My Liberty Has Been Compromised: A complete and neurotic, long-term evaluation of the 2008 Jeep Liberty

It’s been a little over a year and a half and 42,000 miles in the driver’s seat of the 2008 Jeep Liberty. I would like to have been able to say to it was all grins and giggles… but I can’t. I expected more from a Jeep. The Liberty should have continued to evolve, even from its spiritual predecessor, the Cherokee (America is the only country that badges this SUV the Liberty, everywhere else it remains the Cherokee). But instead, something appears to have gone wrong in the gene pool, perhaps a product of platform inbreeding.

I should first mention that I spent half a year and 20,000 or so miles with the first generation Liberty. I originally was not a fan of this ugly, frog-eyed replacement to my beloved, iconic Cherokee. However, it was not what I considered a compromised vehicle. There were still some off-road capabilities that were retained. Muddy fields could still be tackled with relative ease, despite the highway oriented Goodyear Wrangler STs. There was noticeably less chassis flexibility which caused the Jeep, when off-road, to often lift a tire in the air like a wounded puppy. But that increased stiffness did wonders on road. The first gen Liberty was one of the best handling SUVs I’ve ever driven (up there with the latest Range Rover) and, with exception to the Grand Cherokee SRT 8, the best handling Jeep I’ve ever driven.

I first experienced this on a winding mountain road full of twists and tight curves. The steering was excellent for an SUV, darting in which ever direction I chose; it was delightfully tight and communicative (obviously not like a sports car, but the closest I’ve felt in an SUV). Of course the Wrangler STs helped out quite a bit, but still, it was a good set-up. You could throw the truck into a curve and it would just grip and grip. However, if you took that irresponsibility a little too far, there was still room to play. Either lift off the gas or tap on the brakes and the rear end would tuck in neatly, straightening up your angle in the curve and allowing you to prepare for the next one.

Okay, I know when you think legendary four-by-four, you usually don’t convey that with on-road handling. But it was a welcome evolution of a Jeep. So did this evolution continue for the ’08 Liberty? Unfortunately, no. I’m not a big fan of vehicle specifications. I find that seat-of-the-pants evaluation provides the best information on an automobile. And my evaluation of the ’08 Lib is that it feels like a lot of weight was added when they increased its size and very little, if anything, was done to improve the suspension and drivetrain.

Just look at the new Jeep, it looks like the springs are overloaded. There is precious little room between the tires and the body. That can’t be good for off-road; and it isn’t. You find yourself treating this truck with kid gloves; it feels so fragile. Even worse, the suspension set-up feels like it was designed by a 6 year old. I can’t see how anyone at Chrysler was able to test drive this Jeep and see nothing wrong with the suspension. Once again, going off my seat-of-the-pant impression, it feels as though the original springs from the old, lighter Liberty were retained. There may have been a little tinkering with the shocks. If so, it’s completely wrong. Every bump, off-road or on-road, is taken with crashing and banging throughout the chassis. Compression of the shocks is soft enough to cause the rear end to collide with its bumpstops. The rebound is so stiff that it creates a catapult effect, instantly making any cargo in the back airborne.

Another disturbing feature of this poor suspension design is horrible lateral rocking that occurs with any bump or dip approached at an angle (for example pulling into a parking lot). Sometimes you have to come to a complete stop before the rocking subsides. A little too late for your passengers… still dazed from being slung back and forth like rag dolls. Anybody that rides with you will automatically think you drive like an idiot.

On a somewhat more positive note, the ’08 Liberty’s handling is not too bad. There is a little more body roll and a more pronounced transition as all of that body weight shifts from one side to another. You will feel like you are driving the getaway car from a 70’s action movie. There is always this rocking motion… back and forth, side to side.

Despite this the ’08 Liberty’s road holding abilities are pretty acceptable. The steering is still tight and direct, if not a little numb. Tight turns and interstate loops can still be taken at a pretty decent speed. Nevertheless, the tail can’t be controlled as well as the older Liberty.

