Special Coverage

logoNew York Int’l Auto Show

NEW YORK – A sunny day would be the best time for an outdoor demonstration of a new folding canvas-roof option on the redesigned ’08 Jeep Liberty.

But it was raining hard Tuesday afternoon when Chrysler Group unveiled the new vehicle and showed how its new “Sky Slider” feature worked at a faux-rock display outside the Jacob Javits convention center during the New York International Auto Show.

“I’ll keep it short,” says Frank Klegon, Chrysler executive vice president-product development, standing under an umbrella and describing the new Liberty as “reinvented from the ground up.”

The SUV is longer, wider and bolder looking. It is intended to look more masculine, say Chrysler officials, taking care to be politically correct.

“We made it more traditional looking, which makes it look more masculine,” Klegon tells Ward’s in the dryness of a big display tent following the wet debut nearby. “We wanted to make it more recognizable as a Jeep.”

The auto maker’s goal is to keep the attention of existing customers, broaden the Liberty’s consumer appeal and specifically draw interest from young couples, new families and young professionals, ages 30 to 40.

First introduced in 2002, the Liberty has a buyer mix of 60% female. Making the vehicle look more manly is not intended to go after more male buyers while sacrificing sales to women, Chrysler executives say.

They point to research indicating an auto maker doesn’t lose women customers by designing a vehicle that appeals to men. “But the opposite isn’t true; you can lose men by designing a vehicle that appeals to women,” a Chrysler executive says.

“It’s hard to pick customers,” Klegon says. “You tend to end up finding out whom you attract with a particular vehicle design.”

Jeep sells about 8,000 Liberty models a month. The vehicle is usually the leader in the midsize SUV segment.

“It is an important product for us, and after years of success with it, we asked ourselves, ‘What more can we do?’” Klegon says. “We challenged ourselves to rethink the design.”

The new model features a more spacious, upgraded interior.

Touting its rugged road-handling capabilities, he cites two 4-wheel-drive systems – Command-Trac and the all-new Selec-Trac II.

The first is a part-time system the driver activates by switching from 2WD High to 4WD Lock for slippery or loose surfaces. The front and rear drive shafts lock together to provide a 50/50 front/rear torque split.

Selec-Trac II is a full time, active on-demand system intended to anticipate and prevent wheel slips before they occur. It is described as ideal for a wide range of road settings, including dry pavement conditions not typically suited for conventional part-time 4-wheel-drive systems.

Also new on the Liberty is an independent front suspension and 5-link rear suspension. Klegon says improved rack-and-pinion steering provides more precise handling and a tight turning radius.

The engine is a 3.7L SOHC V-6 with improved fuel economy. It produces 210 hp at 5,200 rpm and 235 lb.-ft. (319 Nm) of torque at 4,000 rpm.

The new Liberty goes on sale in August. By October, all Jeep dealers are scheduled to have the ’08 models in stock. Pricing on the vehicle is yet to be announced. A spokesman says the new Sky Slider option will be about $1,500.

sfinlay@wardsauto.com