The Jeep Patriot is unmistakably a Jeep. It looks like a cross between a Jeep Liberty and Jeep Compass; or maybe a three-quarter scale version of the big Jeep Commander.
The Patriot is one of two compact SUVs Jeep launched for the 2007 model year. Both the Patriot and the Compass are based on a car platform (also used for the Dodge Caliber hatchback).
The Patriot has plenty of room inside. There's 39.4 inches of legroom in the back seat, nearly an inch more than what's found in the Honda CR-V, even though the Honda is four inches longer than the Jeep. Patriot's 60/40 split rear seat folds flat, and a flat-folding front passenger seat is optional; with all the seats flat, you can slide an eight-foot kayak inside.
Powered by a modern and economical 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine, the Jeep Patriot gets an EPA-rated 23/28 mpg City/Highway. The 2.4-liter engine makes 172 horsepower and 165 pound-feet of torque, and that's plenty. Put the pedal down while cruising uphill at 75 miles per hour and it will accelerate. It make a bit more noise than we'd like under heavy throttle, despite additional sound deadening material for 2009. The optional Continuously Variable Transaxle works well and we found the Auto Stick manual shift feature useful.
We found the Patriot light and nimble on twisty roads and when maneuvering around town. Turn-in is sharp. The body is well isolated from the wheels: You can hear the tires hitting the expansion strips on the freeway, but you can't feel it. The independent suspension works well. During a long day of driving on patchy two-lanes, hard-packed dirt roads, sandy off-road trails, shallow rivers and deep gullies, it delivered steadiness and comfort in every abusive situation.
The Patriot is available with front-wheel drive or a choice of two all-wheel-drive systems, one that Jeep qualifies as Trail Rated. Those who like to go off-road should choose the Trail Rated Freedom II AWD system. With the CVT in low range, Hill Descent Control is automatically engaged. This keeps the Patriot under 5 mph and under control, going down steep hills, even icy ones. You can take both feet off the pedals and it will do its thing, a feature associated with expensive Land Rovers.
For 2009, Jeep redesigned Patriot's interior, with a new dashboard and instrument panel, soft-touch surfaces on the door armrests and center console, and a carpeted load floor instead of vinyl. While the new design is a step up versus the cut-rate feel of the last version, it is still largely plastic and doesn't offer a rich or warm feel.
Also for 2009, the Patriot adds a new model called Rocky Mountain and that aforementioned sound insulation is added to the engine compartment and floor. The Sport model gets revised suspension tuning for a more comfortable ride, and Jeep's UConnect Tunes and UConnect GPS systems are offered for the first time.
The Patriot is unmistakably a Jeep. It looks more like a Jeep than the stylish Grand Cherokee or the Compass do. The windshield and backlight are relatively vertical. The tailgate does not have separate opening glass.
Up front, the iconic seven-slot grille is flanked by round headlights. The bumpers are defined and not molded into the fascia. They're silver on the Limited and body color on the Sport; we think the Sport is cleaner looking.
The Jeep Patriot is considered a compact. It is built on the platform of the Dodge Caliber, but you'd never know it, because it doesn't look that small. It's almost exactly the same size as the new Jeep Compass but it looks more rugged, lacking the rounded edges of the gentrified Compass. It looks more like a Liberty, or maybe like a baby Commander. It's classic, the way a Jeep should be.
The standard wheels are steel. Attractive aluminum wheels are standard on the Rocky Mountain and Limited models and optional for the Sport. The vehicle looks much better with the aluminum wheels.
The seating position is high in the Patriot, two inches higher than in the Dodge Caliber; with the upright windshield, the forward visibility inspires confidence. The Jeep Patriot Sport's standard front seats have manual adjustment and come with cloth upholstery. They're OK, but the optional material called YES Essentials, which is stain, odor and static resistant, fits this Jeep's character better. The leather upholstery in the Limited is great, but it seems to overdress the Patriot.
Due to complaints that the original interior was too plasticky and cheap, Jeep has revamped the interior for 2009, giving it a new dash, a reworked instrument cluster and padding on the center console and door armrests. The new dash is black instead of tan or gray and it has nicer graining and a more attractive shape, but it is still hard plastic. The center stack trades a cheap-looking silver plastic face for matching black and adds some nice chrome trim.
The cabin layout is functional and roomy. Despite the addition of some new sound insulation, the doors sound tinny when you close them. The new dashboard and instrument layout is simple, and the gauges are a tidy white on black with glowing orange needles. The climate and sound system controls are easy to understand and operate. Jeep says the available UConnect Tunes system can hold up to 6700 songs, which can be ripped from a CD or USB memory stick.
The space between the seats includes a nook for change or cell phones, two fixed cupholders, and the parking brake lever. The center console is split for two levels of storage and is now padded.
The door pockets are on the small side, but they can hold six CD cases; much of the space is taken up by the six- by nine-inch speakers. The door handles are easy to use. There's a nice tray over the good-sized glove compartment that's big enough for books.