I learned a little later, after I had BF Goodrich Long Trail tires installed, that much of the original handling rested on the Goodyear Wrangler STs. The Long Trails definitely improved off-road traction but ruined on-road handling. For the first time, there was pronounced understeer, especially on wet roads. This is one of many compromises with the new Liberty. You’re much better off sticking with the Wranglers. However, things get a bit tricky on ice and in the snow with these tires. I’ll elaborate a little later.

Before continuing with the bashing, um, I mean “evaluation”, I need to make clear that the brakes on the new Liberty (old as well) are superb. Keep in mind though, most of my driving has been behind the wheel of older Jeeps; so I’m used to stopping distances usually measured in football fields.

The Liberty is a different story; I’ve never had this much confidence in a truck’s brakes. Each corner is equipped with big discs controlled by all-wheel ABS. All stops are quick and straight, on dry or wet roads, instantly sending any item not strapped down into the dash and windshield. On the other hand, the ABS does struggle a little on snow and ice, loudly clicking and banging against the brake pedal as it tries to prevent wheel lock. This could probably be improved by all terrain tires, but as I mentioned before, on-road handling will be thrown out the window.

The engine and transmission are yet another letdown. In the first gen Liberty, the little 3.7 liter V6 had a little poke to it (or the more intelligent would say it had decent acceleration). Still, it was much different than the old 4.0 liter inline six of the old Cherokee. This is good and bad. The V6 is a much smoother engine with a charming little growl when worked hard (as compared to hoarse, chain-smoking wail of the old 4.0 liter). It also has more horsepower then the old inline six, but it certainly doesn’t feel like it. This is because the old 4.0 liter had the low rpm torque that you could only get from a larger inline six. Also, despite being rather low-tech, the I-6 continued to pull straight to redline.

In contrast, the 3.7 V6 first introduced in the Liberty, makes most of its power in the midrange. Off the line power is a little weak before building up around 2500 rpms and it starts running out of breath around 4500 rpms, 1000-1500 rpms short of redline. In the old Liberty, this engine had enough power to keep ahead of traffic and merge onto freeways. The automatic transmission was well spaced and kept the engine within the power band with each upshift. The bad side to this was the jerkiness of the shifts. The best way to describe it would be to compare it to a high performance shift kit that Bubba installed himself in an old Camaro.

Once again, the newest Liberty differs. This is bad. The extra weight has taken its toll on performance. The powerband seems to be even narrower, taking longer for power to build up from idle and longer for the engine to reach redline prier to upshifting. This is especially annoying with the four-speed automatic. It accelerates like the gears ratios have been spaced wider. However, there would be little logic to spreading out the ratios so I blame the weight.

Either way, the slush box cannot keep the engine within the power band without hitting either dead-end. After passing the peak of the power band, you have to wait and wait for the engine to strain its way to redline before upshifting and starting back in the beginning of the powerband. If you let the transmission shift early, you hit way before the power starts to build. Very annoying!

Basically, the Liberty’s transmission is archaic. Aside from not having enough gears, (a five-speed should be the minimum this day and age) it is just poorly designed and programmed. It often shifts too soon causing a downshift a second or two later.

The ’08 Lib’s transmission does seem to shift much smoother than the old Liberty. On the other hand, it feels as though they accomplished this in a lazy and low-tech way, by programming the engine to retard the timing or reduce power between shifts. I can’t be for sure if this is the case. I heard of other manufactures doing this. But as the truck racked up more mileage, this seemed to make more sense. For example, when the engine is cold, you get a bad surge of power between shifts that is apparent enough to shove you and you passengers forward.

 And then there is the gear shifter with gates for 1st, 2nd and drive. Considering how confused the transmission stays, you really need manual access to all four gears. There is a button, within poor reach, marked Tow/Haul that I assume is suppose to raise the shift points and hold gears longer to ease towing and hauling. It doesn’t. The transmission still shifts too early. But 4th gear is locked out, so in reality, it is just an off button for the overdrive. They should have put fourth in the shift pattern and leave it at that. If I were forced at gun point to buy this truck, I would strongly insist in the available 6 speed manual…or be shot.

