Friday, February 29, 2008

When push came to shove, even Jeep decided it needed a crossover in its lineup to stay competitive and grudgingly gave us the Compass. That meant diluting its brand, but how else do you compete in a marketplace that all too often rewards style over substance?

In truth, even the most off-road-capable SUVs never stray off the asphalt; so why spend the extra money at the point of sale and at the gas pump required by all that 4-low gearing bric-a-brac?

But when you are Jeep and your brand is highly recognized the world over for off-road prowess, going soft doesn’t come easy. Anyone thinking that it’s toe dipping into the luke-warm water of the car-based crossover was going to lead to a baptism into full-fledged wimpiness just doesn’t get Jeep.

Last year Jeep introduced the Patriot as an entry-level compact SUV that’s more price competitive than the Liberty. It does utilize a front-wheel-drive platform, but those with off-road aspirations shouldn’t let the location of its primary drive wheels put them off — read on. Its shipping crate shape is a throwback to the Cherokee — all square corners and sharp angles.

Okay, so its designers missed their turn at the wind tunnel; the Patriot looks like a Jeep. It may be aerodynamically challenged, but svelte has less importance in the world of SUVs, particularly off-road-capable ones.

When outfitted with its Freedom Drive II off-road package, featuring 4-low gearing, skid plates and nine inches of ride height, the Patriot can tackle the toughest terrain. Jeep calls it “Trail Rated,” which translates into “right out of the box it can negotiate the entire Rubicon Trail.” That’s no small feat.

Those who want to look the part, but have no intention of ever trail crawling can get into the 4 x 2 Sport for as little as $16,035. This is about as austere as a hardtop Jeep gets. It does have air conditioning, cruise control and a four-speaker audio system with CD player and auxiliary input jack for personal music devices.

The seats are covered in exotic vinyl (Leatherette, Jeep calls it), and the door locks and windows are manually operated. Anti-lock disc brakes, traction control and emergency braking assist are standard on all Patriots.

The engine of choice is a 172-horsepower 2.4-liter four. It can be bolted to either a five-speed manual or a continuously variable (CVT) transmission. The five-speed is a lot more fun to drive. Either can be used if the $1,750 4WD is added. Fuel economy is decent. The 4 x 2 delivers an Environmental Protection Agency rating of 24 mpg city and 27 mpg highway. Going with 4WD knocks a couple of miles per gallon from 4 x 2’s city performance.

The four banger is sufficient to get the Patriot up and rolling in good order. It won’t have passengers white-knuckling their way down the highway, but acceleration is brisk. Not particularly athletic, over pavement the Patriot is better suited to cruising than attacking back-road twisties. It is an SUV after all. Its four-wheel independent suspension features MacPherson struts up front and a multi-link arrangement in the rear. It maintains a high degree of calm on paved surfaces.

Inside things unravel a bit. Fit and finish is hit and miss. All of the controls are easy to find and simple to operate; however, they are surrounded by scads of plastic that Jeep has made no effort to disguise. Controls for the audio system are high up in the center of the dashboard where they should be.

Three large round knobs operate the climate control. There are plenty of places — compartments, cubbies and whatnot — to store things. There isn’t a tremendous amount of cargo room (23 cubic feet) with the split/folding rear seat in its upright position. This grows to 54 cubic feet when the rear seat is folded out of the way. Most cowboys will be able to drive with their hats on thanks to 41-inches of headroom.

Sprucing up the cabin in one easy stroke can be achieved by spending another $4,700 for the Limited trim. While it enhances some exterior items, such as replacing the Sport’s 16-inch steel wheels with 17-inch alloys, the Limited also gussies up the cabin with leather seating, reclining rear seat, heated front seats, power accessories and a leather-wrapped steering wheel with redundant audio controls.

Opting for the $495 Boston Acoustics speaker package not only raises the speaker count to nine, it includes a subwoofer and two rear liftgate-mounted speakers that can be folded down when the gate is open, providing entertainment for tailgating.

Far from the most sophisticated SUV in the compact arena, the Patriot does offer decent value, wildly competent off-road potential and the Jeep name.

Sure a little more effort could have been put into the cabin, but at the Patriot’s price point, the bottom line is more important than the length of the passenger conveniences list. “Entry level” is the key to appreciating the Patriot.

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