Jeep Patriot test drive
The Jeep Patriot, though based on the Dodge Caliber, can be equipped as a real Jeep, complete with the Trail Rated certification. The company that created an off-road-capable K-car have made a vehicle that some claim is better off-road than the old Jeep Cherokee, thanks to electronic wizardry, new four wheel drive systems, and attention to clearance.
The Patriot is styled like the Cherokee, and is almost exactly the same size, but it's a lot quieter, and gets much better gas mileage, at the cost of torque and the approach angle. Thanks to modern engineering and updated standards, it's safer as well - and probably more reliable (in the first hundred-thousand miles the Patriot should make few visits to the mechanic). As for long-term durability and abusability, the jury is still out, but other testers have beaten their Patriots pretty hard without finding weak spots.
Inside, the Patriot can be attractive, especially given the price of entry-level models. Silver and chrome surfaces break up the plastic surfaces, and optional two-tone leather seats distinguish the interior. The gray interior has dark uppers and light lowers, with the cloth seats boasting a patterned inner surface and solid outer surface that matches the lighter gray of the doors well, and has a silver center stack cover to break up the dashboard's black surfaces. The 4WD button and shifter tops are bright chrome.
The gauges are clear and readable, with a big tachometer (that only goes up to the engine limit, rather than going 2,000 rpm beyond) and a reasonable 120 mph speedometer; on our Limited the gauges were flanked by dull silver trim rings and on our Sport, by plain black trim rings that blended in with the background. On both, the odometer doubled as an outside temperature gauge.
Controls are where you'd expect them, and are easy to use; the climate controls are not the new Dodge/Chrysler style, but they work well and are easy to figure out, with knobs for fan, temperature, and vent selection, and buttons for a/c, recirculation, and rear defroster. The recirculation doesn't go on when you have heat or defrost selected.
The optional trip computer / compass / thermometer is nicely placed underneath the speedometer; easy to figure out, it's harder to use than it has to be because the single-button control is right on the gauge cluster, so the driver has to bend around the steering wheel (or dangerously go through it) to reach it. The universal garage door opener is integrated into the roof, by the map lights. Most other controls are fairly conventional, with door-mounted locks and window and mirror controls (mirrors also fold in, as one would expect on a Jeep). Cruise control is handled by a Toyota-style stalk. Gear-shifting is done via a conventional automatic-style gearshift.
The stereo on our first test car was also conventional for Chrysler, not to mention easy to use; sound was good despite an overactive subwoofer (part of the optional Boston Acoustics speaker package). The second car did not have the Boston Acoustics speakers, but sound was still very good, except on talk and certain types of music where the overactive bass again proved to be a problem.
Our test car had satellite radio, which is a wonderful feature for those who like to hear more than the most-programmed 100 songs, and who don't like commercials. The system on our first car was rather flawed; though the satellite radio was set up just like FM and AM and required no additional learning, the system did not show information about the stations (like their title or genre), and it took several seconds before a station would play, making flipping through the channels awkward. In addition, the signal seemed weaker than in most satellite-radio equipped cars, dropping frequently as we passed under bridges and trees. The second car seemed to react a little more quickly, and rarely dropped the signal, but still did not provide station information.
A cellphone / iPod holder in the center console flipped out when needed (we have to admit we used it for sunglasses), but the wire going into the stereo could be a bit dangerous unless carefully routed or attached to the side of the console. All Patriots seem to have an auxiliary jack using a standard stereo cable to connect to iPods, tape recorders, Mac Minis connected, or any other audio devices you might have; the controls won't be integrated with the stereo itself, but it's a huge step up from the old cassette or FM adapter and much cheaper as well.
The interior has an airy feel, thanks to big, well-placed windows; the windshield is far enough from the driver to make the Patriot seem roomier than it is. This is another one of those vehicles that feels much larger inside than outside (like the original PT Cruiser, Neon, and minivan). The Patriot is compact in exterior size, but not having to jam a six cylinder engine under the hood allows for more cargo and passenger space; the squarish shape also helps. Curves are great for looks, but they don't do much for interior space, which is why the PT Cruiser is so sensible and the New Beetle isn't. The Patriot also feels solid, but it's heavy in reality as well, so that's not as much of an achievement.
