When people ask why Chrysler ended up in bankruptcy court, I say it was a history of too little, too late. The Patriot is as good an example of this phenomenon as any Chrysler product.
Today's top-selling compact crossover SUVs — which are also among the best — have been on the market for many years, proving that it pays for an automaker to start early and refine its product. With the Patriot, Jeep started late and hasn't done enough to catch up. It's a competent vehicle with above-average off-road potential, but it doesn't live up to the best this class has to offer, including top-sellers and recent redesigns from Chevrolet and Hyundai.
Driving the Patriot
The Patriot's smaller engine — a 158-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder — is technically an option on the Patriot Sport with front-wheel drive, which subtracts $200 from its suggested retail price. Either engine comes with a standard five-speed manual transmission. Our test vehicle had the primary engine, a 172-hp, 2.4-liter four-cylinder paired with an optional continuously variable automatic transmission — certainly the most popular choice.
The Patriot accelerates reasonably quickly, though it's no performance car. This isn't a class known for its acceleration, and for a model carrying the extra weight of four-wheel drive, ours was reasonably quick. However, the CVT — chosen for its fuel-saving properties — has drawbacks. For one, under heavy acceleration it allows the engine to rev higher more quickly than a conventional automatic might, and it holds the high engine speeds as the car accelerates, squeezing out all available power. This results in more noise, at unexpected times, which people tend to interpret as "straining." High-revving engines aren't straining, they're just working. But it's a characteristic to which drivers haven't warmed over the years.
What doesn't help in the Patriot's case is a somewhat noisy engine. Even at low speeds it exhibits a faint chugga-chugga, like a distant diesel, as it revs, and the noise penetrates the cabin. The CVT isn't as refined as some: It could be quicker to deliver passing power on demand, and I detected a consistent, repeatable clunk when letting off the accelerator at roughly 20 mph, as you do frequently when driving from one stop sign to another on side streets. It was probably the torque converter unlocking. I noticed the same thing in a four-cylinder Nissan Altima, but it was much less apparent there.
While I've found Nissan's CVTs more refined, I noticed a different problem — significant vibration — in the Suzuki Kizashi I reviewed last year. All the CVTs I've mentioned are supplied by Jatco of Japan, so it may be an issue of integration. Still, some manufacturers have abandoned CVTs for conventional transmissions and dual-clutch automated manuals with six or more gears, which also provide a wide range of gear ratios. I've come to question how much of a future there is for CVTs.
Ride & Handling
Compact crossovers may be car-based, but they don't ride like cars. With this in mind, the Patriot's ride quality is decent — better than the firm-riding Honda CR-V, but not close to the Ford Escape, which I consider the high-water mark for ride comfort in this class.
Despite a tendency to wander a bit at highway speeds, steering is acceptable, and handling is pretty good — definitely more tidy than that of the Hyundai Tucson. Again, this isn't a car, and you feel the high center of gravity, even in the Limited trim level, which has 8.1 inches of ground clearance. When equipped with the Freedom Drive II Off-Road Package, the Patriot's ground clearance is 9 inches.
Off-roading is the Patriot's biggest advantage. Without getting into heavy-duty truck-based models like the Jeep Liberty or Wrangler, the Patriot has few peers among car-based crossovers. The Land Rover LR2 is one, but it's a luxury model priced above $35,000. The Subaru Forester is capable of duty beyond the basic off-pavement trail, but it lacks the additional low gear that facilitates climbing steep inclines and scrambling over larger obstacles. Unlike our test car's Freedom Drive I, which is mainly a hands-off four-wheel-drive system with a manually lockable center coupling for tougher scenarios, Freedom Drive II lets you select a crawl gear. It's not technically a dual-range transfer case, because it uses the CVT's broad range to provide the 19:1 ratio, but the effect is the same. I drove the Patriot off road after its debut and was impressed.
Unfortunately, off-roading is important only to a minority, even among Jeep buyers, which doesn't make for much of a competitive advantage in the real world. What's important to the majority is a vehicle's interior, and this is a definite disadvantage in the Patriot. In terms of space, it's fine. I would have liked a little more legroom in the driver's seat, but it was workable, and the headroom is good, front and rear, especially when compared with less-boxy competitors. Its backseat legroom is above average, and in a compact crossover you really appreciate that. The Patriot is a few inches narrower than most competitors, which is a problem only if you try to fit three people in the backseat — in or out of child-safety seats. (Actually, it's a problem if you try to fit three people into the backseat of virtually anything other than a minivan, full-size SUV or the equivalent.)
