I suppose you can't blame Jeep for wanting to make hay while the sun shines. After years of being limited to only a few models, we now have the Jeep Commander, Jeep Compass, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Jeep Liberty, Jeep Wrangler, and now the latest addition, the Jeep Patriot.

We are, then, looking at some narrowing niches, especially with the Patriot and the Compass. Beneath the skin, they are near-twins, both based on the Dodge Caliber platform. When I asked a company representative why they thought they needed both the Compass and the Patriot, he said that in early consumer clinics, women seemed to like the Compass, men preferred the Patriot. Rather than choose one, Jeep decided to build both.

The central difference, aside from the Patriot's slightly more macho, squared-off styling, is that while the Compass makes no pretense about the fact that it is strictly a car-based "crossover" SUV with no real off-road talent, Jeep suggests that the Patriot, properly equipped, is at least moderately "trail-rated," which is the Jeep term for backwoods ability. To be trail-rated, you need to opt for the "Off-Road Group" on the Patriot options list, which gives you all-wheel-drive, underbody skid plates, low-range gearing, different tires and wheels and other rugged accouterments.

Our test Patriot was strictly a city slicker, with front-wheel-drive and plenty of comfort features. Not a poser, exactly, but for a Jeep, it was pretty mild-mannered. It was the base Sport model, with the Limited being the more upscale version.

Still, the Patriot was nicely appointed, but its sticker price, $20,215, was a long way from the starting price of $14,425. For that, you don't even get air conditioning, but you do get antilock brakes, side and side curtain airbags, electronic stability control, traction control, a tilt steering wheel and a decent AM/FM stereo with CD player.

Our Patriot had a "preferred" package that, for $2,350, added air conditioning; power mirrors, locks and windows; keyless entry; and a few other features. Seventeen-inch tires and wheels were $580, a towing preparation group was $130 -- that didn't include a hitch -- and another package combined a lot of small items such as daytime running lights, a trip computer, a garage-door opener and a security alarm for $830. Floor mats were $30, the CVT transmission, which replaces the standard five-speed manual, was $1,050, and with $560 in shipping, we're a little over $20,000. See how quick that happens?

The CVT, or continuously variable transmission, works like an automatic, but doesn't have a set number of four, five or six gears. You just shift into drive, press the accelerator, and the 2.4-liter, 172-horsepower four-cylinder engine goes to work with the mild drone that we've become accustomed to hearing with CVTs. Certain manufacturers, such as Chrysler and Nissan, are sold on CVTs, but I still prefer a transmission that shifts. Of course, someone who was raised on the never-shifting CVT might hop in a regular automatic transmission-equipped car and wonder, "Why is it jerking like that?" To each his own.

The test Patriot, a 2007 model, is essentially identical to a 2008, but for one thing: Our 2007 still carried the old EPA mileage rating of 24 mpg city, 27 highway. The 2008 model is rated at 21 mpg city, 25 mpg highway. There's no difference in the vehicle, only in the ratings method. The Patriot is offered with a 2.0-liter four-cylinder, but I haven't driven one with that engine -- the majority you'll find on dealer lots will have the 2.4.

On the road, the Patriot is pretty much what you'd expect: A reasonably roomy, nicely conceived SUV that seats four adults in moderate comfort, five in less comfort. The interior, with lots of faux-aluminum trim, is handsome and functional. Instruments and controls look and feel like the ones on the Dodge Caliber, as they should, since they're the same. The cloth-covered bucket seats were a little on the thin side, but otherwise supportive and comfortable. Upgrade to the Patriot Limited and you can deck out the interior with a navigation system, leather upholstery and a power sunroof, but you could also find the sticker price nudging $25,000.

The problem with the Patriot is not the vehicle itself, but with its competition. It plays in one of the toughest leagues in the business, as lots of manufacturers have solid small SUVs in the $20,000 range. The Jeep name carries more than its share of cache, and that should help give the Patriot a leg up.

Sentinel Automotive Editor Steven Cole Smithcan be reached at scsmith@orlandosentinel.com.