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2004 compact suv buyer's guide - comparison shopping for women, sport utility reviews
by Martha Hindes

Jeep Liberty
Jeep Liberty SUV

Claiming a lion's share of the compact sport utility market isn't just a goal for American-based auto makers. Call it a divine right.

And the most annointed would have to be the vehicle that evolved from a rudimentary "general purpose" military runabout a half-century ago into the original and familiar "Jeep" small sport utility vehicle. We won't go into discussions about Jeep's present parenthood. For all practical purposes, that side of the DaimlerChrysler business called "Chrysler Group" remains an American psyche.

With that said, let's look at Liberty as truly an American emblem as, say, apple pie, supersized slushes and fly fishing on weekends. The 2-1/2-year-old big brother of the current, midget-sized Wrangler that evolved from the original Jeep, Liberty shares a distinct family resemblence, including a sloping hoodline that ends abruptly at rounded headlamps. That's a purist element Jeep learned not to mess with.

So is it's legendary ability to go through just about anything, like enduring an off-road course you wouldn't direct your worst enemy to unknowingly drive. Mud. Muck. Logs jutting out from nowhere. Cresting a hill towards nothing ahead but sky, trusting the vehicle won't topple downhill after passing the balance point. During a recent such test, Liberty handled it superbly. But that's the general idea.

With Liberty you get history, hype, and the cult status that accompanies an icon. But it comes in a truly comfortable, refined, highway-friendly vehicle. With so much mandated by tradition, where does it go in 04? Besides improved rear storage and a welcome passenger-side grab handle, high tech is a major answer.

One important addition: A tire pressure monitor for safety.

Bluetooth is another. For the uninitiated, that's the industry-standard electronics for communications, not someone who just consumed navy colored fruit. The basis for the Liberty's "UConnect" electrical system, it links a personal cell phone with the Liberty's speakers, microphone, and voice recognition ability so there's no fumbling when using the phone and the call's not dropped when the user gets out. And power for accessories lasts a full 10 minutes with the ignition turned off and door open.

Most Liberty's are sold with the 3.7 liter V-6 engine that generates 210 horsepower. But if you're looking for a loaded version like the Limited Edition or sporty, four-wheel-drive Renegade, it's best to rule out economy. Such flash and dash costs more cash. A basic, two-wheel drive, 2.4 liter-I4 version (150 HP), however, gets an entry price around $18,700. That's still within reach for a lot of entry-level American idolizers.