At its introduction in 2001, the Jeep Liberty had a tall mountain to climb. It was replacing the capable and very well-received Jeep Cherokee -- a vehicle that practically invented the small sport utility vehicle segment.
And the Liberty was doing it in a way that proved a bit controversial. Instead of sharp lines, the Liberty had curves. It was heavier. It traded the bulletproof straight six for a four-cylinder or V-6 engine. The Jeep enthusiast crowd saw it as near affront to the slab-sided utilitarian Cherokee.
"The first-generation Liberty was criticized for having gone really soft," said Ed Kim, vice president of industry analysis at AutoPacific. "Some members of the press sort of derided it for being a girly Jeep, being too cute, being not masculine enough, even though in terms of its rugged hardware, it was every bit as capable as the previous-generation Cherokee."
Regardless of those perceptions, buyers scooped up more than 171,000 of the Toledo-built Liberty in its first full year. That was about 30,000 more units than the Cherokee sold in its last full year in 2001.
Since then, more than 1.25 million Libertys have been sold.
Now, after an 11-year run and one major redesign, the Liberty as we know it will soon come to an end. Chrysler Group LLC hasn't officially said when production will cease, but union officials and supplier contracts confirm that Aug. 16 will be Liberty's last day.
Its replacement -- officially unnamed as yet -- is expected to be vastly different from the outgoing Liberty.
Most analysts and dealers agree that the Liberty was a successful vehicle for Jeep, though one that aged rapidly in recent years.
When it made its debut, the smaller-size SUV segment was relatively new, and the Liberty was a top player. It also slotted well into Jeep's lineup, which at that time was made up of only the Wrangler and Grand Cherokee. Though sales peaked in 2002, they remained in the 160,000-a-year range for the next three years, making up nearly 40 percent of all Jeep sales.
The excitement surrounding the new Toledo-made model was part of what led Monroe auto dealer Ralph Mahalak, Jr., to build an off-road course next to his dealership in 2001. A rumble over that track helped remove any doubt from buyers that the Liberty wasn't capable off the blacktop.
"The Liberty did an amazing job moving through that course," Mr. Mahalak said. "I thought it was very worthy of being an off-road Jeep."
And the Liberty's less-than-brute look might have been an asset. With its round headlights and seven-slot grille, it was still unmistakably a Jeep. And for all the derision it generated, sales dropped after it was redesigned to show a more traditional boxy profile for the 2008 model year.
Jessica Caldwell, a senior analyst with Edmunds.com, said slightly less masculine styling isn't a bad thing in the crossover and small SUV segment. Female buyers dominate that segment, she said. A 2001 survey commissioned by then-DaimlerChrysler AG found the average Liberty buyer was 41 years old and half were women.
"I think it's kind of a tough place for automaker to be in," Ms. Caldwell said. "I think women will buy more masculine vehicles, whereas men won't buy more feminine vehicles. But the majority of women buy those [crossover SUVs]."
For example, Ms. Caldwell said, the Nissan Rogue, a current Liberty competitor, has one of the highest percentage of female buyers of any vehicle.
Though Jeep also enlarged and refined the Liberty with the 2008 redesign, sales continued to slip. Jeep sold 133,500 Libertys in 2006, 92,000 in 2007, and 67,000 in 2008.
By the auto industry's nadir in 2009, Jeep sold just 43,500 Libertys. Sales have recovered somewhat but remain far from the model's strongest years.
The reasons for weakening sales were many.
Chrysler introduced two smaller crossover Jeeps, the Patriot in 2006 and the Compass in 2007, that chipped away at Liberty's sales. Another internal competitor was born in 2008 when Chrysler introduced the Dodge Nitro -- essentially a macho Liberty knockoff that current Chrysler boss Sergio Marchionne said never should have been built.
The bigger problem, however, was that the segment was changing while Liberty remained the same.
Consumers like the look of an off-road warrior, but most care more about carrying groceries than climbing boulders. While competitors added cushier ride quality, more technology, and better fuel-efficiency, Jeep stuck with what the Liberty had always been.
"It was great for Jeep brand image, but given most consumers really use their SUVs as cars, the market had really been shifting toward more carlike vehicles," Mr. Kim said.
