As a car-based yet offroad-capable model, the Patriot, Jeep's newest SUV, is exactly what the brand and its buyers need, for three reasons. One: It's long overdue, because the heavy-duty Liberty and Wrangler weren't built to challenge light, unibody compacts, which got their start 10 years ago. Two: Its gas mileage estimates are impressively high, and that's an important characteristic for a company that only builds SUVs. Three: It's attractive enough to buyers — in more ways than one — to cast a long if somewhat boxy shadow over the Jeep Compass, a newer model that has found no fans among our staff, and few among people we've shown it to.
Exterior & Styling
The Patriot's styling breaks no ground. Its triumph is that it looks like a Jeep. That might seem minor, but even today this vehicle class carries a cute-ute stigma, and one of the Compass' problems is that it doesn't look like a Jeep — at least not in any of the ways one might want it to. As the photos show, there's a passing resemblance between the two because they and the Dodge Caliber share the same platform, and all are assembled at the same Illinois plant.
One could argue that the squared-off Patriot most resembles Jeep's flagship, the Commander, but it more strongly honors old-school Cherokees and Grand Cherokees.
The two trim levels are Sport and Limited, with few visible differences. The Limited adds a metal-look cover to the front and rear bumpers, and upgrades the Sport's respectable 16-inch steel wheels to 17-inch alloys. The Patriot Sport has standard black roof rails, but the cross-members are optional. The Limited has aluminum rails and cross-bars as standard equipment.
The Patriot offers a choice of two engines, two transmissions and three drivelines. Standard are the familiar 2.4-liter four-cylinder from the Caliber and Compass, a five-speed manual transmission and front-wheel drive. The automatic option comes in the form of a continuously variable transmission. Four-wheel drive is available with either transmission, in two forms: Freedom Drive I and Freedom Drive II. They were originally called French Drive until that country declined to participate in the Iraq invasion. (I might have made that part up.)
Already employed on the Compass and Caliber, Freedom I is the simpler option; it's arguably all-wheel drive because it transfers up to 60 percent of the torque automatically between the front and rear axles when needed, and it lacks a low gear — though it has a 4WD Lock lever that splits the torque 50/50 between the front and rear wheels. (You shouldn't need this unless you get stuck on a slick surface.)
Freedom Drive II has a dual-range transfer case, which is one of the features that turns any Patriot that has it into a true off-roader, or as Jeep dubs it, Trail Rated. (I suspected a few years ago when Jeep introduced this designation that it meant future models might not be. At that time, every Jeep model — throughout history, arguably — had been fully off-roadable. Sure enough, the Compass and any Patriot not fitted with Freedom II Off-road Package 4WD are not Trail Rated.) I drove a few drivetrain combinations, but before I expand on that, wasn't there another engine?
|Type||2.4-liter 4-cylinder||2.0-liter 4-cylinder|
|Horsepower (@ rpm)||172 @ 6,000||158 @ 6,400|
|Torque (lbs.-ft. @ rpm)||165 @ 4,400||141 @ 5,000|
|Required gasoline||regular (87 octane)||regular (87 octane)|
Ah yes, the optional, less-powerful 2.0-liter four-cylinder. Its appeal is indeed narrow. Offered only on the Sport with front-wheel drive and a CVT, it gives you a $200 discount off the standard engine's price and automatic operation with the gas mileage of a 2.4-liter manual.
|EPA-Estimated Gas Mileage (city/highway, mpg)|
|5-speed manual||CVT automatic|
On the Pavement ... and Off
My first drive was in the manual 4WD, which I enjoyed. The shifter juts out from the center of the dashboard — a location that some people find objectionable, but the knob was exactly where I wanted it. Though it's not a rocket, the 2.4-liter Patriot is quick enough, and the handling proved exhilarating in the curvy mountain roads outside of Phoenix — both paved and compacted-dirt surfaces. As with any SUV, the Patriot must be driven more conservatively than a car, but it's still a far cry from the high center of gravity one finds in truck-based styles like the Wrangler and Liberty. I was most impressed by the at-the-limit balance and grip, with less understeer than expected from a model based on front-wheel drive. The specs confirm that the 4x4 version's weight distribution is 56/44 (front/rear). Front-drive cars are typically 60/40, with only a point or two's difference with AWD.
You definitely know when you're driving on bumpy surfaces, but after a period of taking it for granted, I realized the driving effort could have been much greater and the comfort lower. The four-wheel independent suspension paid off here, but it comes at a price on challenging offroad trails (more on that later). On-pavement performance is firm but comfortable, with moderate noise levels in the cabin at highway speeds — much of it wind noise from the boxy shape and upright windshield.
With this drivetrain configuration there was a bit more engine noise than I wanted to hear, but I really noticed it in the CVT-equipped Patriot. On some level, this noise seems intrusive because it comes at unexpected times as the CVT chooses the most powerful or efficient engine speed and gear ratio for a given condition. With the manual, it's at least tied to your actions. Maybe drivers need to adjust, but it would be wise for automakers to double-down on the noise treatment in CVT cars. The technology in the Patriot and its sister models is one of the best I've driven; it reacts quicker than most and uses a conventional torque converter so it has a natural feel when accelerating from, or coming to, a stop. The CVT technology is key to the relatively high mileage estimates.
In the Cabin
The Patriot's interior quality isn't class-leading, but it's acceptable for a car of this price — bearing in mind that the starting price is for a seriously stripped-down Sport model. (Option packages that flesh it out will set you back a grand or two.) Of note is the faux-metal trim, which is textured and not as cheesy as some of the stuff we've seen in earlier Chrysler and Dodge models.
