-door Wrangler designed for outdoor adventure; and the radically styled Jeepster, shown in 1998, was a V-8 sportster capable of taking on the Rubicon Trail. The Liberty draws from both, with the functionality of the Dakar and the unique look and fun feel of the Jeepster. A visual comparison of the three vehicles shows a strong resemblance to the Jeepster in the front and similarities to the Dakar on the sides and in the rear.

Yet, with all of these sources for inspiration, the Liberty is its own vehicle. It uses the round headlamps and seven-slot grille that are trademark Jeep in a design that is completely unique. It does not mimic any military or civilian Jeep that has come before it, but definitely shows its Jeep heritage. The headlamp lines continue on to the hood, giving the front of the vehicle an aggressive, unique look. Adding to this are the standout bumpers, wide fender flares, and trail-worthy 16-inch wheels and all-season tires. The cladding and flares on the Limited Edition are painted to match the vehicle and are gray on the Sport.

The Liberty also has full-grip door handles, akin to the Grand Cherokee, and a swing-style tailgate for easy access to cargo. The taillight design is also a departure for Jeep. The taillights, combined with the turn signals, are two circular lenses on either side of the vehicle, making the lenses both compact and out-of-the-ordinary.

The refined yet rugged interior has many more creature comforts than the other compact SUVs that Jeep has put out, and an increasing focus on ergonomics, which makes this vehicle comfortable and easy to use. Jeep focused on increasing headroom and interior roominess, while giving the interior a fresh, modern look. There are a variety of colors and textures in the interior and metallic accents throughout. Potential buyers have the option of the Limited Edition or the Sport. The Limited adds extra satin chrome highlights and the option of leather, and the Sport is equipped with cloth.

Is It Trail-Worthy?
The aggressive design of the Liberty's exterior is backed up by its strength and its mechanical ability. It is offered with a choice of two engines in North America: either a 3.7L V-6 or a 2.4L inline-four. (A turbocharged four-cylinder 2.5L diesel is available in international markets.) The 3.7L puts out 210 hp and 235 lb-ft of torque, which is especially impressive considering that this engine puts out more power with less displacement than the engine found in the Cherokee. The 3.7L is mated to either a four-speed automatic transmission, which works extremely well with this engine, or to a five-speed manual, on sale later this year. For those who want to save some money without compromising trail ability, the Liberty is also offered with the 150-horse I-4, which puts out 165 lb-ft of torque and 4,000 rpm. It is mated solely to a NV1500 five-speed manual transmission.

The suspension is also all-new. The Liberty uses a coil spring independent front suspension that gives the vehicle a smoother ride, crisper handling, and more precise steering control, all while providing 8 inches of suspension travel. The suspension was built to be tough and durable, with cast-iron lower control arms and forged steel upper control arms that are coupled to a cast-iron steering knuckle. This design helps improve the ride on rough roads by reducing un-sprung weight. The rear suspension, also designed for ride comfort, uses a live axle with a trailing upper A-arm, dual trailing lower

A-arms, and coil springs. Liberties are equipped with rack-and-pinion steering and an enhanced braking system.

Fortunately, Jeep did not compromise the vehicle's capabilities on the trail to improve on-road ride. This vehicle uses the same four-wheel-drive systems that made Jeep excel off-road. Buyers have a choice of either rear-wheel 2WD, part-time 4WD, or full-time 4WD. The part-time transfer case, the NV231 Command-Trac, has been rigorously tested on the trail as has the NV242 Selec-Trac full-time system. Both of these transfer cases are well-established in the Jeep lineup. The Liberty was not only made to conquer the backcountry, it was built to feel and drive more solidly. It has the stiffest Jeep body to date and highly improved torsion and bending numbers.

How Does It Compare?
It is difficult to look at this new vehicle and not do a few comparisons to the compact SUV that Jeep just stopped producing. The new 3.7L powerplant feels very similar to the V-8 that powers the Grand Cherokee. It is a little noisier than the I-6 that was under the hood of the Cherokee, which is indicative of V-6 versus I-6 engines, but provides both more horsepower and more torque. Although this vehicle is a lot of fun to drive and does extremely well on the trail, its weight prevents drivers from truly enjoying the increased power on the highway. If the vehicle was a little lighter, drivers could have a lot more fun with it on the road.

However, the Liberty is so impressive off-road that getting up to cruising speed a little slower is irrelevant. The transmission and engine work together very nicely, whether the Jeep is on the trail or stuck in traffic. The Liberty crawls over rocks with ease and has short front and rear overhangs to aid in off-road maneuvers. For those who were concerned about the demise of Jeep's compact SUV, rest assured that this new sport utility is ready to take its place at the top of the mountain.

A Comparison in Numbers
Largest Engine:
Liberty (KJ): 3.7L V-6 Cherokee (XJ): 4.0L I-6
Horsepower:
Liberty (KJ): 210 at 5,200 rpmCherokee (XJ): 190 at 4,600 rpm
Torque:
Liberty (KJ): 235 lb-ft at 4,000 rpmCherokee (XJ): 225 lb-ft at 3,000 rpm
Transmissions:
Liberty (KJ): NV3550 manual, 45RFE four-speed autowith overdriveCherokee (XJ): NVG3550 manual, AW4 four-speed autowith overdrive
Towing Capacity (lb):
Liberty (KJ): 5,000 with 45RFE and trailer towCherokee (XJ): 5,000 with tow option and AW4
Transfer Cases:
Liberty (KJ): Part-time Command-Trac or full-timeSelec-TracCherokee (XJ): Part-time Command-Trac or full-timeSelec-Trac
Length/Width/Height (in):
Liberty (KJ): 174.4/71.6/70.9 (with spare) Cherokee (XJ): 167.5/69.4/64.0 (4WD)
Wheelbase (in):
Liberty (KJ): 104.3Cherokee (XJ): 101.4
Curb Weight (lb):
Liberty (KJ): 4,115 (4WD)Cherokee (XJ): 3,355 (4WD)
Ground Clearance (rear):
Liberty (KJ): 7.8 (4WD) Cherokee (XJ): 8.1
Departure Angle:
Liberty (KJ): 32.3Cherokee (XJ): 31
Cargo Volume (cu ft):
Liberty (KJ): 29.0Cherokee (XJ): 34.0
Base Price (incl. dest.):
Liberty (KJ): $17,035 (2WD I-4)Cherokee (XJ): $19,955 (2WD I-6)