Despite that, the Liberty never really caught on with the off-road crowd.
Ron Brewer, information officer for Red Rock 4-Wheelers Inc. in Moab, Utah, said the Liberty simply doesn't do what most off-roaders want their vehicles to do.
"We see a few. Maybe some of the people that like a little bit easier ride. But it seems like nowadays, everybody wants a [Wrangler] Rubicon. We see thousands of those," Mr. Brewer said. "The Libertys aren't as popular. They're small and they sit awful low to the ground."
Red Rock 4-Wheelers is host to the annual Easter Jeep Safari, one of the largest off-road events in the country.
Dealers say Liberty buyers are often more concerned than other SUV buyers about four-wheel-drive capability, but Jeep has still struggled to attract more casual cross-over buyers.
For example, fewer than 1 percent of car buyers considering the Honda CR-V in June cross-shopped the Jeep Liberty, according to June data from Edmunds. The figures were similar for the Toyota RAV4 and Ford Escape.
That's not to say, however, that the Liberty has stopped selling.
Uptick in interest
This year is projected to be Liberty's best since 2007.
Through June, Jeep had sold about 42,300 Libertys, a 35 percent increase over the same period last year.
Some of those sales were helped by Chrysler's incentive spending, which averaged $4,366 for the first six months of 2012, according to TrueCar.com. While that incentive is the highest of any Jeep model, it's still lower than incentive spending last year and nearly 17 percent less than incentive spending in 2007 when the redesigned model hit showrooms.
Analysts said Liberty sales also are being lifted by the overall health of the auto industry and the strength of Jeep. As a brand, Jeep sales are up 28 percent on the year.
Though it may seem counterintuitive to kill a model that's selling so well, analysts still say it's time for a new Jeep.
"I think we have to give Jeep credit for taking one of their better-performing vehicles out of production and readying for the future," said Kristen Andersson, a senior analyst at TrueCar.com.
Chrysler has ramped up Liberty production to meet dealer needs until its new model launches next year, building almost twice as many through June compared to the same period last year.
"There's a lot of people that like the Liberty and with the incentives they have on them today and some of the new packages … even though it's certainly not the most fuel-efficient vehicle in the world, we still sell our fair share," Mr. Mahalak said.
Dealers plan to sell the Liberty through the first quarter of 2013. But for buyers who have their eyes on new Libertys, Ms. Andersson said the best time to strike is now.
"I think if you're a consumer who really likes the vehicle, there's no better time than the present to go in and purchase the vehicle. If you want a specific color or specific options, you have a better chance now than waiting," she said.
So, where will the Liberty ultimately rank in Jeep lore as its days wind down?
Bruce Baumhower, president of the United Auto Workers Local 12 and a member of the Cherokee launch team in 1983, owned one of each generation. He said the vehicle proved itself, but he acknowledged the Liberty's star is fading.
"I think it fits nicely into the Jeep heritage," Mr. Baumhower said. "The new one coming out is going to be one that's more suited to the times with the improved fuel economy."
Chrysler has been carefully quiet on the vehicle that will replace the Liberty.
Publicly, company officials haven't even divulged what it will be called, although resurrecting Cherokee or continuing Liberty seem high on the list. Whatever it's called, the new SUV is expected to be much more carlike than the current Liberty. Analysts expect much better fuel economy, a smoother ride, and a better interior.
"There definitely needs to be some quality improvements," Ms. Caldwell of Edmunds said. "The Liberty was a car people criticized for not evolving enough, and I think the new vehicle is going to have to do that."
Chrysler has improved its interior quality substantially in recent models, notably in the Grand Cherokee and the new entry-level Dodge Dart. Analysts expect the Liberty replacement to get similar treatment.
The exterior styling remains a mystery, though spy photos and common sense hint that Jeep won't stray from its traditional styling cues such as the seven-slot grille.
Once the Liberty line goes quiet, Chrysler will begin retooling the plant for the new vehicle, a process that's expected to take six to eight months. The automaker has begun work on expanding the plant. A second shift with at least 1,100 new jobs will be created to support the new model.
Contact Tyrel Linkhorn at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6134.