CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA — There are two camps when it comes to the look of the new '02 Jeep Liberty: those who love the way it marries the Dakar and Jeepster concepts, and those who find its round headlamps and overall look too cutesy for a Rubicon conqueror.

Either way, it is a styling standout — and distinctly Jeep — with its trademark seven-slot grille and squared-off wheel arches.

Liberty, the first new Jeep since Grand Cherokee in 1992, replaces the 18-year-old Cherokee and fills the gap between brute (Wrangler) and tuxedo (Grand Cherokee), says Dave Bostwick, DCC director of corporate market research.

Liberty, built at DC's all-new Toledo, OH, assembly plant (see p. 43) exudes its own personality and is unlikely to be mistaken for Cherokee or Grand Cherokee. That is a claim chief rival Ford Escape is harder-pressed to make, with its bland resemblance to the larger Explorer.

Escape justifies its price — starting at $18,575, compared to Liberty's $17,035 — because it claims better ride and handling with its 4-wheel independent suspension.

The designers of Liberty opted for independent front suspension — the first time for Jeep in 75 years — but kept the rear as an evolution of the solid axle on the Grand Cherokee.

A test drive through the rolling hills and curves of pastoral Virginia shows little is lost in this decision. If Cherokee is trucky, Liberty is decidedly car-like on the blacktop. To notice the lack of independent rear suspension, you'd have to find a stretch of undulating pavement.

Ride is quiet and steering is tight, courtesy of the first-ever rack-and-pinion steering gear for a Jeep.

And Liberty is true Jeep, as evidenced by a side trip through mud, across streams (Liberty can handle 20 ins. [51 cm] of water at 20 mph [32 km/h] without shorting out the submersible halogen lamps) and down ravines that makes one appreciate the short overhangs.

Shifting to 4-wheel drive (4WD) required help. I'm told one must pull the lever of the transfer case when the speed is just right, a precision not all buyers will possess. The glitch is, as they say, “being addressed.”

The part-time Command Trac 4WD transfer case is standard on all models; Selec Trac full-time 4WD is optional.

There are three new engines. DC expects a 95% take rate on the new 3.7L SOHC V-6, little brother to Grand Cherokee's 4.7L SOHC V-8. The 3.7L “PowerTech” V-6 musters 210 hp and 235 lb.-ft (319 Nm) of torque. It has a counter-rotating balance shaft to minimize vibration developed from the 90-degree layout stolen from the V-8.

The base model comes with a 2.4L I-4 (150 hp) and there is a new 2.5L PowerTech direct-injected common-rail turbodiesel I-4 for international markets — where Liberty will continue to be sold under the Cherokee nameplate.

Transmission choices include a 4-speed automatic or 5-speed manual; towing capacity is 5,000 lbs. (2,268 kg). Shifting and acceleration are smooth and more than adequate — at least with the six. The 4-cyl.'s 150 hp is overmatched even by the Liberty's base 4-cyl./2WD curb weight of 3,648 lbs. (1,655 kg) — and the pork factor extends to 4,115 lbs. for the V-6/automatic/4WD model. Compare that 4-cyl. weight to Toyota Motor Corp.'s '01 RAV4, the newest of the cute-ute bunch, at 2,943 lbs. (1,335 kg). Or the V-6/auto Liberty to the V-6 Escape at 3,330 lbs. (1,510 kg). Okay, neither tows anything close to Liberty's max, but few buy a compact ‘ute to tow 2½ tons.

This is the fourth generation of uniform body construction, says Jack Dolan, senior manager of body systems. The heavy unibody chassis offers the strength and durability of a body-on-frame architecture in the stiffest Jeep body to date: a 43% improvement in torsion and a 58% bending increase compared to Grand Cherokee.

The interior is tastefully, if somewhat frugally, executed. Of note are the texture and chrome of the instrument panel, meaty D-ring door handles (akin to mountain-climbing gear) and screw-shaped door locks.

The 65/35 split rear seat folds down easily with one hand and the patented rear hatch release is clever and also is easily opened single-handedly. A light pull on the handle causes the glass to flip up to load small cargo. Smart.

Liberty is 7 ins. (18 cm) longer than Cherokee, 6 ins. (15 cm) wider and 9 ins. (23 cm) higher, which adds up to a back seat that is easier to ingress, but far from best-in-class.

Safety options include side airbags and antilock brakes.

Liberty's strength is its duality: its ability to conquer on-road and off, in eye-catching style. It is expected to double Cherokee sales. At the very least, it raises the bar — and makes a ruggedness statement — in the rapidly growing compact SUV segment.