Special Coverage

logoNew York Int’l Auto Show

True to its name, the ’08 Jeep Liberty offers more freedom.

The redesigned SUV, which bows today at Chrysler Group’s New York auto show exhibit, boasts a full-length retractable canvas roof. Activated by a one-touch switch, the roof can expose the Liberty’s entire interior to the open air, or just front-seat occupants, or just the rear passengers, or any combination in between.

Most dealers contacted by Ward’s had seen spy shots of the new Jeep. But none were aware of the sliding roof, an option to be sold at a price the auto maker declines to reveal.

“That’s the reason most people buy Jeeps, so they can take the tops down,” says Robbie Ewing, sales manager at Brown Dodge Chrysler Jeep in Devine, TX.

Case in point: the three-piece Freedom Top available on the ’07 Wrangler Unlimited. Supplied by Meridian Automotive Inc., the modular roof system features three removable panels that can transform the vehicle from a hardtop to an open-air ride.

“Every body loves that,” Ewing says. “Just can’t get enough of them.”

The Liberty roof system, called Sky Slider, is supplied by ASC Inc. The Michigan-based roof system specialist hinted at Sky Slider, an industry exclusive for the North American market, with a Hummer concept displayed in Detroit during the 2006 North American International Auto Show.

Made of a reinforced acrylic cloth, similar to a convertible top, it is weather-resistant and leak-proof, Chrysler says.

“The top panel nests into a weather strip seal to help minimize wind noise,” the auto maker says in a statement, adding the system also features anti-pinch software that will prevent it from closing if an object is detected in its path.

Sky Slider joins a growing list of unique features available on Chrysler products, such as Swivel ’n Go, which enables second-row minivan occupants to face their fellow passengers in the forward-facing third row, and Load ‘N Go, a sliding cargo tray available on the Dodge Nitro SUV, Liberty’s platform-mate.

At 106.1 ins, (269 cm), the new Liberty’s wheelbase is 2.7 ins. (6.9 cm) shorter than the Nitro’s. But it is 1.8 ins. (4.6 cm) longer than the ’07 Liberty wheelbase.

Except for its track width of 61 ins. (155 cm), which it shares with the Nitro, all other dimensions position the new Liberty between the outgoing model and its Dodge cousin.

Chrysler claims Liberty customers have complained about cargo volume behind the rear seat, so the new model increases that space to 31.5 cu.-ft (0.9 cu.-m) from 29 cu.-ft (0.821 cu.-m).

True to the Jeep brand, the ’08 Liberty will have two trim levels featuring the rugged Trail-Rated badge.

But early reaction suggests Sky Slider will get all the attention.

“I’m not sure about that,” says Hoyt Scharff, new car manager at Lithia Chrysler Jeep of Reno, NV, not far from the Rubicon Trail that helped make the Jeep brand famous.

“I’m more interested to see how noisy it is. That’s always a downside (of fabric tops).”

To that end, Chrysler notes Liberty’s all-new suspension, featuring an independent rear setup in front and 5-link rear.

Craig Love, vice president of Chrysler’s rear-wheel-drive product team says in a statement that the new Liberty will deliver “a balance of on-road refinement and off-road capability.

“Whether it’s an off-road adventure or the daily commute in rush-hour traffic, Jeep Liberty owners will feel confident and comfortable behind the wheel,” Love says.

And Chrysler laughs off the prospect that Sky Slider might leak. During a preview for journalists, the auto maker is reminded that Volkswagen AG once employed a similar system on its now-discontinued minibus line that proved problematic.

“Good thing we’re not them,” a Chrysler spokesman quipped.

Also set for debut in New York is an all-new 4.7L V-8 engine in the ’08 Jeep Grand Cherokee SUV. Featuring two spark plugs per cylinder – like the 5.7L Hemi V-8, which also is available on the Grand Cherokee – the new redesigned 4.7L mill generates 291 hp and peak torque of 322 lb.-ft (437 Nm). These totals represent increases of 24% and 9%, respectively, compared with the previous 4.7L engine it replaces.

This brings to five the number of powertrain choices available on the Grand Cherokee. The others are the 3.7L V-6, standard on the Grand Cherokee Laredo; 6.1L Hemi V-8 on the high-performance SRT model; and 3.0L V-6 diesel, chosen one of Ward’s 10 Best Engines for 2007.

In addition, the’08 Grand Cherokee is among seven Chrysler products that feature Sirius Backseat TV.