There's plenty of room in the back, but the rear seats are amazingly uncomfortable, with everyone we put in back panning them, from child to adult; it's a combination of unusual firmness and unusual contours, coupled with a vague feeling that the car was out of control that we recall from the last-generation RAV4 and the Pontiac Aztek.
Bins include the usual covered center console, small map pockets in the doors, and an open bin on top of the glove compartment. Cupholders are the usual large openings with rubbery bubbles to hold larger items in place.
The engine choice is unfortunate; the old 2.4 liter used in the PT Cruiser and minivans would have been more appropriate, given its torque range. The new 2.4 liter World Engine sounds buzzy when revved, and with the CVT, it sounds like a cross between a gas-powered leafblower and a sewing machine; to make any real power, it needs to be revved high. It is fully buzzword compliant, with dual variable valve technology (both intake and exhaust valves are varied depending on engine speeds) and other technologies, and has high peak power ratings, but that doesn't compensate for the lack of low-end power, the odd noises, or the feel of the continuously variable automatic. With a stick-shift the engine isn't so bad because the driver can keep it under control; with the CVT, downshifting seems to take longer, and the transmission seems to react more slowly than a traditional automatic.
The CVT also makes acceleration seem slower than it is, because the engine noise stays constant as the transmission changes gears. A CVT should be quicker than a manual or automatic transmission, but we have our doubts about this one; it seemed to take longer to lower gears when passing than the more traditional choices. On the lighter side, the CVT is smaller, lighter, and cheaper than a conventional automatic; provides slightly higher gas mileage; and works in tandem with the four wheel drive controls in the Patriot, which is why off-road packages aren't available with the stick (though all wheel drive is). With the CVT and the big 2.4 liter engine, 0-60 takes around 10 seconds, which is better than the PT Cruiser automatic, but it feels slower and sounds like an overstressed sewing machine. Gas mileage was no great shakes in our test car, at about 20 mpg city, 25 highway (EPA mileage is similar, 23/26; however, with a stick shift, the Patriot Sport 4x4 was rated at 25 city, 29 highway, a considerable improvement.) These figures all use 2007 standards.
Driving with the CVT in this car was an interesting experience partly because of the programming, which seemed less than ideal compared with, say, the Saturn CVT. The engine took its time to reach peak rpm, and only gave its all when the pedal was flat to the floor. It seemed to shift as though it was a standard automatic at times; and when coasting, it kept the engine at over 1,500 rpm, seeming to drag more than Chrysler's own automatics. Sometimes it seemed to lurch up one gear, as though it was a conventional automatic. One must learn how to deal with the CVT to get better power, smoothness, and mileage. Some models can be equipped with AutoStick, which emulates a six-speed automatic; this can be a nice feature at times, though in theory the computer should be able to do a better job, and without a clutch many find it strange to be playing games with the transmission.
As a clarification, we found that the CVT-equipped Patriot was very slow to launch, but that once the engine got beyond 4,500 rpm - which required pushing the pedal to the floor - it was very fast indeed. On the highway, downshifting (so to speak) was moderately fast and so passing power was easily reached; but merging could be an issue as that critical 0-30 range took longer than usual.
We greatly preferred the manual transmission, and not just because of its considerable gas-mileage benefits. We found that we could get good 0-60 performance by keeping the engine as close to redline as possible, and that we could quicken passing by dropping two gears (yes, two, one was not enough to get the engine up to the needed speeds). We experimented with the engine and found that it really needed to be pushed over 4,000 rpm to make good power; around town it was good enough and even comfortably zippy, but for passing or merging, more was needed. Simply hitting the gas while in gear resulted in the "rubber-band" effect (or "spongy throttle" if you prefer) where you could feel a little change but not much happened until the engine reached its acceleration zone. Part of the complaints about the CVT might actually be complaints about the lack of low/midrange-rpm power, which may or may not in turn be caused by the VVT programming.
The manual transmission linkage is a little clunky but not hard to get used to, while the clutch can be operated smoothly despite its high engagement point.
The engine bay appears to have lots of extra space, which might ease maintenance but also might allow the use of the turbocharged 2.4 liter engine under development in Auburn Hills. We suspect that most buyers would be happy with a lightly tuned device pushing power up to a manageable 220 hp or so, enough to provide more response; a supercharger would help more than a turbo because this engine has a good enough high end, but needs more low end.
