Higher gas prices in 2008 have made compact crossovers increasingly popular. People are coming to realize that even if they can't live without that high, commanding seating position, they probably don't need an enormous vehicle to go along with it. Jeep would seem to be ideally positioned to help these folks out, as the brand offers not one, not two, but three small SUVs. The longest-serving and probably the best well known of the bunch is the 2009 Jeep Liberty.
As the most macho of this Jeep trio, the Liberty boasts a robust chassis, steep approach angles, impressive suspension articulation and proficient four-wheel-drive systems. Combined, they allow the Liberty to tackle the type of rugged terrain that a Honda CR-V would scurry away from. The Liberty's off-road image and attendant styling treatment also set it apart from the rounded, often cutesy compact crossovers with which it competes.
Unfortunately, the Liberty is not nearly as well-suited for on-pavement use as other vehicles in this segment. Although ride and handling have been improved for 2009, this compact Jeep still isn't as comfortable, controllable or generally "carlike" as models like the CR-V, Hyundai Santa Fe, Mitsubishi Outlander, Subaru Forester and Toyota RAV4. Materials quality is also a low point. To its credit, the Liberty does offer a few novel features like digital music storage, driver-seat memory and the Sky Slider roof, which is a sliding canvas panel that exposes most of the cabin to the elements.
For those who want a small SUV that stakes out the middle ground between off-road vehicle and family-friendly compact crossover, the 2009 Jeep Liberty may be worth a look. However, we think the Liberty requires too many compromises on both sides of this equation. Any of the other above-mentioned vehicles will likely be better choices for most folks, while those truly in need of an off-roading rig will want to check out Jeep's own Wrangler as well as the Nissan Xterra and Toyota FJ Cruiser.
The 2009 Jeep Liberty is a compact SUV available in Sport and Limited trim levels. Both can be had with either rear- or four-wheel drive. Standard equipment on the Sport includes 16-inch alloy wheels, keyless entry, automatic headlamps, air-conditioning, full power accessories, a 65/35 split-folding rear seat, a trip computer and a six-speaker stereo with a CD player, an auxiliary audio jack and satellite radio. The Popular Equipment Group is optional for the Sport, and it adds roof rails, cruise control, upgraded cloth upholstery, a fold-flat front passenger seat, foglamps, rear privacy glass and a cargo cover.
The Limited comes standard with the Sport's Popular Equipment Group and tacks on 17-inch wheels, a power driver seat, an auto-dimming rearview mirror and an eight-speaker upgraded stereo that also adds steering-wheel controls.
Other optional items are grouped in a confusing array of packages. The optional Premium Sound Group adds a six-CD changer and Bluetooth, while the Premium Group I adds leather upholstery, heated front seats, a power front passenger seat, remote engine start and driver memory settings. The Premium Group II includes all the Premium Group I items plus 18-inch wheels, rear parking sensors, automatic climate control and automatic wipers. Also optional on the Limited with the Premium Group II is the uconnect hard-drive-based navigation system, which includes real-time traffic, digital music storage, a USB audio jack and Bluetooth. Optional on both trims are a towing package, a sunroof and the Sky Slider full-open cloth roof.
The 2009 Liberty's cabin has all the design flair of a cinder block -- it's angular and comes in varying shades of gray. The materials in the base Liberty are also on par with a cinder block, though the Limited gets some welcome improvements in this department for 2009, including additional padded and leather-wrapped surfaces. Regardless, most competitors feature a more welcoming and higher-quality environment. On the bright side, most of the Liberty's controls are straightforward and easy to find.
After last year's overhaul, the Liberty is now bigger and therefore more spacious for passengers. Rear legroom and shoulder room are particularly improved. The seats are rather slablike, though. Luggage space is quite good with 31.5 cubic feet with the rear seats raised and 64.6 cubic feet with them lowered. These numbers fall between those of larger compacts like the Toyota RAV4 and smaller ones like the Saturn Vue.
Both Jeep Liberty trims can be equipped with rear-wheel drive or a choice of two 4WD systems -- part-time Command-Trac or full-time Selec-Trac. All Liberty models are powered by a 3.7-liter V6 that produces 210 horsepower and 235 pound-feet of torque. A four-speed automatic is the lone transmission choice. Properly equipped, the Liberty can tow up to 5,000 pounds.
Fuel economy numbers are lackluster. The 2WD Liberty returns an EPA estimated 16 mpg city/22 mpg highway and 18 mpg combined, while 4WD drops each number by 1 mpg.
The 2009 Jeep Liberty exhibits better on-road manners, thanks to some suspension tweaks following last year's redesign. Don't get us wrong, though -- there's still plenty of body roll to contend with. Like other Jeeps, the Liberty receives top marks for its off-road prowess, and its long suspension travel helps to tame larger bumps on paved roads, too. The Liberty's unspectacular acceleration would be tolerable if it achieved good fuel mileage, but it doesn't -- quite the opposite, actually. Also, during night driving, we found that the headlights were insufficient and inconsistent in their coverage.
Antilock disc brakes, stability control, traction control, electronic roll mitigation and side curtain airbags are all standard on the 2009 Jeep Liberty. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration awarded the Liberty a perfect five-star rating in both front and side impact crashworthiness. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the Liberty its highest rating of "Good" for frontal offset impacts; however, the Liberty received the second-lowest "Marginal" rating for side crash protection.
Following a redesign last year, the 2009 Jeep Liberty gets additional tweaks to improve handling and braking. Optional package content has also been adjusted, and the Limited trim gets upgraded interior materials.