Lifestyle

2006 Jeep Liberty Limited Diesel


In it for the long haul

Everybody knows that Americans hate diesels, and that while they may be very popular with Euro-weenies because taxes there make diesel less onerously expensive than petrol, car makers can forget ever foisting off those slow, smoky noisy, smelly oil burners on us. Right?

Err, about 8000 people who bought Jeep Liberty diesels didn't get the memo. We've been told that GM's disastrously converted Oldsmobile gas V-8 engine has forever stained the name Rudolf Diesel here. But maybe the people for whom that is conventional wisdom have failed to notice that a bunch of today's car buyers, especially in the entry level cute-ute segment, weren't yet conceived when those Olds diesels were neighborhood laughingstocks.

Meanwhile VW has cultivated a following among the youngsters who like its cars for its TDI diesels, and Dodge Ram diesels are practically an icon for toughness and durability.

Extreme makeover

As some consumers may be starting to realize, today's diesels have enjoyed a mechanical extreme makeover. What was once slow as a linebacker on a quiz show, now sprints smartly away from a standstill.

"Low-end torque," they always said. "That's what diesels have got. That'll getcha goin'." Trouble was, it never did. Whatever low-end torque was, it didn't have anything to do with acceleration. Especially in the passing lane.

Today's brawny turbodiesels make so much axle-twisting torque that they demand special heavy-duty transmissions and engine management systems that actually reduce power when starting from a stop, to prevent breaking pieces right off. In the case of the Liberty 's engine, the torque rating is 295 pound-feet driving through a heavy-duty five-speed automatic transmission available only with the diesel engine.

Diesels also, finally, have horsepower, which is what we wanted all along, because that lets you pass sedentary, hat-wearing retirees (whatzat he's driving, an Old-something?) without being left hanging out in the passing lane to dry like laundry during California's next blackout. The Liberty produces a still-modest 160 horsepower, but that's plenty for a compact SUV, and is, incidentally, 25 more ponies than my old 6.2-liter V-8 Suburban diesel made.

The Mercedes-Benz E320 diesel is actually quicker than its gas-powered counterpart. Does that mean the Jeep Liberty diesel is the hot ticket for winning easy money street racing next Saturday night? No, but it does mean that it is plenty quick, and possesses the grunt to pull a small trailer of playthings like jetsk...oops, sorry Kawasaki, "personal watercraft."

And stopped at traffic lights, the Liberty won't rattle loose the GPS tracking device the CIA implanted in your skull, unlike, say, some Ram diesel pickups of pretty recent vintage. Instead, at idle the Liberty emits a Kubuta tractor sort of quiet growl that exudes a sense of steady capability, a death-and-taxes certainty that it is going to continue until the job is done.

What's the fuss for?

Why make the effort, and the $1000 expense of checking the diesel option box? Because the Liberty diesel scores an EPA rating of 21 city and 26 highway, with a towing capacity of 5000 pounds. That compares to a V-6 rated at 17 and 22, but which in my experience barely manages its city rating in everyday driving. The company has dropped the four-cylinder gas engine that was previously the base engine because it was less popular than Matt LeBlanc's Joey show, accounting for only two percent of Libertys sold.

For people who actually enjoy the active lifestyle that entails towing trailers (as opposed to the people who buy SUVs because they say they have an active lifestyle, but spend all their free time running over hookers playing Grand Theft Auto on their GoofoffStation) the diesel's efficiency and towing power is an unbeatable combination. Highway range with the tank topped off with Number 2 diesel is a bladder-bursting 500 miles. And when you get to the pump, you can refill for under 50 bucks even at today's prices.

The little Jeep's diesel powerplant is a large 2.8-liter inline four-cylinder, an engine that would be coarse even with gas fuel. But while the engine has a distinct diesel texture and sound, it is not overpowering, and is probably not too different from the likely vibration from a gas four-cylinder with no balance shafts.

DaimlerChrysler's Italian subsidiary VM Motori provides the common-rail fuel-injected engine. A five-year/100,000 mile warranty on the engine should give prospective buyers peace of mind when contemplating the diesel option.

For 2006 all Liberty models gain electronic stability control (DaimlerChrysler calls the system ESP), which has demonstrated stunning reductions in real-world crashes among vehicle equipped with such systems. The Jeep system includes roll stability too, which guards against rollover in addition to spins. Manufacturers are rushing stability control into SUVs because with their high center of gravity they particularly benefit from having a computer help keep the vehicle shiny side up, but they need to put the system into their cars too as quickly as possible.

Standard equipment also includes anti-lock brakes and a Sharper Image-full of gadgets that would once have been luxury car options like reclining bucket seats, power windows and door locks, illuminated entry, and remote keyless entry, rear defroster, flip-open rear window, tilt steering, and intermittent wipers. The Limited package adds the usual goodies like leather, fogs, alloys, cruise, and tinted glass. It also lets you heap on more options, as our test vehicle had, for power seats, satellite radio, navigation system, tow package, sun roof, heated seats, and skid plates to armor the Liberty 's soft underbelly.

The diesel Liberty, like its conventionally powered peers, is an off-road-oriented SUV, not to be mistaken for car-like competitors in terms of ride and handling. Jeep will address customers looking for such things with the Dodge Caliber-based Compass and Patriot. The Liberty, meanwhile treats drivers to an authentically choppy ride, so they can easily imagine they are riding toward the liberation of Paris.

Despite the Liberty 's mid-size exterior, the interior feels crowded, with little space for elbows in front or bicycles in the rear. However, in typical Jeep fashion, the Liberty also feels smaller than its size when maneuvering in close quarters. Whether it is squeezing between boulders on the Rubicon trail or parallel parking between Bentleys on Rodeo Drive, the Liberty 's nimble steering radius makes it easy to slip through tight spots.

Our test Jeep featured the SelecTrac full-time all-wheel drive system rather than the CommandTrac part-time system that is standard. The more fuel-efficient two-wheel-drive system isn't available with the diesel engine, surely to the disappointment of trailer-towers and sun-belters.

The Liberty diesel is constrained by the limitations of it aged, off-road-centric foundation, but the new engine adds an entirely new dimension of appeal to this vehicle that should attract plenty of SUV customers who are concerned about fuel prices and availability.

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