First Drive: 2007 Jeep Patriot

2007 Jeep Patriot First Drive

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2007 Jeep Patriot SUV

(2.4L 4-cyl. 5-speed Manual)

Only one transmission away from a success

If you ever had any doubt that it's better to be the younger sibling, check out the 2007 Jeep Patriot.

The boxy 2007 Patriot compact SUV is the third vehicle the Chrysler Group has spun off its new small-car platform.

First there was the Dodge Caliber — the odd-looking hunchback hatchback with a cheap interior and lackluster performance. Then there was the Jeep Compass — a vehicle so utterly wrong-headed that, in the future, a Ph.D. candidate in marketing will write a thesis about it.

Fortunately the 2007 Jeep Patriot is the best of this otherwise dysfunctional family.

Rendezvous syndrome
Perhaps it's the Rendezvous syndrome at work here, but we like the Patriot's look. You'll recall that the Buick Rendezvous was the sibling of the Pontiac Aztek. So profound was the hideousness of the Aztek that the less ugly Rendezvous seemed almost acceptable.

It is also possible that our gender has predetermined our relative affection for the Patriot. Jeep says that the Patriot is the small crossover for men and the Compass is the one for the ladies. In truth, the Patriot is the Jeep crossover for people with functioning eyeballs and the Compass is only for those bent on making an ironic statement.

If the Patriot looks vaguely familiar, it's because this little ute is a sort of digitally remastered version of Jeep's old little ute, the Cherokee. The Patriot's flat body panels, relatively upright windshield and near-vertical rear glass make it a dead ringer for the 1984-2001 Cherokee.

This is obviously no coincidence. With an increasing number of small crossovers looking more and more like little minivans, the Patriot's strictly-business look gives it some distinction among its raft of competitors.

Dirty little boy
If you've made it this far in the story, we'll assume you are not a hard-core Jeeper and that you might not even know what a "locker" is. If you are and do, then stop reading now. You'll only scoff at what the following sentence says anyway.

The Patriot has class-leading off-road capability.

Yes, this is like saying that the Mazda MX-5 Miata has class-leading towing capacity, but bear with us. With shorter front and rear overhangs than most competitors and more than an inch more ground clearance (with the optional Off-Road Package), the Patriot has reasonably good approach, departure and break-over angles.

The Off-Road Package also includes skid plates, front and rear tow hooks, a full-size spare tire, a driver-side seat-height adjuster, a 1-inch-higher ride height, an engine oil cooler and a low-range transaxle.

This equipment group augments the Patriot's optional on-demand, electronically controlled four-wheel-drive system with hill descent control (which modulates the brakes automatically to maintain low speed on steep declines).

Maybe the Off-Road Package doesn't turn the Patriot into a rock-crawler, but it helps the little Jeepster easily traverse trails far nastier than most Patriot owners are likely to attempt.

The commuter
Ninety-nine-point-whatever percent of you will never take your vehicles off the pavement or even onto graded dirt roads. So you're more interested in the matchup between the Patriot and its roadworthy competition. The short answer is: better than the performance of the Caliber and Compass would indicate.

Two engines are available in the Patriot, both inline-4s. The base engine is a DOHC 2.0-liter four that makes 158 horsepower. True, that's a big number from a 2.0-liter engine, but it doesn't measure up to the power output of most of the competition's base engines, much less a two-wheel-drive Patriot's 3,108 pounds.

Further, the 2.0-liter is available only with a continuously variable transmission (CVT). This gearless unit seems to actually sap the power from this engine, and the combination doesn't improve fuel economy enough to be worth the trouble.

Meanwhile, the 2.4-liter version of the same engine pumps out 172 hp, besting Toyota and Honda's fours by 6 hp. This is the same engine that powered a 4WD Compass in a recent full test to 60 mph in 10.2 seconds. Since Compass and Patriot are the same under the skin, we expect a 3,326-pound 4WD Patriot Limited to deliver about the same performance. In comparison, an all-wheel-drive Honda CR-V with a four-cylinder engine just breaks the 10-second barrier.

As with the Compass and Caliber, a CVT is the only kind of automatic transmission that's available for the Patriot. Jeep says this version has been updated. But driving the Patriot with the CVT still feels very much like driving a car with a badly slipping clutch.

Under full throttle, the engine revs up to a raucous 6,000 rpm and nothing much else happens, as if the vehicle speed never quite catches up with the engine speed. There's a slight improvement in fuel economy over a conventional automatic, but this particular CVT doesn't seem as happy in its work as the examples we've seen in Nissan sedans.

Thankfully, a five-speed manual transmission is standard. The shift action isn't exactly sporty, though. You can't rush the synchros and a firm shove is required to slot it into gear, but at least the throttle response is direct and predictable.

Patriot games
Compared to the Compass, the Patriot has firmer suspension rates, and we like the ride even more.

Lots of acoustic insulation help keep the Patriot remarkably quiet, but the suspension also responds to the road surface without any clumsy clunking and thunking. The suspension also lends the Patriot a feeling of dependable stability when you're going down the road.

Of course, handling is a relative term for small-but-tall sport-utes. All of them understeer resolutely. Drive like your hair is not on fire and the Patriot is as good as it needs to be. It turns into a corner relatively leisurely, rolls a bit, takes a set and then does its job steadily through the rest of the corner.

Thinking inside the box
First, the good news: The interior design of the Patriot is handsome in a straightforward, upright sort of a way. By contrast, the inside of a RAV4 with all its bizarre curves and polyps is like hanging out inside H.R. Giger's head while he's having a nightmare.

The other good news is that the construction of the interior is not as embarrassingly cheap as the interiors of the Caliber and Compass are. It is merely cheap. Around the edges of some of the interior pieces there remains some flash — the plastic fringe you often see on cheap plastic things. The interior pull for the tailgate also has two sharp-edged exposed bolts that are good for trimming meat off your fingers.

According to Jeep's figures, the Patriot has as much or more rear-seat legroom than any of its main competitors. Our subjective experience, however, is that the rear seat feels tighter than that of competitors. Maybe it's because your feet are forced together beneath the narrow-set mounts for the front seats. Whatever, it doesn't feel very roomy back there.

The Patriot's relatively slim profile and a high load floor contribute to give the Patriot a paltry 54.2 cubic feet of stuff-space with the rear seats folded. This is 18.8 cubic feet smaller than the cargo hold of the RAV4. You might consider that the volume of the trunk of the Cadillac DTS is 18.8 cubic feet.

All Patriots come standard with side curtain airbags, antilock brakes, a stability control system and traction control.

Cheap Jeep
Jeep is trying to make headlines with the Patriot's absurdly low base MSRP of $14,985. This is between $1,000 and $6,000 lower than the base prices of its competitors.

But this price gets you a stripped-down Patriot, more like a CJ-5 than a Grand Cherokee. It's equipped with vinyl-covered seats, roll-up windows, no air-conditioning, a manual transmission, two-wheel drive and steel wheels. Fortunately this bare-bones Patriot comes with the 172-hp 2.4-liter four-cylinder, since the combination of the 2.0-liter engine and CVT is actually pricier.

Most Patriots will probably go for more like $20,000, with a few option packages and all-wheel drive. A fully loaded 2007 Jeep Patriot won't make it much beyond the mid-$20K range.

Now, if only a conventional automatic transmission were optional.

Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.

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