SCOTTSDALE, Arizona - In their earliest days, Jeeps could have been considered "entry-level" if that term had existed. Like so many vehicles, they've gone up in price more recently. Even the down-to-basics Wrangler can get quite costly in well-trimmed, fully-equipped form.
DaimlerChrysler's Jeep division takes another look at the entry-level end with the launch of the Patriot. Priced just below $15,000 in minimal trim, the Patriot targets buyers in their early 20s to early 40s, who might not have been able to afford previous Jeeps.
Senior design manager Don Renkert calls it the "latest iteration of classic Jeep design." Height and width dimensions are close to those of the old Jeep Cherokee, but the Patriot is longer. The Patriot's windshield is more upright, and its back window is close to vertical.
Front tow hooks sit below a "signature" seven-slot Jeep grille. Trapezoidal wheel flares help "give it a little bit of attitude," Renkert said, almost "like having your collar turned up." Rear tow hooks are part of a Trail Rated option group. Renkert also pointed out the "very strong full-length shoulder" line of the Patriot, as part of its "simple, rugged, but timeless design."
With the 172-horsepower, 2.4-liter engine, a five-speed manual gearbox is standard. A continuously variable transmission (CVT) also is available. The CVT is an interesting choice for a Jeep model that's intended for at least modest off-road chores. Front-drive Patriots can have a less-potent 2.0-liter engine with a CVT, which gets a fuel-economy estimate of 30 mpg in highway driving.
Two full-time four-wheel-drive systems are available with the 2.4-liter engine: Freedom Drive I, or Freedom Drive II, which uses a different gearset for a lower simulated "first-gear" ratio.
Sport models ride on 16-inch steel wheels, while the Limited gets 17-inch aluminum wheels. Built on a 103.7-inch wheelbase, the Patriot has a track width (distance between wheels) of 59.8 inches and a 35-foot turning circle. Jeep claims that the Patriot's approach, departure and breakover angles are "best in class." Hill Descent Control is available for off-roading adventures.
Five passengers fit into the Patriot. Curtain-type airbags are standard, along with antilock braking, an Electronic Stability Program, and Electronic Roll Mitigation. All Patriots have two-tone interiors, with vinyl upholstery standard and fabric optional (leather installed in the Limited). The cargo shade adjusts to two positions, to accommodate the reclining split rear seat.
Except for a little road noise on certain pavement surfaces, the Patriot turns out to be a satisfying and enjoyable vehicle for regular driving. Spirited response is part of the attraction, at least when equipped with a manual gearbox and the larger engine. Mounted on the forward console, though, the shift lever is somewhat vague, so it's not always easy to tell which gear you're in.
Quick and easy steering helps maneuverability. So does the Patriot's tight turning circle. A rather rich exhaust note enhances the appeal, though the engine is a little snarly at high rpm in lower gears.
Patriots feel tightly built, and it's nice to see the hood through the fairly straight-up windshield. Patriot also are well-controlled on the road, even when really rough bumps occurred along the part-gravel/part-paved Apache Trail, east of the tiny outpost of Tortilla Flat.
Seat bottoms aren't too long, but seats are reasonably comfortable - though they could be a tad softer. Side bolstering is helpful, however. Simple but readable instruments have bright red pointers.
With the CVT, a Patriot Sport revs up fast when you push the gas and stays at that rather high level - but not to excessive engine speed. Acceleration ranks as modest, especially uphill, compared to the manual gearbox and larger engine. Through off-road runs, Jeep's Hill Descent Control does its job, but it's way too noisy and overly active, to the point of annoyance.
Adding the Patriot gives Jeep a total of seven SUVs. Prices start at $14,985 (destination charge included) for a front-drive Sport model, in accord with the claim of "entry-level" status. Pick a Limited edition with the Freedom Drive II Off-Road Package, though, and the tariff escalates to $23,530.