Another annoyance is Jeep’s attempt to fill the truck with all sorts of electronic gismos and doodads. This wouldn’t necessarily be bad if all of this junk was stuffed into any other vehicle; but unfortunately, it is a Chrysler product. This means most of the junk won’t work or perform properly. Some may see this as distinctly my opinion… well, it is and I’m right. But with all of the Jeeps I’ve ever owned (seven…some think I most hate myself), I’ve personally watched the electronics go down hill with each year the vehicle came closer and closer to being completely Chrysler. My current 98 Cherokee: great motor (AMC derived), decent transmission (Toyota, Mitsubishi, Renault…whoever), tough suspension (AMC derived with Dana diffs) all surrounded and/or controlled by shoddy Chrysler electronics. It has become a game trying to get every electronic device to work at the same time… I don’t think it’s possible.

I’ll return back to the ‘08 Liberty and admit, for a mid-range model, there is an impressive list of features: an electronic transfer case, Electronic Stability Program, Hill Start Assist and Hill Descent Control to name a few (or ESP, HAS, HDC, etc…b.s.)…all designed to help the kind of people who prefer drooling on themselves as opposed to driving. The transfer case is controlled by a 3 position flip switch beside the gear shift, very similar to what is found in the newer Range Rovers. However, while the Rangy allows better control in selecting, the Lib’s switch is way too “flippity”. It is easy to overshoot 4 high and go into 4 low. Of course all of the electronic nannies prevent the case from shifting into 4 low when the shifter is not in neutral.

And speaking of electronic nannies, the Electronic Stability Program is a true sin against any driving enthusiast. I appreciate the safety ESP provides, but I should have the right disable it if need be. This is impossible in two wheel drive. You can partially disable it by simply pressing the stability control button once. You’re still limited to how much of a child you can act like though. If the Jeep senses its rear end getting out of line, the individual disc brakes will be stabbed at and engine power reduced to insure the truck is settled down. What a buzz kill.

Supposedly, you can fully disable the ESP in 4 high. Aside from off-road shenanigans, I discovered this to be a necessity on ice covered roads. As mention before, the Goodyear Wrangler STs really struggle when the going gets tough. So in the ice, ESP works overtime to maintain traction. After a while, the brakes will start overheating and your nose will be assaulted by the burning aroma.

Disabling ESP in 4 high isn’t as difficult as it is inconvenient. Just hold down the ESP button for 8-10 seconds. A chime sounds and “ESP OFF” appears on the information display. This will allow some playtime without engine power being reduced, however, the stability control still clicks and bangs against the brake pedal. The sound that the ESP makes when working is similar to that of driving over huge rocks and having you entire drivetrain ripped out from underneath the vehicle… at least that is how it sounds to me. So despite what the information screen displays or what the owner’s manual says, the stability control CANNOT be fully disabled in 4 high.

The other idiot feature that is both useless and infuriating is the Hill Start Assist. The idea behind this feature is that, in manual transmission equipped vehicles, the brakes continue to hold few a seconds after releasing the pedal, so that the driver has enough time to apply the gas pedal and release the clutch without rolling backwards down an incline. A good idea I guess. However, I and millions others have managed to learn the technique of moving forward from a dead stop, in a manual equipped car without rolling downhill.

Despite this, the idea is a little understandable. What isn’t understandable is why this is equipped on Libertys with automatic transmissions. If you can’t accelerate off of an incline with an automatic transmission, you absolutely don’t need to be driving. But since my Jeep is equipped with this moronic contraption, and Jeep is a Chrysler product, it does not work properly. On a slight incline, after releasing the brake pedal and applying gas, the HSA (or p.o.s.) refuses to release the brakes right away and eventually gives up the fight with a huge thud. Stupid.

Other lesser important, yet, equally annoying features are headlights that automatically come on anytime you unlock the door and stay on for what seems like a long time (good at times but gets old after the hundredth time of being told, “you left yur lights on”) and turn signals that have a special function that allows temporarily activation for three flashes by bumping the lever halfway and instantly releasing. Thus, you don’t have to go through the agony of holding the signal lever for a few seconds nor do you have to commit to activating the signal only to have to turn them off again in a few seconds…oh joy!