The Patriot is more than four inches shorter than the Honda CR-V. It has a healthy 39.4 inches of rear leg room, nearly an inch more than the Honda. The Patriot's sister, the Compass, is just as roomy.
The standard rear seat is a 60/40 split. It folds flat easily. Simply flip up the seat cushion and flop down the seatback. Reclining rear seats are optional, as is a flat-folding front seat. With the rear seats folded flat, there's a spacious 54.2 cubic feet of cargo capacity. Fold down the passenger seat, and the Patriot has room for an eight-foot kayak. With all the seats in use there's 23 cubic feet in the back, comparable with any compact SUV. For 2009, the rear cargo area gets a removable carpeted floor instead of a washable, removable vinyl floor.
The Jeep Patriot's 2.4-liter engine works well. It has good power, as it produces 172 horsepower and 165 pound-feet of torque. It's responsive where it needs to be. You can be going uphill at 75 miles per hour, and it will still accelerate for you. Our only criticism is that it sounds gruff under heavy throttle, despite additional sound deadening material for 2009.
Also available is a 2.0-liter engine. We haven't tried it, but for the minimal price difference, we recommend the 2.4-liter.
The five-speed manual gearbox is a joy to use, even with its long throws. The lever comes out of the center stack above the driver's right knee, an improvement over being on the floor near the right thigh. The five-speed makes the Patriot feel like a Jeep. Properly used, it brings out the potential of the engine.
The suspension works well in all conditions. We gave it a good test over a 20-mile stretch of dirt road: hard-packed, potholed, a layer of loose dust, lots of uphill and downhill curves. The Patriot was stable and confident. We drove fast, and used the brakes hard; the ABS frequently activated on the slippery dust, with the all-season (not all-terrain) tires. We aimed for some of the potholes, including a 50-foot-long row of little ones. The independent suspension eagerly ate them up. Along came a washboard surface, and the Patriot stayed true. We hit an elevated cattle crossing at 30 miles per hour and tensed for an impact that never came. The Dodge Nitro, a Patriot cousin and competitor, would have been hammered. The Patriot did a great job in these conditions.
On paved country roads the Patriot feels light and nimble. The turn-in is sharp. The ride is steady over rough asphalt patches. The body is well isolated from the wheels. You can hit a bump with one wheel without your head being tossed. You can hear the tires hitting the expansion strips on the freeway, but you can't feel it.
We finally found the limit of the suspension, when we hit a big dip in the middle of a curve at a high rate of speed for the corner. The Patriot struggled to remain stable, but succeeded. Anything less than a sports car would struggle in that situation, let alone an SUV.
We also drove a Patriot with the trail-rated Freedom Drive II off-road package. It adds one inch to the ground clearance for a total of 9 inches, allowing a 29-degree approach angle, a 33-degree departure angle, a 23-degree breakover angle, and enabling the Patriot to ford 19 inches of water, that last part thanks to more body sealing and higher drivetrain vents. Both AWD systems have a locking center differential that sends half the power to the rear wheels. They also have a brake lock differential that can shift the power from side to side on each axle, important in slippery terrain. The Freedom II package also gives the CVT a low range with a ratio of 19:1, good for crawling over obstacles.
We tested the Freedom Drive II combination on an off-road trail in the Arizona desert, led by a member of the local Jeep club. We crossed some ridges and ditches that raised one front or one rear wheel two feet in the air. It felt effortless, as the Patriot just slowly and securely picked its way over. We made a sharp U-turn that showed off the tight turning radius. In a sand pit, the off-road brake traction control dabbed the brakes of the slipping wheel or wheels, and pulled the Jeep through.
The Freedom II package includes Hill Descent Control that is automatically engaged when in Low range on steep downhill grades. It keeps the Jeep under 5 mph and under control, going down steep hills, even icy ones. You can take both feet off the pedals and it will do its thing. It's a great setup.
We hit a sandy gulley and floored it, racing up to 45 mph, engine screaming at nearly redline with our foot on the floor, and the CVT stayed in low range because it's usable up to about 45 mph. The main thing is, driving flat-out in a straight line over the washboard surface, with the wheels bouncing every which direction, the Patriot remained controllable, responsive and tracked true. We hit a couple of washboard curves, trusting in the stability control to keep the Jeep from bashing into the rocks, and it did. Below 35 mph, the ESP only uses the brakes to keep the Jeep on the line; above 35 it also cuts the throttle, if necessary.
The Jeep Patriot offers off-road capability in a compact SUV with a capable four-cylinder engine that gets an EPA-rated 22/27 mpg. The suspension is stable and comfortable, and cargo capacity is useful because all the passenger seats can easily fold flat. Those positives are offset by lower build quality and an improved but still plasticky interior.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Sam Moses filed this report from Scottsdale, Arizona, with correspondent Kirk Bell reporting from Chicago.