Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Jeep Liberty Limited works like a truck

Texas Truck Mama smiled as she pulled into the driveway in her little Mini Cooper. Parked in front of her was a considerably different vehicle, a 2008 Jeep Liberty Limited sport-utility vehicle. It was about two feet longer than her Mini Cooper, several inches taller and nearly 900 pounds heavier.

The four-wheel-drive Jeep Liberty, of course, had a bigger engine -- a 3.7-liter, 210-horsepower V-6, compared with the 1.6-liter, 118-horsepower in-line four-cylinder engine in her front-wheel-drive Mini.

The Jeep Liberty, wearing all-new sheet metal for 2008, looking rugged the way a Jeep should look, barely got 21 miles per gallon on the highway, drinking regular unleaded gasoline. Texas Truck Mama's Mini got 36 mpg on the highway. And with her behind the wheel, driving like the mild-mannered elementary school teacher she is, squeezing 37 or 38 mpg out of her Mini was not uncommon, although she frequently complained about the Mini's requirement for premium unleaded fuel.

I mention these things in solicitation of help in figuring out the woman to whom I've been married for nearly 40 years.

She's a little thing, barely standing five feet tall. She's painfully sensible. Had it not been for her, we could've been a part of the mortgage mess that's sinking the U.S. economy. She was an environmentalist before environmentalism was cool. And she's so cheap she has an almost religious compulsion to return an item to a store if she discovers that she could have gotten the same thing from somewhere else for 10 cents less.

But when it comes to trucks in general and Jeeps in particular, the woman is insane. Fuel economy doesn't matter. Her usual preference for small cars disappears. Bigger becomes better. Her mild demeanor is supplanted by a lust for power. Mary Anne -- the sweetly smiling schoolteacher and gentle, churchgoing wife from Marshall, Texas -- becomes Texas Truck Mama.

"It's a Jeep! A Jeep!" she exclaimed as she pulled into the driveway.

Then, for a moment, she returned to sobriety. She thought about Ria Manglapus, my associate in vehicle evaluations. "What's Ria driving?" Mary Anne asked.

"Ria's running the Infiniti M45X," I said, thankful that the Infiniti had come a few hours before the Jeep Liberty arrived.

"Oh, well, that's good," Mary Anne said. She backed her Mini out of the driveway and parked it on the street. "Where's the Jeep key?" she asked. I gave it to her. She came inside, dropped her school bags on a living room couch ... and left.

"Errands," she said.

And it went that way for several days -- Mini parked on the street, Mary Anne behind the wheel of the Jeep, until I reminded her that Ria and I weren't reviewing the Mini.

That is when I discovered something else -- that women generally seem nuts about Jeeps. For example, the women at Mary Anne's school were almost as sad as Mary Anne when we took the Jeep away. "I really love that Jeep," the school's vice principal said in a tone that hinted accusation. And, then, Ria: "I thought I wasn't going to get a chance to drive it," she said, collecting the Jeep key and turning over the key to the Infiniti M45X.

Go figure.

The Infiniti M45X is a premium luxury car -- elegant, fast and powerful. The Jeep Liberty is, well, a Jeep. Its attractive new body does not conceal its essential nature, which is that of a utilitarian truck.

The 2008 Jeep Liberty feels better on the road than older Liberty models, the first of which went on sale in the United States six years ago. But there are many sport-utility rivals that have a smoother, more car-like, on-road ride.

The Jeep Liberty beats many competitors off-road. It is a mud-loving, rock-crawling vehicle if ever there was one. But neither Mary Anne, nor Ria, nor any of the women at Mary Anne's school, nor I, drove the 2008 Jeep Liberty off-road. We used it the way most Americans use sport-utility vehicles -- as a station wagon.

My off-road experiences with Jeep Liberty SUVs were in previous versions. Judging from the mechanicals of the 2008 model -- Command-Trac four-wheel-drive (in the tested version), four-wheel-independent suspension with solid live rear axle, hill descent control, electronic high-low gear selection and automatically locking hubs -- the new Jeep Liberty has sacrificed none of its off-road prowess.

But if that prowess isn't ever used, does it matter?

"Yes," said Texas Truck Mama. "It makes you feel like you could do something if you wanted to do something. It makes you feel powerful," she said.

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