Jeep's middle child rides off into the sunset

The Liberty was the Jeep brand's consummate middle child -- always trying to live up to reputation of its bigger, older brothers, the Wrangler and Grand Cherokee.

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. -- Next Thursday, Chrysler Group will end production of its Jeep Liberty SUV, ending an 11-year production run that included two makeovers, but little love.

A successor to the Liberty will go into production in the spring, Chrysler says. The new version will share a platform with the 2013 Dodge Dart and have what promises to be an interesting powertrain: a new 3.2-liter V-6 engine mated to a new nine-speed automatic transmission.

But since Jeep's new mid-sized SUV isn't available yet for inspection (and still hasn't been named), it seems like a good time to reflect on the outgoing Liberty as it rides down the line for the last time.

I'm guilty here of anthropomorphism, but I've always felt like Liberty was the Jeep brand's consummate middle child -- always trying to live up to reputation of its bigger, older brothers, the Wrangler and Grand Cherokee, and being squeezed by its younger siblings, the arguably less-capable Compass and Patriot.

The outgoing Liberty was the child of Chrysler's earlier unsuccessful marriage to Daimler AG. As such, it suffered some of the same de-contenting disease over its run that some other Chrysler products did during that period.

It got better when it was adopted by Chrysler's new spouse, Fiat S.p.A., and was cleaned up a bit, but even Chrysler-Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne considered it and its now-departed twin, the Dodge Nitro, the weakest parts of Chrysler's product lineup.

The Liberty wasn't horrible. It was more capable off-road than almost anything except perhaps the Wrangler. It was lighter and smaller than the Grand Cherokee, which had its advantages, and was a relatively comfortable ride, given its short wheel-base and high center of gravity.

But the Liberty suffered from an engine and transmission combination that kept its fuel economy well below less-capable competitors and put its overall driving enjoyment far behind its predecessor, the Jeep Cherokee.

The unibody plant where the Liberty is built -- what used to be known as Toledo North Assembly -- is the last of Chrysler's assembly plants to still have only a single shift. The company says it will add a second shift, about 1,100 workers, in the the third quarter of 2013 to build the Liberty's successor, while it struggles to keep up with demand a few hundred feet away in the portion of the Toledo Assembly Complex that builds the hot-selling Wrangler and Wrangler Unlimited.

Like the hundreds of thousands of 1984-2001 Jeep Cherokees that are still found on the nation's roads, Jeep Libertys are likely to be around for awhile.

If, as Chrysler claims, its mid-sized SUV replacement coming to dealerships next spring remains at least as true to Jeep's legendary off-road heritage as the outgoing Liberty, the turnover rate is likely to be brisk.

If not, well, dealers whose customers regularly go off-road may want to grab up a few of the outgoing Libertys and keep them around for a while.

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