2009 Jeep Patriot 4X4 Limited Review
By Roger Boylan
Frequently, the themes of my Web browsing are automotive and historical, and occasionally both themes converge–with World War II Jeeps, for example, a subject of more than passing interest to WWII buffs and Jeep aficionados. (You can count me as both, although the hearty sobriquet “buff” somewhat diminishes the seriousness: “amateur scholar,” perhaps?) Recently I came across this photo of a small herd of Jeeps waiting to move on deeper into Germany in January, 1945. It’s a reminder how crucial these little vehicles were to the Allied victory; after all, the Germans had only the Kübelwagen, which was great on-road, less so off. It had a tendency to run out of breath in the wildernesses of the Alps and the Ardennes while the homely little Jeeps soldiered on and on–to Berlin.
They’re less homely now (most of them, anyway), but they still soldier on. Modern Jeeps run the gamut from the Wrangler, direct descendant of the WWII icon (and reviewed here recently by yours truly) to the lush, luxurious Commander, an old-style thirsty SUV built for the day before yesterday. Along the way we encounter the oddity of the Compass, a Dodge Caliber that thinks it’s a Jeep; the Grand Cherokee, a venerable family hauler now with a common-rail diesel alternative; the Liberty, would-be claimant to the legendary Cherokee’s mantle; and the practical Patriot, the company’s base-model SUV or crossover or whatever you want to call it. I call it sensible. It should be the mainstay of the Jeep brand.
During my week with a test Patriot Limited, I did just about everything the average American commuter will do with his daily driver at this time of year, calling on it to deliver the groceries, pick up the Christmas shopping, drive the family around, and go to the office and back in bumper-to-bumper (and, twice, fogbound) rush-hour traffic. I drove it back and forth on innumerable other tiresome little errands made necessary by time constraints, the shopping season, and a less-than-photographic memory. We made our way down foggy, slick, muddy backroads (4WD engaged), as well as along dry, high-speed I-35 (4WD un-). I was impressed. This is a fine little vehicle, but no one seems to know about it. Here in central Texas I see ten RAV4s or CRVs for every Patriot. This ratio should be reversed, but won’t be. We all know about “Big Three” marketing genius. (“Patriot,” indeed!)
Which is, yet again, too bad, for several reasons. First, the Patriot is ideal for the budget-conscious income bracket, which is where most of us find ourselves now. In a word, it’s cheap. Even the full-boat 4X4 Limited, which boasts heated leather seats, 6-CD changer, power moonroof, and 17-in. alloy wheels (but no lights on the vanity mirrors, and express-up only for the driver’s window: I know, I know, I’m whining), can be had for a hair under $25K; less, if you bargain skillfully; even less than that, if you skip the 4-wheel drive. I wouldn’t, because I think this system makes the vehicle safer, and it makes eminent good sense for those of us who live where the climate can turn treacherous, i.e., just about anywhere in North America. And a Jeep without 4-wheel drive isn’t a real Jeep, is it?
The Patriot I drove had the most basic 4-wheel system, the “Freedom Drive I” system, not the more elaborate “Trail-Rated” one known as “Freedom Drive II,” but that’s for real off-roaders, not you and me. The base system is simplicity itself to operate: just flip up the chrome bezel between the front seats and it’s on. Flip it down and it’s off. It’s a model of ease and efficiency, and not especially thirst-inducing–21 city, 24 highway are the EPA ratings for the 4X4 Patriot. This figure sounds reasonably close to reality, as I had no need for fill-ups over six days of mixed driving. Given the distances traveled, and the fact that I had about a tablespoon of gas left at the end, I estimate I was, indeed, getting around 24 on the highway but slightly less than 21 in city driving.
My Patriot appeared at first to have an automatic transmission with a handsome chrome-topped shifter, but closer inspection, and actual driving, revealed it to be a CVT, or continuously variable transmission, a seamless single-speed multi-ratio system now widely popular but in my youth confined to the delightfully quirky Dutch DAF automobiles of the ’60s and ’70s, about which I once waxed nostalgic in these pages. Suffice it to say that the system is all grown up now, although it can still be disconcerting to step on the accelerator and not hear any shifting, as the engine revs to redline and stays there, snarling irritably while the transmission busily changes ratios and the car accelerates. It all happens in less time than it takes to read about it, but it takes longer than that to get used to it. With a regular transmission, the engine won’t remain at peak power, because it and the vehicle change speed simultaneously; but with the CVT, the engine speed can stay the same while the vehicle speed catches up. The advantages include durability and better fuel economy, or so they say. I prefer a normal automatic, frankly, but that may just be habit.
In any case, the Patriot’s CVT sacrifices nothing in terms of pep and acceleration. Stamp the boot and this little trucklet shoots forward, to the dismay of Bubba at the light in his jacked-up Silverado with the K&N stickers. I timed my 0-60 run at around 9 sec: not electrifying, but perfectly respectable for an SUV with 4-wheel drive. The engine, a 2.4-liter mill called “the World Engine” by Chrysler wonks, puts out a decent 172 horses and 165 lb.-ft. of torque; the Patriot is relatively light for an SUV, so the combination works well. My principal objection was to the loudness of the engine under hard acceleration. It got the job done with dispatch, and was barely audible at speed, but it sounded like a 1959 Mercedes Taxi getting there. Once underway, however, the Patriot is a pleasure to drive. It goes fast and rides smoothly, eliciting bumps only from the deepest grooves or expansion joints. Cornering is very good, although the steering might be described as a tad too twitchy–or maybe that was just me. But the brakes are outstanding; punched hard several times in a row, they showed no signs of fade and brought the car to a firm and decisive halt.
Inside, the dashboard layout is simple and classic, and the chromed-rimmed gauges are a tidy white on black. The climate and sound system controls are simple to identify and operate. I spent a great deal of time in my test Patriot and never felt beaten up or reluctant to return. The cabin is spacious and airy, with big windows and narrow pillars. The front seats–heated, useful for those who dwell in cold climates but a mere frippery for the rest of us–are clad in a heavy-duty leather that looks like vinyl but feels very comfortable, and, like vinyl, is easy to wipe off if your travelmug hand has the shakes. The front passenger seat folds flat to accommodate ladders and/or 2X4s, creating an expanse of storage that extends to the rear seats, which recline and split 60/40, and all the way back to the infelicitously named “Ultra Floor,”™a washable and removable vinyl load floor in the rear cargo area–which, by the way, was sufficiently capacious with the seat backs up to accommodate a full week’s worth of grocery shopping and sundry Christmas presents.
Up front there’s an auto-dimming rearview mirror, Boston Audio sound system, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls behind the wheel. A 115-volt outlet, full power accessories, cruise control, and remote keyless entry are all on board. Safety is sound, too: the Patriot boasts excellent crash scores and the usual raft of protective gizmos such as side-curtain airbags, standard ABS, traction control, and electronic stability program.
In sum, I liked the Patriot a lot. It has no pretensions, it’s good-looking, and it does its job well, as well as being reasonably priced, rugged, comfortable, and eminently practical. Few compact SUVs offer more, and none can equal the Jeep mystique. The Hyundais, Hondas, and Toyotas, whatever their virtues, are mere johnny-come-latelys to a brand whose defining moment was WW2. If Chrysler survives, the Jeeps, with their heritage, style, and affordability will have helped to save it. That’s a big “if,” but so was the Battle of the Bulge.
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