By Andrew Ganz
Friday, Jan 25th, 2013 @ 8:51 am
 
Our intrepid spies nabbed a lightly camouflaged 2014 Jeep Liberty (or Cherokee?) undergoing last minute testing ahead of an anticipated debut at the New York International Auto Show in late March. This latest round of photographs gives us our best look yet at the Liberty's new interior, which appears to share a lot with the Dodge Dart compact sedan.

The more organic interior shapes stand in contrast to the outgoing 2012 Liberty's boxiness. Like the Dart, two screens - one in the center of the dashboard and one between the gauges - will be optional. The Liberty also appears to use much of the Dart's switchgear and its automatic transmission gear lever. The latter comes as a bit of a surprise since Chrysler has been using less traditional gear levers in many of its newest vehicles.

Notably, there's also a control knob just ahead of the gear lever. The knob offers a limited version of the Selec-Terrain stability and traction control settings seen in the larger Grand Cherokee - we can read Auto, Snow, Sport and Sand modes. We aren't expecting the Liberty to include a two-speed transfer case, however.

Tracing its roots back to what many consider to be the original modern SUV, the boxy 1984 Jeep Cherokee, the Liberty was among the last vehicles to remain capable of tackling a difficult off road trail when it was discontinued last year. But its off road heritage will take a big turn in a different direction for 2014.

Riding on an extended version of the Fiat-derived car platform that will underpin the compact crossover replacement for Jeep's Patriot and Compass, the next-generation Liberty will feature a front-wheel-drive configuration with optional all-wheel-drive. Jeep is hoping that its increasingly civilized Wrangler Unlimited will be able to court what few compact SUV buyers are interested in off road capability. A nine-speed automatic transmission has been confirmed. Since the outgoing Liberty used only a four-speed unit, the five gear gain is notable in its own right.

Just what engines will be on offer remains a mystery, but we anticipate the 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine that will arrive soon in the Dodge Dart GT will be complemented by a 3.2-liter version of the Pentastar V6 used in most of Chrysler's larger vehicles. The V6 should crank out somewhere in the neighborhood of 275 horsepower, making the Liberty a strong contender for class hot rod.

Stylistically, the Liberty clearly moves away from its boxy roots. Jeep is still doing a good job hiding the front and rear ends of the new vehicle, but the softer roof line clearly indicates a more rounded vehicle than before.

One rumor around Detroit suggests that the new Jeep will revive the Cherokee nameplate, but we'll have to wait until New York to know for sure. The previous compact 'ute was badged as a Cherokee in most markets outside of North America.

What happened to the Liberty?
Although it got off to a strong start when it was introduced in 2001 to replace the dated Cherokee, the Liberty's second-generation model seemed more like a proverbial sacrifice bunt than a home run or even a base hit.

Redesigned for the 2008 model year, the Liberty got a boxier and more rugged look designed to woo Cherokee faithful for its second generation. But a weak 3.7-liter V6, a less-than-competitive four-speed automatic transmission and a low buck interior never made it quite the hit that either the Cherokee or the first-generation Liberty was.

Liberty wasn't treated to the same upgrades as nearly every other vehicle in the Chrysler lineup after Fiat began taking over the automaker. While its Patriot and Compass siblings got new styling, new interiors and revised suspensions even though they were just one year older, the Liberty received no substantial updates.

The next-generation Liberty will be tasked with taking on what's arguably the most competitive segment in the market: Compact crossovers. That puts the Liberty up against segment stalwarts like the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 at the low end, plus the Subaru Forester, Chevrolet Equinox and Ford Escape at the higher end.