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New Jeep Patriot cuts a wide driving swath

September 22, 2006|by MALCOLM GUNN / Wheelbase Communications

Do you remember the Cherokee?

Jeep certainly hopes you do, and in a fond way. It's a big reason why this DaimlerChrysler division has added the Patriot to its ever-expanding range of sport-utility vehicles.

It's similar-looking to the Cherokee, intentionally so, but cuts a wider swath, from easy-going boulevard cruiser to rugged, range-rumbling off-roader. It joins the entry-level Compass and completely madeover Wrangler as Jeep's new-for-2007 entries. The Patriot/Compass duo is heavily based on the Dodge Caliber wagon and shares many of the same mechanical components.

For the Patriot, however, it's all about emulating the Cherokee, a squarish model that was created four years before Jeep was acquired from the American Motors in 1987. The Cherokee left in 2001, but legions of devoted fans still long for the old warhorse and its straightforward and boxy styling as well as its on- and off-trail capabilities.

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The Patriot is zoned in on recapturing at least some of the Cherokee's past glory in a fairly faithful and low-cost ($16,000 base price) way by using an existing platform.

Compared to the Jeep Compass, which happens to be the first Jeep not intended for off-road duty, the Patriot, or at least one of its models, is "Trail Rated," referring to California's Rubicon Trail, an off-road torture-test route strung through the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Make it here and the Trail Rated stamp is yours.

The base two-wheel-drive Patriot, as well as models fitted with the basic Freedom Drive I four-wheel-drive system, don't qualify for Trail Rated status. For that you'll have to opt for the optional Freedom Drive II setup that includes a low-range 19:1 crawl axle ratio plus 17-inch wheels shod with all-terrain rubber that provides an extra inch of ground clearance. They're all necessary ingredients for tackling the backwoods and safely returning to civilization after the fun is over.

To keep the price low and to help deliver better fuel economy than the old Cherokee (exactly what Jeep needs in a climate of gas-price uncertainty) Jeep kept the Caliber's 172-horsepower 2.4-liter four-cylinder. With 165 lb.-ft. of torque, it's not exactly muscle-bound, but it should provide enough grunt to conquer most trails.

Transmission choices consist of a five-speed manual or optional continuously variable unit that was chosen for its 6 to 8 percent increase in fuel efficiency when compared with a traditional four-speed automatic.

Two versions of the Patriot, labeled Sport and Limited, are available and both can be had in two- or four-wheel drive. Standard Sport equipment includes side-curtain air bags, stability and traction control, anti-lock brakes, a slide-out load floor that can handle 250 pounds and manual windows and door looks.

Step up to the Limited and air conditioning, remote keyless entry, cruise control, power windows/locks/mirrors and tire-pressure monitoring are added to the feature list. Many of the Limited's standard features are also available on base models. However, notable Limited options include leather seats, sunroof, heated cloth (or leather) seats, satellite-based navigation system with voice activation, a handy removable flashlight built into the headliner and a premium nine-speaker, 458-watt sound system. The hinged twin-speaker rear unit on this boombox drops down from the raised liftgate for broadcasting music to anyone gathered outside the vehicle.

The Patriot will be an instant hit with buyers who treasure traditional Jeep values as projected through traditional Jeep shapes. Should that bit of nostalgia ever wear off, there's still a lot to love, from practicality to economy of operation to off-road capability, provided that option is selected.

Copyright 2006, Wheelbase Communications

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