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Liberty designers aimed to establish a niche

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Crowds at Detroit auto show get the first look at what one Jeep designer called the `first all-new Jeep proportion in a long time.'

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Jeep designers started with a refined version of the existing Cherokee five years ago while working on a compact sports utility vehicle to replace the aging Toledo-made model.

Consumer testing showed the replacement SUV would be well received, but shoppers may compare it to Jeep's costliest model, the Grand Cherokee. The realization that people may “settle” for a Liberty drove designers back to the drawing board in 1997, said head Jeep Liberty designer Bob Boniface, DaimlerChrysler's manager of advanced product design for its U.S. unit.

“We didn't want to create a vehicle that was someone's second choice,” said the Youngstown native, who used a ballpoint pen to make the first sketches of the Jeep Liberty, which was revealed yesterday at the North American International Auto Show in downtown Detroit.

“We wanted the vehicle to have its own identity,” he said. “We decided we weren't going to do just a Cherokee replacement.”

By combining theme elements of two concept Jeeps previously unveiled at the Detroit auto show - a four-door “stretch” Wrangler called the Dakar in 1997 and the sporty Jeepster in 1998 - designers came up with their latest offering. The Toledo-made Liberty goes on sale this summer and will take Cherokee's place in Jeep's lineup.

From Dakar came a bold, upright profile, not to mention prominent wheel flares and efficient space utilization. From Jeepster came a sculpted hood and an undeniably Jeep front end, as well as door pulls and other rounded interior features.

Liberty has other distinctive rounded traits: Jeweled lights grace both ends of the SUV, whose conceptual design was approved in early 1998.

“To me, it's the first all-new Jeep proportion in a long time,” Mr. Boniface said. “We hope to do Toledo proud.”

Said Craig Love, vice president of Jeep engineering: “It's new from the ground up, and it will take the Jeep heritage - the 60-year Jeep heritage - and build on it.”

The Liberty rides much better than the Cherokee, said Jack Broomall, director of Jeep vehicle development. It will be the first Jeep with rack-and-pinion steering and the first with independent front suspension since the Wagoneer offered it as an option.

What's more, Mr. Love said the Liberty will have superior off-roading capabilities when compared to “cute utes” that are flooding the compact SUV market, and yet will have better on-road quality than bigger trucks.

Such attributes will allow Jeep to create yet another market niche for SUVs, said Patrick Dilworth, senior manager of Jeep product planning.

“We think the Liberty can go somewhere that others can't,” Mr. Love said.

For designers, the Liberty, which is offered with either a 2.4-liter I-4 engine or a 3.7-liter V-6, has been around. From Mr. Boniface's original ballpoint sketches evolvedcomputer renderings that helped designers focus on themes. From computer models a full-size replica of the Liberty eventually developed.

Engineers started testing the Liberty's power train in early 1999 by putting prototypes of its engine and transmission in a Grand Cherokee “mule.” By that summer, they had early versions of the Liberty carefully outfitted with camouflage to put to the test, said Mr. Broomall of Jeep vehicle development.

“We do all sorts of things with them,” he said. “We have quite a number of tests we run to cover the 90 or so markets we're going to sell in or hope we're going to sell in.”

Some tests were done at the automaker's Chelsea Proving Grounds in Michigan, including putting the Jeep through saltwater and then baking it to judge corrosion, or at its test track near Phoenix. Others were done at outside facilities or on roads in the United States, Mexico, and Europe to test response to various weather conditions, altitudes, speeds, maneuverability challenges, and towing weights.

By the time sellable versions of the Liberty are made at Toledo North Assembly Plant this spring, engineers and other official drivers will have logged more than 2 million test miles, Mr. Broomall said. That does not include time Liberty models spent in road-test simulators or on highways with Toledo North employees, he said.

“The whole idea is to make sure it functions properly and make sure it does it for the life of the car,” Mr. Broomall said.

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