Outdoor Life Online Editor

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Before I begin, let me confess that I have a bias for Jeeps. Not because they look the best or ride the smoothest, but because when it comesto hunting rigs, I value function over form. Sporting vehicles should be able to maintain forward progress under the most demanding conditions, and Jeeps fit that bill.

That’s why I groaned when I first saw the 2002 Jeep Liberty (Chrysler’s replacement for its long-lived Cherokee). It looked more like a “concept” vehicle than the new heir to Jeep’s midsize SUV throne.

I should have known better.

In spite of its stylized appearance, the Liberty is 100 percent rock-crawling, tree-climbing Jeep. And unlike the Cherokee, it was designed to give a comfortable on-road drive. Jeep engineers attained this smoother ride by giving the Liberty an all-new independent front suspension and a Grand Cherokee-inspired link-coil rear, which is tacked to the vehicle’s uni-frame chassis. To test these features I repeatedly sent the Liberty diving into sharp 30 mph turns at speeds near 55 mph, yet the 4×4 never exhibited that white-knuckle lean common to shorter-wheelbase SUVs. Its ride is a little stiff, but it is a fine compromise for an honest on- and off-highway SUV.

Pulling the latch on the rear door simultaneously releases the tailgate (which swings out, not down) and opens the back window. The seats can then be folded down to create 69 cubic feet of storage space.

Aesthetically speaking, there is a definite “round” theme going on. The traditional Jeep round-headlight motif continues inside with round gauges and a curvy instrument panelÐyou’d be hard-pressed to find a sharp corner anywhere on the Liberty.

Like any true Jeep, the Liberty shines brightest on the trail. My route included wooded trails complete with water crossings, rocks, mud and steep creek banks, all of which made it possible to evaluate ground clearance, engine braking, steering and traction. Our Limited Edition model sported the all-new 3.7L V-6 engine (a 2.4L I4 will be standard in the Sport model) backed by a four-speed automatic transmission and a Select-Trac transfer case. With the engine’s 210 horsepower rating, and the transmission and transfer case calibrated to work in harmony with the V-6 in off-road conditions, power was never an issue. Its 3.7L automatic transmission boasts a towing capacity of 5,000 pounds, so if you can’t fit your goods inside, the Liberty can pull them behind.

The Liberty’s 104.3-inch wheelbase, 60-inch track width, 8-inch ground clearance and 8 inches of suspension travel allow this 4×4 to cruise through the rough stuff with little fear of snagging the undercarriage. Its steering is crisp, thanks to a new rack-and-pinion system (a first for Jeep). And the turning radius is a tight 35.9 feet.

The Jeep Liberty isn’t the biggest SUV on the block. It won’t haul the most gear or tow the biggest boat. But if you want a 4×4 that can accommodate enough goods for a week-long fishing or hunting trip, navigate the roughest terrain and provide a comfortable on-road drive, the Jeep Liberty might be your ticket.

Editor’s Note: Rob Reaser has never been satisfied with Jeep repair guides, so he’s written one himself. How to Maintain and Repair Your Jeep covers maintenance and repairs for 1945-86 CJs and 1987-95 Wranglers. ($17.95; HPBooks, 800-788-6262, Ext. 1)