More Nitro; Less Nail Polish Despite a makeover meant to improve its personality on the pavement, the new Liberty can still get it done in the dirt. By Daniel Pund, Senior Editor, Detroit Date posted: 09-04-2007 210-hp 3.7-liter V6 - 5,000-pound maximum towing capacity - Improved fuel economy - Serious four-wheel-drive capability You might think that the 2008 Jeep Liberty midsize SUV is just a Dodge Nitro wearing a Jeep Commander mask. We wouldn't disagree exactly. We might note that the Jeep is offered with a low-range four-wheel-drive transfer case and the Nitro isn't. The Jeep is available with a very large hole in its roof with a retractable fabric cover, and this homage to the Renault Le Car is not available for any price on the Dodge. And the new Liberty is offered only with the 210-horsepower 3.7-liter V6, while the Nitro is offered with the same motor or a more powerful V6. Some people grab life by the horns, you see. And others, well, they just like to have fun out there. Man Up! This man mistakenly believes he can crush the Liberty with his bare hands; actually, he comes as an accessory on all Limited models. It might sound as if we're knocking the 2008 Jeep Liberty for getting the ol' Nitro injection. We're not, really. The original Liberty with its vulnerable-looking big peepers needed to butch up a bit. Jeep says that 60 percent of the buyers of the first-generation Liberty were women. Now Jeep says it expects buyers will be split evenly between men and women and that hermaphrodites won't account for a measurable segment of buyers. You'll have noticed that the Liberty is now a simpler box than it once was. All the bulbous or rounded features have been shaved and then all the edges have been chamfered off. This is to impart a look of honest capability or legendary Jeep cues or some such thing. The Liberty is now a more handsome, if less distinctive, thing than the outgoing model. And it is anything but cute. You won't see unpainted gray-plastic fenders and bumper covers on the '08 model, not even on the entry-level Sport version. With two new cheap little brothers — the Compass and the Patriot — the Liberty gets a slight bump up the marketing scale to a more prestigious neighborhood. No More Funny Business Nothing to see here, folks; the newly sober Liberty interior neither excites nor offends. Of more pressing concern to Jeep than aesthetics, however, has been an improvement in the Liberty's stability on the road. After a report came in from an enthusiast magazine about a rollover of the former model during testing, Jeep made some modifications to the Liberty's suspension. The improvement garnered the Liberty an additional star in the government's rollover rating (from a miserable two stars for 2WD models to a decent three stars). We anticipate the '08 Liberty will do at least as well now that Jeep has widened the new SUV's track by an inch up front and slightly more than an inch in back. At the same time, the new Liberty is about an inch shorter in height than last year's version. Further, the new Jeep has an electronic stability control system with roll mitigation, something not available for any price on the old Liberty. Compared to the outgoing Liberty, the '08 model has a wheelbase that's nearly 2 inches longer. (When was the last time a new version of an existing model got smaller, maybe like the 1970s?) All of that extra length has been given over to the rear-seat passengers, who badly needed it. The legroom is still tight — an average-height man sitting behind us had to splay his legs to either side of our seatback — but being forced to sit in the back of a Liberty no longer violates the Geneva conventions. And while the load height of the cargo floor is a distressing 3 inches higher than the old version, the length of the cargo area has been extended by 3 inches. The interior has also sobered up. In place of the collection of design-y circles that made the old interior look something like a toy is a theme of straight lines and flat surfaces. It is similar to — surprise — the Dodge Nitro. And in response to what Jeep claims has been a chorus of complaints from owners, the power window switches have been moved to the door panels from the center console. Train The Liberty offers two different four-wheel-drive systems, both of which have low-range transfer cases. There's a reason that we have waited until now to mention the Liberty's new powertrain. This is because it is essentially identical to the old Liberty's powertrain. Same 3.7-liter V6 making the same 210 hp and 235 pound-feet of torque. It's connected to the same six-speed manual or four-speed automatic, and even the gear ratios are the same. Nevertheless, Jeep has managed to increase the V6's compression ratio without forcing the use of premium fuel, and the result is a slight improvement in fuel economy. The EPA numbers look essentially the same — 16 mpg city/22 highway. But given the tougher testing procedures the EPA uses for 2008 ratings, this represents a slight real-world improvement, as well as something the Liberty needs to stay competitive in its class of carlike crossovers. The V6 engine is torquey enough to live up to its Jeep heritage, we suppose, but the progress of the Liberty (4,030 pounds in 2WD, 4,222 pounds in 4WD) is best described as deliberate. The automatic's shifts are a bit clunky. Simply put, there are far better powertrains out there. Rocks and Rolls The "Sky Slider" power-retractable roof costs $1,200 and is sure to impress fans of the Renault Le Car. The Liberty comes in either Sport or Limited guise, and the base models are rear-wheel drive. There are two four-wheel-drive systems offered: the Selec-Trac II full-time automatic system and the Command-Trac part-time arrangement. Either system is available on either trim level. Unless you're pinching every penny, we say get the full-time system since it will give you the best arrangement in inclement weather and still offers a low range should you want to put a few scratches in your new truck by driving around where there are no roads. We have to let you know that the Liberty isn't quite as agile when it's off-road, although maybe not by much. The longer wheelbase plays a role here, but more importantly, the Liberty abandons its Jeep heritage by relocating the spare tire from its traditional mounting on the hatch (easily accessible for tire swaps on the trail) to a new home under the rear portion of the platform (making the cargo area easily accessible), thereby compromising its departure angle over obstacles. The 2008 Jeep Liberty is still capable when the road ends and it certainly outdoes the competition in this respect. We're actually more impressed that its on-road handling has improved. A new five-link rear axle and new wishbone-type independent front suspension certainly do improve both ride and handling. The 2008 Liberty doesn't feel as tippy or truculent as the old model. Despite these improvements, the new small Jeep is still a truck at heart, and it's well behind its car-based competitors when it comes to ride quality, body control, steering action and general responsiveness. Oh, Those Guys Jody just hated it when she got stuck all the way at the back of the Wal-Mart parking lot. Some will choose to see the 2008 Liberty's personality as evidence of being faithful to Jeep's off-road heritage. But with a raft of largely car-based competitors — and seemingly more arriving every day from all corners of the world — the Liberty has its work cut out for it. Heck, with its similarities to the Nitro and with a number of crossovers and wagons from the Chrysler brands, the Liberty will have enough competition just from its own corporate stablemates. At least this Jeep is very competitive on the cost side. A 4x2 Liberty Sport starts at $20,990, while the part-time four-wheel-drive Command-Trac version will add $1,610 to the bottom line. The better-equipped Limited starts at $25,175 for a 4x2, and the Limited with Command-Trac four-wheel drive is $26,785. No price has yet been announced for the full-time four-wheel-drive system. But the power-retractable canvas roof is $1,200. With the 2008 Jeep Liberty, most of the glaring failings of the outgoing model have been addressed, but we're not sure that the combination of these improvements and aggressive pricing is enough in this market anymore. The reason this engine might look familiar is that it's pretty much the same 3.7-liter V6 making the same 210 horsepower as last year's Liberty. First Impressions: An all-new package has improved most of the former Liberty's failings and made it better on the pavement, but we're not convinced that this will be enough in a world of carlike crossovers.