For the money, the all-new Jeep Patriot just might be the best SUV bargain on the market.

With a 2008 starting price of $16,035, including freight, you'll get a nicely styled Sport model that looks a lot like the old Jeep Cherokee, and is even about the same size. This vehicle was introduced for 2007 at a price just over $15,000, but the base price has grown $925 after a year on the market. (Our tester was the 2007 base model, whose sticker price was $15,110.

At the base price, the Patriot lacks a few of the amenities that more-expensive vehicles offer, such as power windows, mirrors and door locks.

But it does include a lot more standard equipment than you would expect for such a great price, including air conditioning, an AM/FM/compact-disc player with iPod connection, and great safety features such as electronic stability control, antilock brakes, traction control, and even side-curtain air bags for both rows of seats.

The starting price brings the Patriot with front-wheel drive, so it's not suitable for rugged off-roading. It also has a five-speed manual gearbox.

You can tack on a continuously variable automatic transmission for an additional $1,100. Extras such as power windows, mirrors and door locks (with remote) come in a $2,225 package that also brings tinted glass, reclining front bucket seats, a 60/40 split-folding rear seat, illuminated entry, front map lights, cruise control, and even Chrysler's new Yes Essentials stain-resistant cloth seats.

Add the automatic transmission and options package to the base price, and you'll get a downright fancy Patriot for $19,350, which still is a bargain in a market where the typical midsize SUV starts in the mid-$20,000s. Even some compact models about the size of the Patriot - or smaller -- begin well above $20,000.

Our test vehicle was the base model with the manual gearbox and crank windows, and I was fine with that - especially at a price comparable to that of a much smaller car such as a Toyota Corolla or Honda Civic.

For everyday city driving, I probably would add just the automatic transmission, making the total price $17,135.

You can get a base four-wheel-drive Sport model for $17,785, including the amenities standard on the two-wheel-drive Sport model. It comes with the Freedom I drive system, which is suitable for foul-weather and limited off-road driving. Adding the automatic and options package to this would take the price up to $21,110, but you would have a vehicle equipped as well as some of the other compact crossover-style SUVs that cost in the mid-$20,000s.

For serious off-roading, you can upgrade to the Freedom Drive II system, which has low-range gearing that allows the Patriot to receive Jeep's coveted Trail Rated designation.

Unlike other Jeep off-road systems, though, the Patriot's Freedom Drive II does not have a separate transfer case that allows the transmission to operate in low range. Instead, the special off-road automatic transmission has a low first gear (19:1 ratio) that is similar to the first gear of a Jeep Wrangler operating in low range. With the Patriot shifted into this low gear, it will crawl at less than 5 mph. This transmission is $1,050, and comes in place of the one offered on two-wheel-drive models.

Adding this off-road system, along with some required upgrades, will tack on about $3,600 to the base price. But then the Patriot can be driven on such routes as the Rubicon Trail, the legendary off-road course through the Sierra Nevada range in Northern California. This is where all off-road-capable Jeep vehicles are tested to make sure they can qualify for the Trail Rated designation.

The top Patriot model is the Limited, priced at $20,755 for two-wheel drive and $22,505 with the Freedom Drive I four-wheel-drive system. This model includes most of the items that are optional on the Sport, although the automatic transmission is still an add-on, as it the Freedom Drive II system ($745). Leather upholstery is standard.

With the Freedom Drive II upgrade, you'll get some other extras that help with off-roading, such as a locking differential, underbody skid plates, full-size spare tire, tow hooks, all-terrain tires, 17-inch alloy wheels, and hill-descent control. Patriot models with the Trail Rated designation come with a one-inch higher ground clearance (9 inches), which helps negotiate rocks and other obstacles on the trail.

As an off-road explorer, I'd prefer the Freedom Drive II system, but I could live without the other extras, such as power windows and door locks. The only item on that $2,225 options package that I would miss would be the cruise control, which is nice for long highway trips.

The styling of the Patriot is quite Jeeplike, even though this vehicle is built on the same architecture as that of the Dodge Caliber and Jeep Compass hatchbacks. Chrysler has taken this platform and turned it into a vehicle that is every bit as good as the original Cherokee, which debuted in the early 1980s and hung around until it was replaced by the Liberty for 2002.

The second-generation Liberty, new for 2008, has styling quite similar to that of the Patriot, but is slightly larger and more powerful, not to mention more expensive - with a starting price nearly $4,000 more than that of the Patriot. The Liberty has a 3.7-liter V-6 engine with 210 horsepower.

