There was a time, not that many years ago, when the word, "Jeep" was synonymous with sport-utility vehicle. Confuse the terms in a review and you'd get a firm reminder from the PR department emphasizing that Jeep was a protected trademark.
These days, the brand name is seldom confused with the generic SUV, what with the huge proliferation of other ute brands available on the American market. Jeep has steadily lost both market share and share of mind to players ranging from Ford to Toyota. And it has only itself to blame.
The DaimlerChrysler division was unduly slow to respond to shifting market trends, until recently ignoring the addition of third-row seating, as well as low-cost crossover vehicles. But with the impending launch of the new Patriot, Jeep is wrapping up the most aggressive product offensive in its history, one that more than doubles its lineup, giving potential buyers seven separate models to choose from.
If your first glimpse of the new Patriot triggers a mild sense of déjà vu, that's no surprise. The new compact SUV has a lot in common with its fraternal twin, the Jeep Compass, which launched last year. Both are based off the same, small-utility platform, (which they share with a third product, the Dodge Caliber), and are produced, side by side, at the automaker's assembly plant in Belvedere, Illinois.
Where the softer, more feminine look of Compass underscored its cute-ute-ness, Patriot is decidedly more angular and rugged-looking, visually closer to traditional Jeeps like the Liberty and Wrangler, an intentional move meant to imply its "trail-rated" heritage.
In fact, the Patriot straddles the line between soft-roader and full SUV. The reality is that less than one in ten sport-ute owners will ever steer onto anything rougher than a gravel road. So for them, there's the basic version of the Patriot, Dubbed Freedom Drive 1, available in either 4x2 or 4x4 configuration and starting at an extremely competitive $14,985 (which includes destination charges).
For those who want something markedly more rugged, there's the official, trail-rated package, which boosts ground clearance by an inch, and adds such niceties as a tougher rear suspension, low-range transmission, skid plates, electronic stability program with hill-descent control, and a heavy-duty cooling system. This so-called Freedom Drive 2 package bumps the base price up to $19,175.
To round out the various packages, the Patriot Limited, in 4x4 configuration, starts at $21,735.
Pacing the snow
We readily took Jeep officials up on their offer to head to Phoenix to put both versions of the new ute through their paces. The timing couldn't have been better, with the first snow in a decade blanketing the Valley of the Sun.
To our eyes, the Patriot's angular styling is markedly more attractive than that of the soft and squishy Compass. It looks more expensive than the price tag would suggest, and is instantly recognizable as a Jeep, what with its round headlamps and seven-slot grille. Project chief John Segalia likes to call the new Jeep the "spiritual successor" to the old XJ Cherokee, and on paper, its dimensions match up nearly to the inch.
But Jeep designers and engineers pulled off a much better exercise in packaging. The interior is spacious, both for passengers and cargo. With a split/fold-down rear and fold-down front passenger seat, you can load up plenty of goods, including skis, bikes and lumber. With the seats up, there's a surprising amount of room for passengers front and rear alike.
There are some very well-thought out features, such as the flashlight stored in the rear cargo bay and the optional speakers that fold out of the rear hatch for tailgate parties. There's a rubberized mat to protect the cargo bed from wet or muddy cargo. Up front, there's a good bit of storage space, even a right-sized cellphone slot in the center console.
The seats, meanwhile, are some of the best we've experienced in an SUV. No, they don't have the 27-way power settings of some luxury utes, but they have been carefully designed to comfortably, yet firmly hold you in place, even on the bumpiest off-road course. After spending the better part of the day driving, we felt like we could put in several more hours behind the wheel.
Oh, that the rest of the interior was up to those standards. If, as David Cole, director of the Center for Automotive Research, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, suggests, "Interiors are the next competitive battleground," then Jeep is not ready for a fair fight with competitors like the Toyota RAV4. It's not that Patriot's cabin isn't reasonably attractive, but there's cheapness in the overall choice of materials: too much hard plastic, for one thing, and when you rap your knuckles on the instrument panel, you hear a hollow echo that doesn't sound quite solid enough.
That said, even under the most aggressive off-road driving, we heard nary the faintest squeak or rattle. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.
To hold down costs on the base model, you'll take delivery of an absolutely stripped-down Patriot, devoid of even the most rudimentary niceties, such as power windows and mirrors, as well as air conditioning. Those options, packaged together, will add several thousand to the sticker.
