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Jeep Liberty gets a diesel option

February 04, 2005|by DAN LYONS/Motor Matters

Here's the dilemma: How do you get the utility of a sport-utility vehicle, without the futility of poor mileage? Jeep's latest take on this target reaches across the pond for its inspiration.

For years, Europeans have had gas prices that are even harder for Americans to understand than the French's fondness for Jerry Lewis. One way they've dealt with the problem is by driving diesels. For 2005, Jeep becomes the first automaker to offer a diesel in a midsize SUV in the North American market.

For many Americans, diesel engines are as foreign as a foreign language. Diesel conjures up images of soot-spouting semi trucks, bellowing down the highway. Time and technology have changed things, and current generation diesel engines are cleaner and quieter than they used to be.

Jeep's common rail diesel engine is a 2.8-liter four-cylinder, coupled to a five-speed automatic transmission. It's rated at 160 horsepower at 3,800 rpm and a whopping 295 lbs.-ft. of torque at 1,800 rpm. Torque, as many people know, is a better measure of around town drivability than is horsepower. Plenty of torque, positioned low in an engine's rev range is experienced as quickness off the line. Torque is also tow-friendly. The Liberty turbo diesel can be equipped to pull up to 5,000 pounds - impressive, for a midsize SUV - especially one that returns an estimated 21 miles per gallon city and 27 mpg highway, and has a range of about 480 miles on a full tank.

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Diesels are different than gas engines. They sound different, for one thing. The Jeep has the valve train chatter characteristic of all diesels, and overall, it's louder than a like-sized gas motor. One rap on diesels of past was that they couldn't start in cold weather, their fuel turning to gel. The mid-January timing of my Liberty test drive here in the northeast proved perfect to test that theory. As I walked out to the Jeep on the first morning, the snow crunching underfoot, the mercury was frozen at 3 degrees below zero. The Jeep fired right up - grumbling, but not stumbling - and ran without complaint through a three-day stretch when the thermometer barely rose above single digits. You have my sympathies if your winters are worse than mine are in northern New York state, so I'm glad to report the Liberty diesel comes with an engine block heater.

There's more new for Liberty in 2005 than just the available diesel. All versions get interior and exterior freshening and the new Renegade model has been redesigned and repackaged to set it apart from the rest of the Liberty lineup. Renegade is the most rugged of the lot, along the lines of a four-door Wrangler. While not as rock ready as Renegade, any Liberty model can be had in off-road trim. My Limited series tester had a sticker price of $30,870 and was outfitted with Jeep's Selec-Trac four-wheel drive system.

A pull-up lever located on the center console switches between 2WD, 4WD part-time, 4WD full-time and 4WD low range. Liberty 4x4s have a minimum ground clearance of 6.4 inches, and angles of approach and departure are 36 and 31.5 degrees, respectively. Undercarriage skid plates are offered as part of an optional Off-Road Group package. Step off the pavement and Liberty steps over obstacles with ease. It is sure-footed and stable in conditions that would send many SUV hybrids cowering back to their garages.

On-road, Liberty drives a shade harder than some of its car-based contemporaries, though by no means harshly. The interior will comfortably hold four or five adults and their belongings, with enough headroom front and back to withstand a stovepipe hat revival. Cabin tweaks for 2005 include power window switches repositioned to the center console, revised instrument panel graphics and newly designed seats. Those seats fold flatter in back now, making for a more level load floor. Cargo capacity ranges from 29 to 69 cubic feet, depending on how you configure the seats. Rear access is by way of a combination side-swing door and separate, lift-up window. The curbside opening for the rear portal is convenient, though a one-piece door would be more so.

The turbo diesel engine is not available for sale in five states: New York, California, Vermont, Maine and Massachusetts. Drivers in the remaining forty-five states now have a new option in the search for relief from high gas prices and low SUV mileage. And, gas or diesel, Liberty remains a solid choice in a midsize sport-utility. It's right-sized and ready to roll, on- or off-road.

Copyright, Motor Matters, 2005

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