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Published: Friday, 8/3/2001

Jeep 101 course lets consumers get a good look at new Liberty

BY JULIE M. McKINNON
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

GROVE CITY, Ohio - Sally and Rich Banfield and their three children knock around their 40-acre “play farm” and its off-road track in a Jeep Wrangler and an assortment of other vehicles.

Yet before a Toledo-made Jeep Liberty joins the Mount Perry, Ohio, family's four-wheel-driving fleet, it must satisfy other buyers in the next couple of years. The Banfields like the Liberty so far, but plan to watch results of customer-satisfaction surveys and see whether adequate aftermarket parts for off-roading will be available before buying the all-new sport-utility vehicle.

“The engineering is going to have to prove itself,” Mr. Banfield said yesterday after the couple drove the Liberty through a dozen-obstacle off-road course here.

“Until it's around pounding in the dirt, you don't know how it's going to hold up.”

The Liberty passed the Banfields' first test yesterday at a Jeep 101 driving event in suburban Columbus as they and hundreds of other invitees drove Libertys through on- and off-road courses. The Liberty's smooth-riding independent front suspension, color array - especially “salsa red” - and ability to haul skis, canoes, and other gear were particularly attractive, Mrs. Banfield said.

“We may put a couple of them in the garage,” Mr. Banfield said.

DaimlerChrysler AG's U.S. unit started the traveling Jeep 101 show in 1997 after a similar instructional off-road track got rave reviews at the annual Camp Jeep ownership event.

Through Sunday, about 3,300 invitees within a 90-mile radius of Grove City are expected to attend Jeep 101 on the grounds of the Beulah Park Racetrack, one of 11 stops on this year's national tour. The Chrysler unit selects people who have owned Jeeps or competing vehicles for more than three years and those whose leases on Jeeps or other vehicles are about to end.

Jeep supplies the Libertys, Wranglers, and Grand Cherokees - and training and ride-along instructors - for drivers to hit the trail and judge climbing, ride, engine braking, and other capabilities. This year, an on-road course was added so potential Liberty buyers can get a feel for what the SUV can do on pavement, too.

Tiffin native James Bland had never been off-roading before, but he said he understands the attraction after putting the Liberty through its paces. The Cincinnati man, who owns a 1995 Buick Park Avenue, came with his family to the Jeep 101 event because his 14-year-old son, Austin, likes Jeep Wranglers.

But Mr. Bland and his wife, Becky, were impressed with the Liberty's ride and confident of its off-road capabilities - and may become buyers, they said.

“We're at the age where we want comfort, and you can take it off road,” he said. “I would not be afraid to take it off road.”

Several participants said the Liberty's ride was smoother than the Cherokee's, the formerly Toledo-made SUV it replaced for the 2002 model year, and it has a roomier back seat. Some complimented the peppiness of the Liberty's new 3.7-liter V-6 engine and the luxurious yet rugged interior.

Melanie Johnson of Hilliard, Ohio, said the Liberty conquered off-roading better than her older sister's Suzuki Grand Vitara. Still, the 17-year-old remains more interested in the Toledo Jeep Assembly's other offering after riding on the Jeep 101 trail with her dad, Mark Johnson.

“I've always wanted a Wrangler,” she said.



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