After spending an hour doing a Patriot walk-around on a frigid, snow-covered Scottsdale hillside, we finally set out for our day's drive, a winding and circuitous route that led to the old West town of Tortilla Flats.
The base Patriot Sport model, with two-wheel-drive features Chrysler's 2.0-liter "World Engine" (so called because it was jointly developed in partnership with Japan's Mitsubishi and South Korea's Hyundai). It makes an acceptable 158 horsepower and 141 lb-ft of torque and can be mated to either a five-speed manual transaxle or an optional CVT. For those who put a premium on fuel economy, the 2.0 will deliver a surprising 26 mpg in the city and a whopping 30 mpg on highway.
Other versions of the Patriot, including the Sport 4x4 and various Limited packages, get the World Engine bored out to 2.4 liters and making 172 hp and 165 lb-ft. The engine's dual variable valve timing smoothes out the torque curve and delivers, with the stick, equal mileage to the smaller, 2.0-liter engine.
We should point out here that the off-road, Freedom Drive 2 package is available only with the CVT. Jeep engineers did not develop a low gear range for the manual.
Our biggest complaint was with the continuously variable transmission under extreme acceleration. Heading up steep hills, the engine would race to redline and hold there as vehicle speed caught up. This "motor boating" is a phenomenon common to CVT design, but with the Patriot powertrain, the result was an unpleasantly brash and raucous roar from under the hood. Under less aggressive driving, both engines were acceptably smooth and reasonably quiet.
The Patriot is pleasantly smooth and nimble in both on and off-road configurations. The added ride height of Freedom Drive 2 is barely noticeable in anything but the most aggressive driving conditions. Unless you like the more jellybean-like styling of the Compass, we find it hard to explain what the attraction would be to that soft-roader.
Even without the off-road package, the Patriot can handle some pretty rough road conditions. Travel much beyond Tortilla Flats and you're going to be tossing and turning a lot, even at 10 mph. But the new Jeep is absolutely up to the task.
Later on our drive, we got the chance to do some serious off-roading on some classic Western trails.
Whether deep sand or sharp-edged boulders, nothing intimidated the little Jeep. The new Hill Descent Control was a particular blessing, making it easy to creep down steep inclines at a steady speed of about 5 mph. Later, blasting through a sandy wash, we were equally impressed with the way the Patriot's electronic stability control kept the ute pointing straight.
Careful attention to design means incredibly aggressive approach and departure angles and the Patriot can easily ford a water hazard of up to 19 inches depth.
The new Jeep features a nice range of safety equipment, as well. ABS brakes, traction control and stability control are standard across the board, along with Brake Assist, electronic roll mitigation, and a tire pressure monitoring system. Front seat-mounted airbags are the only notable option, though dual, multistage front airbags and side-curtain airbags are standard.
Over the course of a year, it's not uncommon for us to plant ourselves behind the wheel of 100 or more new or significantly updated vehicles. So one measure of a product's appeal is how we feel when it's time to turn back the keys. And with the Patriot, shutting down the engine was a real disappointment. We would have easily gone back out for a couple more hours.
The SUV market has become both crowded and confusing. There are simply too many options to keep track of, whether true utes or cute-utes. But anyone looking for an affordable, capable and fun-to-drive compact SUV, it would be making a mistake to leave the new Patriot off their shopping list.
2007 Jeep Patriot Limited
Base price: $21,735 (Patriot Sport 4x2 starts at $14,985)
Engine: 2.4-liter four-cylinder, 172 hp/165 lb-ft (Sport 4x2: 2.0-liter, 158 hp, 141 lb-ft)
Transmission: CVT (standard with off-road Freedom Drive 2 package), or five-speed manual (standard with on-road, Freedom Drive 1), front- or all-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 173.6 x 69.1 x 65.7 in
Wheelbase: 103.7 in
Curb weight: 3310 lb (Patriot Limited with 4x4 and Freedom Drive 2; 3108 lb base Patriot Sport 4x2)
Fuel economy (city/hwy): 21/23 mpg (Freedom Drive II off-road package with 4x4 and CVT); 26/30 mpg (4x2 Patriot)
Major standard features: Air conditioning; power windows/locks/mirrors; AM/FM/CD player; keyless remote; cruise control; all-wheel-drive (as tested with Freedom Drive 2 package), tilt/telescope steering wheel; engine immobilizer
Safety features: Anti-lock brakes, traction and stability control; Brake Assist; dual front, side and curtain airbags; Hill Descent Control (on Freedom Drive 2 package)
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles
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