CHELSEA, MI — If DaimlerChrysler AG can just hurry up and get this new Jeep compact sport/utility vehicle (SUV), the 2002 Liberty, to market, it'll go a long way toward balming the cross-continental squabbling.

It's usually easier to bury the hatchet when you've got a winner on your hands, and after viewing and driving the all-new Liberty (internally known as KJ) at DC's proving grounds here, we're convinced that selling this thing is going to be about as difficult as falling off a log.

Even if the U.S. market in general — and SUV sales in particular — goes south, it'll have to be Deep South to derail this hit-in-the-offing.

On looks alone, DC should be able to peddle its expected 200,000 units. The Liberty is an appealing blend of current SUV design with a solid helping of Jeep-brand identifiers, including some cues artfully lifted from Jeep concept vehicles past. It manages to look both perky and purposeful and exhibits a much more distinctive and unique appearance than, say, the Ford Escape, which will be one of Liberty's chief rivals.

But the Liberty's really good stuff is more than skin deep.

For example, its highly refined unibody structure makes Liberty “the stiffest Jeep yet,” according to Phil Jansen, director of Jeep Body. Here are the numbers: 45% better in bending and 30% better in torsion than the outgoing Cherokee (XJ). The novel one-piece rear aperture helps to set those numbers. And Mr. Jansen says there's a “significant amount” of high-strength and ultra-high-strength steel.

Motive matters are addressed with an entirely new engine lineup: the 2.4L DOHC I-4 lifted from the pass-car business, or a burly new 3.7L SOHC V-6, derived from the new-for-'99 4.7L SOHC V-8 that first saw fitment in the Grand Cherokee. Either mill can be connected to a 5-speed manual, but losers selecting the 2.4L I-4 (Jeep guys whisper already about “very few” 4-cyl. Libertys actually being made) can't get an automatic.

The 4-banger offers 154 hp and 167 lb.-ft. (226 Nm) of torque. The new 3.7L V-6 musters 210 hp and 225 lb.-ft. (305 Nm) of torque. There are some engaging design features for the V-6, which we'll give in detail later this year.

There's the usual (read: confusing) selection of New Venture Gear-developed “Trac” drivelines: Command-Trac 4-wheel drive is standard, with Selec-Trac all-wheel drive optional for V-6 equipped Libertys. Or is it the other way around?

The main chassis improvement comes in the form of independent front suspension (short/long arm) with coil springs and a move to rack-and-pinion steering. The rear axle is solid and suspended with coils, as it is on the current Cherokee.

Yes, we drove Liberty. Mainly, we like it. The newest Jeep manages to dance the line between modern expectations regarding refinement and providing the tough and durable feel expected of a Jeep.

“We expect KJ to really move the needle” in terms of off-road/on-road compromise, exaults one Jeep engineer.

The steering, in particular, is unexpectedly responsive. On trips around DC's handling course, the steering is firm and steady and nicely progressive in building up resistance during hard cornering — better than both the Escape and Honda CR-V on hand for comparison.

The V-6, too, is better than expected, although it's a little slow-revving, with the feel of a heavy flywheel. Nonetheless, the throttle response is excellent and the Liberty seems to be the rough equal of the Escape and its 200-hp 3L V-6.

Finally, though, we'll need more seat time to evaluate the subtleties of the chassis setup. Our early “read” is that the front turns in eagerly enough, but the solid-axle rear is more dim-witted, noticeably lagging during more aggressive maneuvers.

We press DC's chassis engineers regarding the solid axle at the rear, but they seem to believe it is triumph enough to specify an independent front axle. We remind that future competitors (like the Escape) are likely to favor the more handling-friendly independent rear suspension.

The solid rear axle, avers one engineer, is “still more than appropriate for this type of vehicle.”

He's right — it probably won't matter. The Liberty probably won't have to win anyone with lithe chassis moves. They'll be happy to buy it because it looks great and it's a Jeep.

2002 Jeep Liberty (V-6)
Vehicle type: Front-engine, four-wheel-
drive, 5-passenger sport/
utility vehicle
Engine: 3.7L SOHC V-6; iron block/
aluminum head
Power (SAE net): 210 hp @ 5,200 rpm
Torque: 225 lb.-ft. (305 Nm)
@ 4,000 rpm
Compression ratio: 9.3:1
Bore x Stroke (mm): N/A
Transmission: 4-speed automatic/5-speed
manual
Wheelbase: 104.3 ins. (265 cm)
Overall length: 174.7 ins. (444 cm)
Overall width: 71.6 ins. (182 cm)
Overall height: 70.7 ins. (180 cm)
Curb weight (auto): 3,857 lbs. (1,750 kg)
Market competition: Ford Escape; Honda CR-V; Nissan Xterra; Toyota RAV4