Before I learned of this great advancement in technology, I accidently hit the level and activated this “function”. What followed was a very confusing minute of going back and forth with the lever and trying to turn off whatever side signal was signaling only to turn on the opposite. I must have looked like a drunk to whoever was around. This is probably my favorite example of a useless feature. For one, it only signals three flashes of a turn signal; not enough for a lane change. Also, I didn’t realize the turn signal system that has been in existence for at least 60 years was flawed and desperately waiting for a company like Chrysler to come along and finally improve it. What a waste engineering time and money

.

On a more positive note, the Hill Descent Control works brilliantly. A while back, I was faced with a steep, descending, ice covered road that also included a sharp turn to the left about half way down. If I descended the hill too quickly, I risked missing the turn and joining a group of pines at the bottom of the slope. I put the transfer case in 4 low, pushed the Hill Descent button and the Jeep maintained a safe, constant speed downhill with absolutely no drama.

My experience with Jeeps has been peppered with poor quality control and the newest Liberty does not disappoint (um, at least in making this point…everywhere else, it disappoints). My biggest issue had been with the fuel filler hose. It started off as a message on the information screen telling me to tighten the fuel cap. I did. The message remained and, shortly after, set off the check engine light. It took five trips to my local Jeep dealer before it was sorted out. The service manager claimed that a charcoal canister, part of the fuel vapor return, was filled with fuel. Apparently the cause of this was overfilling my tank, though, I always stop pumping after the fuel nozzle automatically clicks off. The dealer’s solution to me was to not fill my tank up. They also stated that all Jeeps have always had this problem. I guess the 8 Jeeps I drove prior to this one were flukes.

Since then, more problems have developed with the filler hose. When the tank is filled up and the fuel nozzle automatically clicks off, a quarter to half a gallon of fuel spews out of the filler and onto the side of the Jeep, all over my pants and onto the gas station ground. Other people pumping gas look at me as if though I have a mental defect. I’ve tried to avoid this by listening for the tank to fill (if you know what that sounds like) and releasing the pump before completely full; I still look like a fool. Since then, I have been given another 08 Liberty with about 10,000 less miles. This truck also has the same problem.

There are other quality issues that pluck at my nerve strings. Less than a day after sorting out the whole fuel filler issue, the information display insisted that the rear tailgate was open. I repeatedly slammed the tailgate close but the message remained. On top of that, the front passenger door refused to unlock with the remote. I once again made an appointment with the dealership (whom I was on a first name basis with by now). On the day I was to drop the truck off again, the Jeep finally agreed that the tailgate was indeed close. I also noticed that on the door that rufused to unlock, the handle button was stuck. I popped it out, sprayed a little WD-40 on it, and it now functions fine.

Some of these problems were not just limited to the first ’08 Liberty I drove; the second one also shared problems. The rear window leaks water in the rain or during a wash and leaves dirty spots that affect visibility when hit of the sun. The auxiliary plug on the radio (a good idea, by the way) is extremely cheap, requiring constant jiggling to avoid static and high pitch interference. Currently, I have a satellite radio plugged in but this problem also occurs with IPods and other audio devices.

Then there are the problems that are shared with the first generation Liberty. Both have the occasional aroma of anti-freeze when the heater is on. I’ve peeked under the truck and pawed at the carpeting under the dash. No leaks were found. Three or fours times (in each Liberty), while driving down a highway or interstate, there has been a chime followed by a beautiful, multi-colored display of every warning light twinkling on the gauge cluster. Then the traction control goes out followed by the cruse control. Usually, pulling over, turning the truck off and restarting it takes care of this problem. Also, there is engine stumbling that occurs at speeds of 50-65 (around 2000 rpms, give or take about 500). It never gets bad, but it’s noticeable. I wonder if this is part of the engine programming, perhaps a leaning of the fuel mixture to improve gas mileage. If so, it sucks. My gas mileage in the 08 Liberty has averaged between 15 and 18 mpg. This is pretty poor for an SUV this small.

