The Jeep Patriot is unmistakably a Jeep, with its squared-off lines, seven-slot grille, and round headlights. The Patriot and its sibling, the Jeep Compass, are based on a car platform, but still can deliver impressive off-road capabilities.
The four-door Patriot has plenty of room inside. There's 39.4 inches of legroom for rear-seat passengers, the 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, for example.
There are two available engines. The larger of the two, a 2.4-liter four-cylinder, makes 172 horsepower and 165 pound-feet of torque, is EPA-rated at 23 mpg City, 28 mpg Highway with the manual transmission, and is standard equipment. It delivers good power; put the pedal down while cruising uphill at 75 miles per hour and it will accelerate. The smaller engine is 2.0 liters, makes 158 horsepower and 141 pound-feet of torque and is EPA-rated at 23/29 mpg with the manual transmission. 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.
Changes for 2010 are minimal. There are driver and front-passenger active head restraints, and some changes to the available options.
The Patriot is unmistakably a Jeep, and looks more like a Jeep than the stylish Grand Cherokee or its sibling, the Compass. 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, although it looks larger. It's almost exactly the same size as the Compass but it looks more rugged, lacking the rounded edges of the gentrified Compass. It's classic Jeep, the way a Jeep should be.
The standard wheels are steel. Attractive aluminum wheels are standard on the Limited model and optional for the Sport. The vehicle looks much better with the aluminum wheels.
The seating position is high in the Patriot; 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.
The cabin layout is functional and roomy. The black 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. We thought the doors sounded kind of tinny when they were closed.
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 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 something eight feet long. With all the seats in use there's 23 cubic feet in the back, comparable with any compact SUV. The cargo area has a removable carpeted floor.
The Jeep Patriot's 2.4-liter engine works well. It has good power, with 172 horsepower and 165 pound-feet of torque, and is responsive where it needs to be. You can be going uphill at 75 miles per hour, and it will still accelerate. Our only criticism is that it sounds gruff under heavy throttle.
The 2.0-liter engine offers slightly better fuel economy, 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 Patriot did a great job in these conditions.
On paved country roads the Patriot feels light and nimble. The ride is steady over rough asphalt patches. The body feels well isolated and you can hit a bump with one wheel without your head being tossed.
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.
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 23/28 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 build quality that is not the best and an interior with a somewhat plastic feel to it.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Sam Moses filed this report from Scottsdale, Arizona, with correspondent Kirk Bell reporting from Chicago.