Under the hood of the Patriot is the same 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine found in a variety of Chrysler products, including the Caliber, Compass, midsize Dodge Avenger and Chrysler Sebring sedans, and the Chrysler PT Cruiser wagon.

It's Chrysler's new "world engine," and is rated at 172 horsepower and 165 foot-pounds of torque.

EPA fuel-economy ratings, using the new, more-realistic 2008 formula, are 23 miles per gallon in the city and 27 highway with two-wheel drive and the manual transmission, and 21 city/25 highway with the automatic. Four-wheel-drive models are rated at 22/27 (manual) and 20/24 (automatic).

The Compass and Patriot come standard with front-wheel drive, while two-wheel-drive versions of the Liberty, Jeep Grand Cherokee, seven-passenger Jeep Commander, and Wrangler Unlimited come with rear drive.

Some off-road purists complain that Chrysler is weakening its Jeep brand by introducing models that aren't what they would call real Jeeps, and they include both the Patriot and Compass in their argument. But as I've said before, anything that helps keep the Jeep brand financially healthy, such as volume sales of different Jeep-branded vehicles, is a good thing.

The Patriot and Compass are designed to help move the Jeep brand into the mainstream, so Chrysler can continue to develop and produce niche vehicles such as the Wrangler and the new four-door Wrangler Unlimited model that arrived for 2007. The slightly smaller Compass is not Trail Rated in any form, but it does offer a basic all-wheel-drive system that is useful for limited off-road driving, such as on improved dirt roads in our national and state parks.

Because of both its pricing and styling, the Patriot should appeal to those who once bought the Cherokee. A lot more people will be able to afford a Patriot than a similarly equipped Liberty.

The Patriot has the traditional round Jeep headlights and seven-slot grille, the boxy Jeep side view with trapezoidal wheel openings, a clamshell hood, and what Jeep calls "robust" bumpers. It is, Jeep says, the "latest iteration of the Jeep classic design." Its styling also is similar to that of the full-size, seven-passenger Commander, whose own styling was based on that of the Cherokee and the earlier Jeep Wagoneer models.

The Patriot seats five, and even rear passengers have decent legroom.

Power is more than sufficient for a vehicle of this size, although consumers who like to accelerate quickly and drive fast probably wouldn't be satisfied. For my own tastes, though, the 2.4-liter engine is just fine.

The Patriot is built in the same Chrysler factory as the Compass and Caliber, in Belvidere, Ill.

At a Glance: 2008 Jeep Patriot

The package: Compact, five-door, five-passenger, four-cylinder, front- or four-wheel-drive crossover utility vehicle.

Highlights: This is all-new vehicle joined the Jeep lineup for 2007, with styling and a size similar to the discontinued Jeep Cherokee. It is based on the architecture of the Dodge Caliber and Jeep Compass hatchbacks, and has good power, decent fuel economy, a roomy interior, and great Jeeplike styling.

Negatives: No engine upgrade offered for those who want more power.

Engine: 2.4-liter inline four-cylinder.

Transmissions: Five-speed manual; choice of two continuously variable automatics (on- and off-road versions).

Power/torque: 172 HP/165 foot-pounds.

Length: 173.6 inches.

Curb weight: 3,108-3,326 pounds.

Cargo volume: 23 cubic feet (behind rear seat); 53.6 cubic feet (rear seat folded).

Trailer towing capacity: 2,000 pounds (with factory tow package); 1,000 pounds (without tow package).

Brakes, front/rear: Disc/disc, antilock.

Electronic stability control: Standard.

Side air bags: Side curtain standard, both rows.

Fuel capacity/type: 13.6 gallons/unleaded regular (13.5 gallons with all-wheel drive)/unleaded regular.

EPA fuel economy (2008 formula) : 23 miles per gallon city/27 highway (manual, 2WD); 21 city/25 highway (CVT, 2WD); 22 city/27 highway (manual, 4WD); 20 city/24 highway (CVT, 4WD).

Major competitors: Scion xB, Subaru Forester, Suzuki SX4, Kia Rondo, Nissan Versa five-door.

Base price range: $15,475-$21,945 plus $560 freight.

Price as tested: $16,035 including freight (2WD, manual).

On the Road rating: 8.4 (of a possible 10).

G. Chambers Williams III is staff automotive columnist for the San Antonio Express-News and former transportation writer for the Star-Telegram. Contact him at chambers@star-telegram.com.