Where the Patriot falls flat is in interior quality, from the noise to the materials quality. In addition to the aforementioned engine noise, there's tire and wind noise, the latter likely a tradeoff for the Patriot's boxy shape. I kept finding myself driving below the speed limit. Only one thing causes that: the impression that I'm going faster than I actually am. The only thing I've known to cause that is noise.
The Patriot came out in 2007 with interior quality that was barely competitive at the time, which is always bad news because competitors are sure to leapfrog you. Right on cue, Honda redesigned its CR-V for 2007 and Nissan joined the fray in 2008 with the Rogue, which now outsells the Patriot by an almost 3-to-1 ratio. Jeep made some interior upgrades in 2009 that improved matters, but it wasn't enough. Intros and redesigns continued, including such knockouts as the redesigned Forester, Chevrolet Equinox and Tucson.
The center armrest feels rickety and cheap when you open the storage compartment. There's less gloss on the plastics, but there's still a lot of hard, plasticky stuff. As a result, the Patriot looks in need of an interior redo. Toyota's RAV4 is in the same boat; it's long been in need of a redesign.
Along with design, quality is in the eye of the beholder, but once you get enough beholders in agreement, there's less room for argument. We had the Patriot at the same time as the Equinox, CR-V and Tucson, and there was no denying the Jeep made the worst impression, even though the Patriot we had was a top trim level and the others weren't.
Blind to the Value
As equipped, our test Patriot Limited 4x4's price was $29,700, and people found that hard to stomach. Dig deeper, and you find the base price for this trim is $24,550, which is a bit lower than that of the CR-V's and Tucson's higher trim levels (see them compared). The roughly $5,000 difference amounted to our Patriot's long list of options, including the automatic transmission, a moonroof and a premium stereo with unique flip-down rear speakers in the liftgate. There's also remote start, Bluetooth phone connectivity, HomeLink, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, a cargo cover, roof-rack crossbars, a readout for the tire pressure monitoring system and more. The in-dash multimedia system included a well-executed navigation system with a free year of Sirius Traffic Service. It also featured both analog and digital jacks for playing and controlling audio sources and for loading songs and photos onto the onboard hard disk drive.
It's actually a lot of features for the money, but there's such a disconnect between the price and the perception of quality that people seemed blind to the value of the added options. If this doesn't illustrate the importance of aesthetic quality, nothing will.
When equipped with the optional front-seat-mounted side-impact airbags in addition to the standard side curtain airbags, the Patriot is one of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's top-rated compact SUVs, behind only the Honda Element. That means it ranks above every other model mentioned in this review, and it's one of only four Top Safety Picks among small SUVs. Along with Good scores in front-, side- and rear-impact crash tests, the Top Pick distinction requires a Good rating in the roof-strength test, which all five best-sellers lack. Jeep ought to go ahead and make the optional side airbags standard, because the side-impact rating is Marginal without it; at least they're available as a stand-alone option for $250.
Antilock brakes are standard, but the front-drive Sport trim level has rear drums. All other Patriots have four-wheel discs. An electronic stability system with traction control is also standard. To see a list of all the Patriot's safety features, click here.
Patriot in the Market
The Patriot isn't Jeep's worst vehicle (that would be the Compass, a rounded-off on-road model that shares the Patriot's platform and shortcomings but none of its strengths), but the Patriot is not Jeep's best vehicle. It has found its buyers — mainly Jeep loyalists who don't want the bulk or fuel costs of a traditional Jeep — and it will continue to, but the compact crossover class is more crowded and competitive than ever.
Our owner reviews and the emails we receive are predominated by people who have owned many Jeeps and admittedly love Jeeps. In their view, the Patriot is A-OK. What we don't see much of are consumers who don't care one way or another about Jeeps and bought one anyway after testing many competing models. Occasionally even a Jeep fan will admit to regarding the front-wheel-drive-based model as a travesty on philosophical grounds alone.
When the Patriot made its debut in the 2007 model year, the RAV4 had been around for 11 years, the CR-V 10 years and the Escape six years. I'm tempted to defend the Patriot as a latecomer that needs time to grow. After all, the Equinox and Tucson (both introduced in 2005) didn't set the world on fire, either. But both of these models made huge leaps with their recent redesigns. The Patriot hasn't, and time to grow is time that Jeep doesn't have.
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