Vinyl seats are standard, and stain/moisture/mold-resistant cloth upholstery is optional on the Sport trim level. Heated leather seats and a driver's lumbar adjustment are standard on the Limited, and Jeep kindly offers heaters for the front cloth seats — a rarity — though an expensive option package is a pre-requisite. Power seats aren't available.
A driver's seat height adjustment is standard on the Limited but comes only in option packages on the Sport, including the Off-road Package. The steering wheel tilts but unfortunately doesn't telescope. Still, visibility is pretty good all around, and smaller drivers said they were comfortable with the fit; I was too, at 6 feet tall. As for interior space, it's comparable to the Ford Escape, the most significant difference being in legroom: an inch less in the front but almost 4 inches more in the rear of the Patriot.
As expected, this cuts into the cargo volume behind the backseat: 23.0 cubic feet compared to the Escape's 29.2 cu. ft. The Patriot Sport's 60/40-split folding backseat is standard, and the Limited's backrests also recline. With backseats folded flat, the volume is 54.2 and 66.3 cu. ft. for the Patriot and Escape, respectively. Only with the front passenger seat folded (standard on Limited, optional on Sport) does the Patriot realize its maximum 62.7 cu. ft. cargo capacity.
Standard safety feature highlights include ABS with brake assist, an electronic stability system with traction control and side curtain airbags. Notable safety options include front-seat-mounted side-impact airbags designed to supplement the standard curtains with added torso protection, and a tire pressure monitoring system. As of this report, the Patriot has not been crash tested.
It may be offroadable, but the Patriot has the same shortcoming of most front-drive-based platforms: Its maximum towing capacity is a mere 2,000 pounds when equipped with the Trailer Tow package, which adds an engine-oil cooler as well as a trailer wiring harness. Without this option, the maximum trailer weight is 1,000 pounds.
Testing the Trail Rating
The CVT is your sole option if you choose the Freedom II Off-road Package. (The simpler 4WD is available with the stick.) By dropping the gear selector into the L position, also marked OFF ROAD, you change into Freedom II's additional low gear, which gives a 19:1 crawl ratio. Crawl I did — over boulders, ruts and tree limbs, giving the front and rear skid plates that come with this package a proper tryout. When properly equipped, the Patriot is definitely an off-roader. When in L, it seemed like the CVT had locked into a fixed gear ratio, so there was no unpredicted engine-revving funny business. An accompanying automatic change in the electronic throttle made for fine engine control.
In addition to the transfer case, which apportions power to the front and rear, four-wheel ABS-based traction control transfers it left and right, depending on which wheel has the most grip. While this always seems a wimpy way to do things, it's good enough for some other Jeep models, Land Rovers and similarly vaunted rock-crawlers. Compared to the Grand Cherokee's unflappable Quadra Drive II option, the brake-based control always brings more drama as the wheels alternately slip and then freeze, but the same can be said of this approach in other SUVs.
With Freedom Drive II and 17-inch wheels comes an increase of almost 1 inch in ride height for a minimum ground clearance of 9 inches. Instead of the rear axle, which is typically a truck's low point, the Patriot's unibody and four-wheel-independent suspension put the minimum clearance up front. The independent rear end exhibits drawbacks in some situations, where its suspension travel seems limited when compared to the solid, non-independent axles that purists prefer for off-roading. Having a wheel way up in the air, as in the photos, looks cool, but the lower it drops below the body, the greater the chance of getting purchase on the terrain.
Freedom Drive II includes hill-descent control, which helps you go down steep inclines by modulating the front and, particularly, the rear brakes. I didn't encounter an incline steep enough to warrant its use, and while traversing a patch of boulders it grunted away so incessantly that it seemed I was driving on the backs of hogs. Fortunately I figured out how to disable it.
When the uninitiated envision off-roading, they typically think of blasting down a sandy path at 40-plus mph, going sideways as often as forward and kicking up a smokescreen of dust, rally-race style. In truth, hardcore off-roading typically involves climbing slowly over obstacles and spending a whole day covering all of 5 miles. To my surprise, our offroad trail included a solid mile of sand, and I was able to, well, blast down a sandy path at 40-plus mph, going sideways as often as forward and kicking up a smokescreen of dust, rally-race style. Man, that's fun. (The stability system did its job, keeping everything nice and boring ... until I turned it off.) The Patriot made quick work of it, and I suspect the Off-road Package's augmented air filtration earned its keep.
Patriot in the Market
There's a lot to like about the Patriot. Even after you adjust the price to add the missing basic features — air conditioning, power windows, locks and side mirrors, etc. — it's pretty reasonably priced. As for its place in the market, this brand with ostensible SUV credibility is coming to this segment awfully late. At least a newfound interest in fuel economy is in its favor, particularly for a capable off-roader, most of which are heavy-duty and inefficient. That the Patriot can't tackle the toughest trails is irrelevant; knowing that one could go off-road has been more than enough to satisfy many an SUV buyer over the years. Authenticity — real or inferred — sells.
I was baffled that Jeep was building two models so similar in size and price off this platform. As it turns out, it's a good thing they did. The Compass itself is baffling enough. Before either came out, industry analysts and other random smarty pantses pondered if a lighter-duty model with Jeep's first-ever application of front-wheel drive would hurt the brand. The answer is no. A poorly executed model — of any configuration — would. Now at least buyers have an alternative.
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