  So there you have it. I’ve been pretty hard on the little Jeep; but I really didn’t want to be that way. I really wanted to like this truck. I like the idea of it; I especially like the way it looks. I like the chunky, Land Rover LR3-like body, the bulldog stance, the fantastic five spoke wheels. It looks like it should be a more expensive SUV. It would look even better with a few inches of lift, but sadly, there are few good companies that offer lift kits or any off-road accessories because they know that the new Liberty has very little off-road potential. It is a complete shame.

Chrysler had the opportunity to offer a great mid-sized Jeep and failed horribly. I believe the exterior and interior are great designs that deserved a better engine, better transmission and suspension. They could have, at least, offered the punched-out version of the 3.7, the 4.0, which powers the Liberty’s cousin, the Dodge Nitro. Better yet, the Liberty should have had a more sophisticated engine with 3 or 4 valves per cylinder and the variable valve and timing thingy. It could have been in the 3.0 to 3.5 liter range offering good gas mileage and at least 250hp (that should be the minimum for a truck this heavy). This engine could have been hooked up to a 5 or 6 speed transmission with the autostick.

The suspension could have been better designed to offer crisp handling, good off-road absorption with good riding characteristics. Chrysler is capable of doing this.

In conclusion, I don’t hate this truck as much as I just have disappointment for it. As I said, it is a good looking truck. It is also easy to drive. Best of all, it completely swallows up highway and interstate miles with impressive comfort (considering the road is smooth and the hills are small). This is rare to me as I’m usually in pain after 100 miles or 2 or more hours behind the wheel of most any other car. But in the 08 Liberty, I can put 300 miles on it in a day and walk away happy.

This is an amazing feat to me. It shows potential…at least until I notice the most damning aspect of the entire design: there is only one power outlet! That is it…ONE! In the age of GPS’s, IPods, cell phones, laptops and portable coffee makers, it is absolutely horrifying that a company that manufactures cars for a living will be content with one power outlet for the entire vehicle. For all that is holy, my 98 Cherokee at two power outlets! The old Liberty also had two, though one was in the very back; I just figured they some how missed the dash and would have this corrected in the newest Liberty…but no! If I were looking to spend my own money on a new SUV, sat down in the newest Liberty, in the dealership parking lot, and saw that there was just one power outlet, I would instantly mark it off my list and forget it for the rest of my life. I may also puncture the tires and kick the salesmen in the shins for offering such a vehicle.

“So why such a big deal for a little old power outlet?” you may ask… in a loud and confused tone of voice. It is this; no matter what the engineering or financial reasoning for the missing power outlet, some sort of compromise was made for that decision to happen. And with such an oversight made in light of all of today’s technology that requires at least two extra power outlets, it makes me wonder about all the other compromises that were made throughout the vehicle.

If you think I’m exaggerating about all of this, check out the competition and you’ll see that it is possible to make a vehicle with few compromises. Take the Ford Escape for example. It may be car based, but it doesn’t give up too much off-road ability to the Liberty. On top of that, it handles better, it rides better, it’s more powerful, it accelerates quicker, has as much interior room and gets much better gas mileage. These advantages can go to any other cross-over of similar size and price: the Chevy Equinox, the V6 Toyota RAV4, the Nissan Rouge or the Honda CRV (last 2 are four cylinders, though I doubt you would notice the performance difference). If your heart is set on a truck-based, mid-sized SUV, the choices are not as vast as they once were (the Explorer, Durango, Pathfinder and 4Runner have both grown in size and price while the Trail Blazer is gone all together). However, the Xterra would be a great choice and maybe (I can’t believe I’m saying this) even the Korean offerings would be too.

Either way, the new Liberty’s design is a complete compromise. It was drawn up using engineering measurements with cash saving shortcuts. There was no heart, no soul that went into what should have been the off-road, nature seeking, freedom loving heritage that once made a Jeep what it was… even if there were a few flaws here and there. It just made a Jeep more endearing. And with that now gone, the newest Liberty is lacking in character. It is a compromised vehicle.

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