Part 1: A Faux Wheeler Joins The Company Stable
What? No transfer case? Have we gone soft in the head? OK, probably, but we're no strangers to all-wheel drive. It wasn't too long ago that Audis, and Subarus, and even Tercel Wagons (?) graced our pages regularly, and as more manufacturers transition from truck-based SUVs to unitbody crossovers, we've tried to stay abreast of the latest developments in the new trends and technology. Go with the flow or be left behind, and all that.
Enter the Jeep Patriot. Yes, it's a crossover, and yes, it has no low-range, and it even has four-wheel independent suspension. It is also, however, a Jeep, and it is Trail Rated. It has also been a bright light in an otherwise dark time for Chrysler, having been the second-best-selling vehicle in the Jeep product line over the past year. So when the folks at Chrysler asked us if we'd like to try testing one for ourselves for a year, we took them up on their offer.
The Patriot relies on the Chrysler 2.4L World four-cylinder engine and Jatco CVT2 transaxle to send power to the wheels. (You can get a Magna five-speed manual instead of the juicebox, but you lose the Freedom Drive II package.) Suspension is MacPherson struts up front, and links and coils in the rear. Four-wheel discs are standard, as are rack-and-pinion steering and stability control. On the road, we'll admit the somewhat buzzy and unrefined four-cylinder and "shiftless" CVT tranny drive us a little batty with what feels like a near-endless flat spot throughout the powerband, which then suddenly breaks free around 4,000 rpm. Then again, we've had no serious issues with keeping up in traffic, and mileage has been good (more later), so our gripes are likely more stylistic than substantive here; the Patriot isn't really a sluggish ride, it just feels that way at times.
In the dirt, the Patriot employs Jeep's Freedom Drive II all-wheel drive system, which makes use of brake traction control to mimic the action of a limited-slip on irregular terrain; an electronic "lock" function that splits torque delivery evenly, front to rear, at speeds below 10 mph; hill descent control; and a "low" toggle that recalibrates the CVT's gearing algorithms to deliver a 19:1 compound-low gear. The system is loud, with discernible levels of groaning brakes and solenoid pops, but it's unquestionably effective, as we discovered during a day in the San Marcos hills north of Santa Barbara. On hill climbs of loose dirt and shale, the Goodyear Wrangler GSAs would tend to pack up with sediment, inducing slippage and wheel hop; here, the traction control would quickly engage to provide additional torque loads to a non-spinning wheel. It's not elegant, but it does work. Suspension articulation? Er, not so much
The Patriot in FD II trim does receive full skidplating, as well as tow hooks front and rear, so when the terrain gets too challenging, getting unstuck is no more difficult than giving her a push or hooking up a strap. (You did go wheeling with a bud, right?)
The Patriot's once-plasticky interior, widely panned by the automotive press two years ago, has been smartly upgraded for 2009, with a greater abundance of soft-touch plastics and stainless accents amid all the injection molds, and a higher overall level of finish. Our tester, with slate gray interior trim, sports leather seats, a leather-wrapped wheel, uConnnect software and Sirius satellite tunes. It all comes at a price, however-that 2007 Patriot that ran a hair over 15 grand now costs $23,230 for 2009, and with the CVT transmission, Freedom Drive system, and Convenience packages, tops out at over $28,000 for our tester. That said, the Patriot is surprisingly roomy inside, with ample rear cargo capacity for a weekend's worth of camp gear.
That interior roominess comes at a trade-off, however, and in the case of the Patriot, it's the 13.5-gallon fuel tank that sees us stopping for fill-ups more often than we're accustomed too. On the other hand, mileage during our initial test period has gradually improved, with a test-best tankful just shy of 23 mpg logged on a recent freeway dash up the coast.
All told, the Patriot is slowly starting to grow on us. We've learned to live with its on-road stodginess, and unless we consider the Volvo XC-series and Land Rover's LR2, we'd be hard-pressed to name another midsize crossover we've driven recently that handles the number of off-pavement surfaces as well as the Patriot can---and it's a lot less expensive than those other rigs, even at $28K. If it were ours, we'd upgrade the shocks and (possibly) the tires-though the Wrangler SR-As are a good compromise tread for a mostly street-driven rig that sees dirt occasionally-and look into getting some sliders cobbled up; even with 9 inches of ground clearance, the Patriot could use a little added rocker-panel protection on rougher surfaces.
We'll confess, we're still carrying a torch for our recently departed babe-magnet Wrangler JK (wouldn't you?), but our '09 Patriot has been gentle on the rebound, delivering good fuel economy, utility around town, and competence on the trail. Sounds like a Jeep to us.
Report: 1 of 4
Base price: $23,230
Price as tested: $28,950
Four-wheel-drive system: Freedom Drive II AWD with brake traction control
Miles to date: 3,474
Average mpg (this report): 18.32
Test best tank (mpg): 22.67
Test worst tank (mpg): 14.88
This period: None
What's Hot, What's Not
Hot: Maneuverability, mileage, interior space
Not: Acceleration, gearing, engine noise
* "Dinky fuel tank requires frequent fill-ups."
* "Plenty of rear storage space for such a small vehicle.
* "Transmission feels like it's slipping all the time."
* "Suspension is nice on the highway."