General Motors and Chrysler failed to march to the altar, so Chrysler is now holding hands with Fiat.

Our concern is what will happen to the kids: Fiat, Lancia and Alfa Romeo and Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep.

When news broke that the two were interested in each other, we were piloting a 2009 Patriot SUV, the entry-level Jeep.

Would an alliance leave room for Patriot to be built with Jeep Compass and Dodge Caliber in Belvidere or will little Fiats replace one or all of them?

Too soon to tell. “We hope to finalize the pact with Fiat in April,” said Chrysler’s Dave Elshoff. “There should be no effect on current vehicles, but we aren’t near future product plans.

“There’s the opportunity for Fiat to take advantage of excess capacity here,” Elshoff continued.

Whatever happens, it would be wise to keep Patriot in the lineup.

The ’09 has a few shortcomings, one being that the 2.4-liter, 172-horsepower 4-cylinder is strong on mileage, a little weak on power. Those 172 horses act like Shetlands. On the interstate, Patriot needed a running start for some of the longer, steeper inclines.

And it had to step out of the way for 18-wheelers.

With its boxy slab side body panels, Patriot gets tossed and bumped a bit by the big boys and crosswinds.

On the plus side, the 2.4 is rated at 20 m.p.g. city/22 m.p.g. highway in the 4WD Patriot, which actually did a couple m.p.g. better for us on the highways of Wisconsin.

And things promise to get better. Chrysler has developed a concept version that travels in battery mode for up to 40 miles and then uses a small gas engine to power a generator to create electricity for 360 more miles before need to recharge/ refill. Hopefully that SUV or something similar will see the light of day around 2013.

But the best reason to keep Patriot is that sales rose 36 percent in 2008 as consumers swung to more fuel-efficient SUVs.

The compact is a card-carrying member of the go-anywhere Jeep family, at home off-road or on and not afraid to get wet or dirty.

One gripe with the 4WD system, however. To engage it, you pull a lever set too far back in the center console. Why hide such a vital control?

But once you get to 4WD, Patriot makes it soooo simple to slip into low for rugged off-roading. Slide the gearshift into “L,” off you go over hills and through sand. Hill-descent control limits speed down steep grades to keep you in control.

On clear pavement the suspension prevents unwanted jolts and the up-and-down jostling common in the less-refined Wrangler.

The cabin is fairly quiet, and rear-seat room is ample for two adults and one child. Oddly, front seat backs are well cushioned, rear ones a tad stiff.

Cargo room is good for a small family, but they’ll be stacking the luggage high for a lengthy trip. Rear seat backs split and fold to hold more cargo, though at the expense of passengers.

The stain-repellant cloth in the seats in the preferred package ($2,175) does as advertised except against shoe scuffs.

Patriot tested starts at $18,540 with stability control with roll mitigation control, side-curtain air bags, anti-lock brakes, rear-window washer/wiper/defroster, air conditioning and AM/FM radio with in-dash CD player.

Read Jim Mateja Sunday in Rides. Contact him at trans

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