High gasoline prices, foreign wars in oil producing nations and fears of global warming have made fuel efficiency the new patriotism. Yet many Americans reject clown-sized economy cars and suppository shaped CUV’s and minivans. They cling to the outdoorsy lifestyle and the go-anywhere freedom embodied by rough-and-tumble SUV’s. In a second attempt to address these shifting values, Jeep has unveiled the Patriot. It's an SUV for gas conscious Americans! Actually, never mind all that. Please, oh please, just let it be better than the Compass.
Visually, the $15k (FWD) Patriot succeeds where its mechanical doppelganger, the Compass, fails. The Patriot actually looks like a Jeep. Its grille is more upright and the hood smartly folds over the seven slots and round headlights. Beneath the bumpers, the Patriot’s body work tapers back, facilitating off road-friendly approach and departure angles.
Muscular fenders frame the trademark Jeep trapezoidal wheel wells in the Grand Cherokee fashion– as opposed to the Compass’ fat Elvis fender work. The Patriot’s upright greenhouse follows the same rectangular proportions as the Commander, which itself is an homage to the Cherokee. Wrangleresque it ain’t, but the Patriot’s Mom was clearly playing in the Jeep gene pool.
Serious Jeepers aren’t picky about interior aesthetics. Dirt lovin’ Wrangler and Liberty owners have been known to strip their rigs’ interior carpeting and spray pickup truck bed liner over the bare metal. These fearless depreciators will appreciate the Patriot's interior’s Rubbermaid chic.
Sure it has carpeting, available leather seats, a leather wrapped steering wheel and splashes of trendy faux aluminum, but every other surface and compartment is constructed from textured molded plastic. No matter how dusty and foul the Patriot’s cabin gets plugging mud, crawling over rocks and slithering through sand, cleanliness is only a damp rag away; it’s like wiping down a baby’s high chair.
Of course, the pairing of this highly washable interior with a vehicle designed to appeal to off-road-crazed Jeep owners is strictly coincidental. Chrysler uses this same nasty cheap plastic in nearly every car they make, including the identically appointed Jeep Compass. Furthermore, the most dedicated (and filthiest) off-road enthusiasts will stick with Wranglers. The Patriot will be competing for acceptance in urban and suburban environs, where drivers expect more refinement.
On the positive side, the seating position is excellent, especially for taller drivers. Drivers trading in their gas sucking Jeep Liberty will appreciate the Patriot’s generous leg room and reclining rear seats.
When it comes to driving, the Patriot takes a back seat to its fraternal twin, the Compass, whose ride and handling are already on the wrong side of unacceptable. Although only 1.5" taller and 33lbs heavier, the Patriot is much more sensitive to all non-linear motions, thanks to its four-wheel independent suspension. The dynamics are strictly Olde Worlde; the Patriot leans and flops its way down a winding road like a wounded Hessian.
The Compass’ excellent brakes are… AWOL. The Patriot’s stop pedal engages its four-wheel disks very slowly indeed, and resents driver input. Nonetheless, the long legged suspension eagerly dispatches bumps and gobbles up highway carbuncles, hinting at the Patriot's off-road potential.
Unfortunately, these sisters-under-the-skin share their most vital greasy bits: their drivetrains. Both vehicles come incomplete with an atonal 2.4-liter 16-valve four-cylinder Dual Variable Valve Timing World Engine, attached to a buzz-inducing (and not in the caffeinated sense of the word) Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT).
The 172hp mill motivates the Patriot to 60mph in… yawn… stretch… ah, who cares? You’ll get up to freeway speeds, you know, eventually. And yet this engine is Patriot’s raison d'être. In 4×2 trim, the EPA prognosticators promise 24/27mpg. It’s a [theoretically] stratospheric achievement. You know, for a Jeep.
Early four-pot 4Runners, Monteros, Pathfinders and Cherokees conquered hill and dale with aplomb. Though capable in the bush, these lightweight vehicles were gutless tin cans compared to their robust descendants. Their modern incarnations now tilt the scales well in excess of two tons. By contrast, the Patriot is an SUV lightweight: 3,326lbs. in full regalia. And it’s still a pig.
For off-roader drivers, Jeep reinforced the Patriot’s underlying Mitsubishi GA platform with an ultra-high-strength steel cross-car beam above the rear axle. Optional Trail Rated models ($25k and up) get the Freedom-Drive II drive train system (utilizing the CVT at a 19:1 ratio for steep ascents and descents), downhill braking control mode, an engine oil cooler, extra ground clearance and skid plates. Packaged with the Patriot’s Jeepish looks, these features give the ute the cred that the Compass lacks.
Not that Jeep cares. On the official website, under “Capabilities,” the copy talks about the Patriot’s “smooth, agile and responsive handling… on mountain switchbacks and [during] evasive maneuvers” and, I swear, “parallel parking… made easy.” If Jeep is aiming the Patriot at the CR-V, RAV4 and Escape, they’re in big trouble. With its Playmobil interior, gutless engine and questionable handling, the Patriot is far better off road than on.