- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 8, 2007

Will the real Jeep please stand up?

Time was, everybody knew the real Jeep. It was the original go-anywhere scout car — first delivered to the U.S. military in 1941 — along with its many successors, including today’s Wrangler.

It was built by Willys Overland, and even by Ford, eventually landing with American Motors before that company succumbed to Chrysler, and now to DaimlerChrysler.

Over the years, there were civilian versions, but in the main Jeeps stuck to the brand’s heritage of providing trucklike ruggedness with superior all-terrain capabilities. As recently as 2004, there were only three Jeeps: the iconic Wrangler, the compact Liberty and the midsize Grand Cherokee.

Now there are four additional models: the seven-passenger Commander, the four-door Wrangler Unlimited, the compact Compass and the subject here, the 2007 Patriot.

Purists may argue that some of these are not real Jeeps at all. To take advantage of the burgeoning interest in the new breed of car-based crossover utility vehicles (CUVs), the Jeep people developed softer models: the Compass and versions of the Patriot.

Jeeps now are identified as “trail rated” — or not. Exclusively in that category are the four-wheel-drive Wranglers, the Liberty, Grand Cherokee and Commander. No Compass carries the badge.

The Patriot, which comes both ways, is the newest Jeep, and surprisingly the least expensive, priced below the Compass and Wrangler.

A model aimed strictly at fuel economy bragging rights is the front-drive Sport with a 158-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine and a continuously variable transmission (CVT).

A CVT operates with belts and pulleys, has no shift points, and delivers fuel economy similar to that of a manual gearbox. On the Patriot, that version gets 26/30 miles to the gallon on the new EPA city/highway cycles, which have been adjusted to reflect real-world mileage.

Most Patriots, however, are powered by Chrysler’s 172-horsepower, 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine, mated to either the CVT or a five-speed manual gearbox.

Both Sport and Limited models come with front-drive or one of two four-wheel-drive systems, dubbed Freedom I and Freedom II. Both are full-time systems that send the power to the wheels that need it.

They also have a mode that locks to apportion the power 50-50 between the front and rear wheels at low speeds. Above about 30 mph, the system automatically switches back to the all-wheel-drive mode, with up to 90 percent of the power going to the front wheels.

The Freedom II system, in addition, has a low range for serious off-road duty, and it is classified by Jeep as “trail rated.” On the tested Patriot Sport 4X4, the system demonstrated that it imparts the off-road capability that has long been associated with real Jeeps.

In low range, it easily climbed over rocks and hillocks, even with some of the wheels high up and grabbing only air.

The Freedom II off-road package also includes front and rear skid plates, and a hill descent control that automatically applies the brakes on downhill grades. It can be switched off for drivers who prefer to do their own braking.

Standard equipment on the Sport includes antilock brakes, brake assist, five-speed manual gearbox, stability control, side-curtain air bags, an AM/FM/CD stereo, and a tilt (but not telescoping) steering wheel.

To get such common items as air conditioning, power windows and locks, remote locking and cruise control, you have to order option packages.

The test Patriot carried those options, along with air conditioning, the CVT, Freedom II, alloy wheels and Chrysler’s excellent YES Essentials stain-free cloth upholstery. So equipped, the sticker price came to $21,730.

The Patriot most resembles the defunct Jeep Cherokee sport wagon, which was introduced in 1984 and which many people believe was the best-proportioned and best-looking of the Jeep wagons.

At 14 feet 11 inches, the Patriot has tidy exterior dimensions but generous interior space that is designed to be functional. The cargo area has a washable plastic floor and 23 cubic feet of cargo space. The rear seatbacks, along with the front passenger seatback, fold flat so you can carry an 8-foot stepladder with the tailgate closed.

The front seats are comfortable, with good support, and there’s room in back for two average-sized adults. The center-rear position, though it has a three-point seat belt, lacks a head rest, and there’s no place for that passenger’s feet except to straddle a tunnel and two ridiculously placed cup holders.

Even with its off-road prowess, the tested Sport performed admirably on the highway. It tracked true on the straight sections, and handled curves with little body lean.

With the CVT, the engine emits rasping noises under hard acceleration. The sounds are muted and more pleasant with the slick-shifting standard five-speed manual gearbox. Wind noise is minimal.

Though some purists will consider only the Patriot with the Freedom II off-road package to be a real Jeep, that system is needed only by people who engage in serious bashing around in the boondocks.

For the rest, either the all-wheel-drive Freedom I system or the plain front-drive model likely will do just fine — real Jeep or not.

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