Piecing together the next Liberty -- one clue at a time

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DETROIT -- The late, great Johnny Cash once sang about how he had built a car “one piece at a time.” That song has been playing in my head for several months as I try to assemble a mental picture of the vehicle that will replace the Jeep Liberty.

It has been an intriguing deductive exercise, like playing an automotive version of the board game Clue -- sans Colonel Mustard and the candlestick. And what has emerged is an image of what promises to be a remarkable vehicle, but maybe not a remarkable Jeep.

Let’s start with the basics: We know that the next Liberty/Cherokee (some wags on the Internet have begun referring to it as a Liberkee) will be based on a stretched version of the platform that underlies the Alfa Romeo Giulietta. It will have a new 3.2-liter version of Chrysler’s V-6 Pentastar engine and will be front-wheel-drive-based with a transverse nine-speed transmission.

I’ve also picked up hints that the Liberty replacement will get a version of the Fiat MultiAir system. I say that because from what I’ve been told, the MultiAir system has been improved upon by Chrysler’s engineers to the point where it’s “now almost unrecognizable.”

The Liberty’s replacement also will be built in Jeep’s traditional home in Toledo, Ohio, where Chrysler is giving its Toledo North assembly plant $500 million in renovations.

Shedding pounds

Chrysler-Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne hinted in January that the Liberty replacement would weigh about 500 pounds less than the current vehicle. His quote about the current Liberty: “I think we overinvested in the amount of steel we gave you for the money. I think we gave you about 500 pounds too many.”

That would give it a base-model curb weight of just under 3,600 pounds.

Many of those pounds will be shed from using high-strength steel and lower-weight axles, and from not adding the 4x4 heavy-duty components that make vehicles such as the Jeep Wrangler so heavy.

Add just these things together and a picture emerges of a jazzed-up crossover with what promises to be jaw-dropping fuel efficiency. One Jeep brand official told me, “We used to go into the [mileage] gunfight in that segment armed with a knife. We’re coming back with a bazooka.”

Does that mean a 40-mpg Jeep SUV? That would be a mild improvement, to say the least, over the current 4x2 Liberty’s mileage of 16 mpg city/22 highway.

Marchionne also said the Liberty’s replacement will “get a trail-rated version that will do all the weird, wonderful things that you want to do.”

Translation: Some versions will be able to go off-road, just as some versions of the Jeep Compass and Patriot can go off-road, and perform admirably. But consumers shouldn’t take a stock Patriot or Compass out for a jaunt on the Rubicon Trail, and the Liberty’s replacement doesn’t belong there, either. But it will get you almost anywhere else you want to go.

Naming issues

Finally, there’s the name -- or really the lack thereof. In Europe, the current Liberty retained the former Cherokee badge from its predecessor, except for Russia, where it shares the North American Liberty moniker.

We’re about nine months from the vehicle’s scheduled formal introduction in Detroit, and Jeep brand head Mike Manley said he thinks “it’s going to be one of the two,” and said he hoped the vehicle would have one global name.

“Cherokee has a huge amount of equity. Liberty has built up some equity as well. I don’t think we’re going to invent a name. For me, it’s clearly a choice of Liberty or Cherokee,” Manley said.

Marchionne has called the current Liberty and its now-departed line mate, the Dodge Nitro, the “the most gaping damn hole” in Chrysler’s product lineup. He also said its replacement “cures all the ills of the current Liberty, and it moves the brand forward by light-years.”

We’ll just have to wait until January, though, to find out if he’s right.

You can reach Larry P. Vellequette at lvellequette@crain.com.

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