The 4x4 system is electronically activated, doing away with the big, hard-to-move stick; it’s easier to quickly switch in and out of four wheel drive, with the change taking place instantly and with little thought needed. The only clear indication of having four wheel drive engaged is a light on the dashboard (though you shouldn't stay locked in four wheel drive mode on dry pavement, which can cause tire scrubbing). The Freedom Drive II provides an extra-low gear for rock crawling, which would be nice to have for quicker acceleration as well; but dropping into Low also shuts off the electronic stability-control program and adds hill-descent control. That's an unusual feature in a vehicle in this price class.
Cornering is neither remarkably good nor bad, but is well within the needs of most drivers. Emergency cornering comes with squeals but the Patriot remains stable, not surprising given its anti-tip and stability control systems. Taking turns at speeds a PT Cruiser would find child's play resulted in screams from the tires of the Limited, but on the other hand, the PT wouldn't like to go offroad. The Sport took these turns in stride, presumably the result of a different tire choice.
Cargo space is moderately good, with a heavy plastic base that can be lifted away covering the full-size spare; there's a bit of extra space down there for jumper cables or whatever other little things you may want to carry. Optional nets keep groceries from flying around, and the split rear seats fold forward as one would expect. The rear seats include the LATCH car-seat system (required by law) but like other new Chrysler vehicles, the top belt has to be routed around the headrest somehow.
Patriot starts under $15,000 including destination, an incredible price considering it includes stability control and side airbags. That's for the front wheel drive model, without air conditioning, but with the 2.4 liter engine and a five-speed stick, the CD player (with auxiliary jack), four speakers, 16 inch wheels, traction control, antilock brakes, and anti-roll system. Drop down to the 158 hp, 2.0 liter engine (front-drive only), and Jeep will give you $200 back. Four wheel drive is about $2,000 more; any off-road package includes the automatic (CVT) transmission.
Our first test car, a Limited 4x4, started at $21,700. That included safety features like front and side airbags, stability and traction control, four-wheel antilock brakes, electronic roll mitigation, brake assist, SentryKey, and a rear defroster, wiper, and washer. It also included comfort items like power windows, locks, and mirrors; cruise; air; heated front seats; temperature display in the odometer; wheel-mounted radio controls; and tilt steering, along with fog lights and aluminum 17” wheels. Our test car added the trailer towing group ($130), driver convenience group with auto-dimming rearview mirror - not something we recommend - as well as the compass, garage door opener, trip computer, and smoker group ($515), the “boom-boom” subwoofer and 458 watt Boston Acoustics system ($495), floor mats ($30), CVT II with low gear ($1,050), and satellite radio ($195). The boomy stereo is something we would generally avoid, unless you're one of those people who likes to drive around shaking everyone's foundations, but it does come with the fancy speakers that flip down from the rear hatch and let you annoy people in parks and on beaches.
Our second car, a Sport 4x4, started at $16,735, including side curtain airbags, stability and traction control, four wheel antilock disc brakes, roll mitigation and brake assist, Sentry Key theft deterrent, rear defroster, wiper, and washer, CD with input jack, and tilt wheel. Our test car also had red paint and YES Essentials cloth seats, adding $475 together; cruise control and wheel-mounted audio at another $385; bigger, aluminum wheels at $590; rubber mats at $30; heated front seats at $250; and satellite radio with a one-year subscription at $195. On top of those little things was the $2,605 25E package, which added air, tinted glass, folding power mirrors, power windows and locks, height adjustable driver's seat, foldflat front passenger seat, AC power outlet, and lighting package. The total, then, came to $21,265, which is still quite reasonable.
The Patriot is cheap and can be enjoyable to drive; but it's got uncomfortable rear seats and, with the CVT, a sewing machine engine. The manual transmission version is easier to get used to, but still requires much more revving than it should when on the highway; around town it seems to do well, especially if you can start in first. Gas mileage good by truck-based SUV standards if poor for a car of this size, and probably better than any US-specification four wheel drive vehicle intended for off-roading.
The Patriot has a lot more go than the Hummer H3, and can actually accelerate while going uphill at highway speeds, and it is fairly quiet when the engine isn't revving high; the ride is comfortable and bumps are handled with ease, and without subsonic booms or rattles; and did we mention it's probably the cheapest off-roader you can get? If only there was a way to get a supercharger from the factory... or to shoehorn the 3.3 liter V6 under the hood.