No Fixed Abode: Is the Liberty Ready for Its Cherokee Moment?

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Jeep Liberty 2012, Image: Jeep

Somewhere in my basement there’s an issue of Roundel, the BMW club magazine, that contains an extremely passionate and forceful article regarding a new vehicle from Munich. The author goes on in considerable detail regarding the new car’s size, weight, and insane complexity. He rails against the dilution of BMW’s Autobahn heritage and the compromises the firm is making to attract a wider audience. Lastly, he offers his sincere condolences to the shade-tree mechanics because this new car will be impossible to service anywhere but a dealership.

Those of you who read Roundel back in the day will no doubt guess that this flabby, super-computerized BMW was, in fact, the 1977 320i.

But here’s the thing: All of the complaints in the article were valid. It’s just that the E30 which followed made the E21 320i look fairly simple. The E36 was a rocketship compared to its predecessor and the E46 was a spaceship. Each time the cars changed, the enthusiast base swore loyalty to the relative simplicity and fitness-for-purpose of the old one. Then, as the stock of decent used inventory dwindled and the parts became impossible to find and the lap times continues to sink, that base made a slow and painful transition to the next model in line. This in no way invalidates criticism of the old cars. It’s just that for most people, they had no choice other than to upgrade. It’s possible to keep an old mechanical watch in daily use; it’s not tough at all to keep carrying a Remington-Rand-made Colt pistol from 1942. But cars are vastly more complex than either of those machines.

When the Jeep Liberty replaced the old “XJ” Cherokee, it was universally reviled as a cutesy piece of garbage better suited for the mall crawl than the rock crawl. Alas, tempus fugit and it’s now time for the old Liberty to get a second act.

It seems impossible to believe now, but the XJ Cherokee was not universally loved when it appeared at the bitter end of the AMC era. That’s because the potential buyers for the thing weren’t Jalopnik nerds trying to buy street cred for $2,999 or less, but rather families and working men who were spending real money for a vehicle that was expected to compete heads-up with everything from the S-10 Blazer to the Isuzu Trooper.

Viewed in that context, the Cherokee wasn’t much to get excited about. It was a unibody, which offended the conventional trucky people. But it was a heavy unibody, which stole the last gasps of motivation from its ancient powertrain and made it feel ponderous on the move. Interior room was, to put it mildly, at a premium. Cargo space was also a little disappointing. Fuel economy was miserable. Last but not least, it wasn’t cheap, particularly not in the “Limited” trim so beloved of dealership general managers.

Oh, and they fell apart. Quality on those early Cherokees was much closer to the (AMC) Concord than the (Honda) Accord. The internet considers the 4.0 bulletproof nowadays, the same way they sing the praises of the Benz W123, but in-period both of those items were far from reliable.

What changed? Well, DaimlerChrysler managed to raise the quality of the product even as they were lowering the quality of everything else they sold. More importantly, the combination of a long model run and freefall depreciation made the XJ an affordable alternative for people who couldn’t afford a TJ or YJ Wrangler in good condition. The aftermarket sorted some of the most common issues.

The arrival of the Liberty enshrined the XJ as the enthusiast’s Jeep SUV the same way that everybody with an old E30 felt additionally virtuous when the slope-nosed E36 arrived. The rest is history, and that history is about to repeat itself.

A quick check through the forums shows that “KJ” Liberties from 2004 and on have joined “KK” Liberties as valid choices for Jeep fans on a budget. (The 2002 and 2003 models have been permanently besmirched by a history of engine maladies.) They are dirt cheap; one of my co-workers just picked up a 75,000-mile KK in good shape for $3,500 plus auction fees. The aftermarket is starting to get involved.

The newest Cherokees are now 17 years old. A solid KK Liberty, by contrast, is a decade old if that, and parts are still available at the dealer if you need them. It’s also a considerably more pleasant vehicle to operate on a daily basis. Nobody will ever confuse a Liberty with a proper highway vehicle, which is why the road-focused Dodge Nitro derivative was basically the automotive equivalent of straight-to-DVD release. If your existing yardstick for NVH and directional stability is an XJ Cherokee, however, you’ll really enjoy what the 21st century has in store for you.

How’s the Liberty off-road? As was the case with the XJ Cherokee, it’s acceptable in stock form but after that its prowess is a direct product of your prep and equipment choices. Nobody likes to hear this, but the 3.7-liter V6 offers more torque at every point in its useful rev range than the venerable inline-six 4.0. The off-roaders complained for a decade or so about the new Jeep, then, when the price dropped sufficiently, they started building them. If you live in a state that salts its roads, your Liberty build will be easier and cheaper than an equivalent Cherokee project.

The hardcore Cherokee enthusiasts will point out that the older vehicle is easier to service, easier to understand, easier to upgrade. Those complaints were also true at a given time for everything from the E46 BMW to the flathead Ford. Some people will never leave the Cherokee, the same way there are still people building E30 race cars from Nevada shells. The majority will nod respectfully at those people and move on like George Soros waving his checkbook at a website.

So now’s the time to get on the Liberty bandwagon. Get the best KK you can and put some big axles under it and paint it with a rattlecan. You can even put Cherokee badges on it, because the Liberty was sold as the Cherokee everywhere else but here. Once you have your bad-ass Rubicon-ready KK Jeep ready, you can get on the forums where you can post about “the lifestyle” and all that crap. You can even help move the Overton Window of Jeepness a bit by posting sharp complaints regarding the current Cherokee. It’s too complicated, too expensive, too soft. If you’re not sure how to do it, just open up a Cherokee forum, cut-and-paste a comment about the Liberty from 2007 or thereabouts, and replace words where appropriate.

It’s a Jeep thing, and I don’t understand. But you will.

[Image: Fiat Chrysler Automobiles]