Marc Stengel, Wed, 28 Feb 2007 08:00:00 PDT
It has become fashionable of late to declare the sport/utility vehicleunfashionable. Whether the charge is fair or not, this circumstance putsJeep, whose product line comprises SUVs exclusively, at something of adisadvantage. And yet far from cowering at the prospect of making andmarketing unfashionable vehicles, Jeep has embraced the challenge withadmirable, even unusual, gusto. With the introduction in the spring of 2007of the new Jeep Patriot, the automaker now boasts a stable of seven distinctvehicles, all of them SUVs. And to think that it all started some 60 yearsago with that original General Purpose military-surplus vehicle, whose "GP"initials eventually morphed into "Jeep."
Among the automotive intelligensia, the announcement last fall of the 2007Patriot caused more than a few eyebrows to rise. After all, a compact SUVdubbed the Jeep Compass appeared last fall; and the company disclosed thatboth the Compass and the Patriot would be built upon the same basicplatform, which the Dodge Caliber compact car also shares. Would it indeedbe possible to wring enough distinctiveness out of so many shared componentsto give Patriot a genuine personality of its own?
And then there was the tease, initiated by Jeep itself, that the Compass wasthe SUV intended for her, whereas the Patriot was intended for him. Can youreally do that in the midst of a full-blown PC epidemic? It certainly seemsso, particularly if your entire product line is already consideredunfashionable.
Well, as of February 2007, with the introduction of the Patriot to theworld's automotive media in Phoenix, Ariz., all the second-guessing andteasing and speculating can be put to rest. The Jeep Patriot can confidentlystand on its own as a versatile "utility" vehicle, an invigorating "sport"vehicle and a remarkably affordable vehicle. Patriot is, in fact, the newentry-level model for the Jeep brand; and when it is configured as afront-wheel-drive "Sport" edition with a 2.4-liter inline-4 and a five-speedmanual transmission, the price is a phenomenal $14,985.
Patriot's entry-level value makes it special, but what makes it distinctiverequires a bit more of an explanation. So it's important first of all topoint out that the Patriot can be configured with two engines and threepowertrains for prices ranging from just under $15,000 to $23,530. The2.4-liter twin-cam inline-four uses variable valve timing to achieve 172horsepower and 165 foot-pounds of acceleration torque. An optional 2.0-litertwin-cam four rates 158 horsepower and 141 foot-pounds on the way towardsdelivering 26 mpg/city and 30 mpg/highway; and it is available only in afront-wheel-drive Patriot "Sport" equipped with a "stepless" CVT automatictransmission.
It is the Patriot's pair of CVT, or constant velocity, transmissions thatendows this vehicle with special distinction. "Freedom Drive" is Jeep's namefor a proprietary all-wheel-drive system that depends upon the novel CVTtechnique for matching engine torque to road speed without a distinctshifting of gears. There's no need to understand the complex"belt-and-pulley" system in order to sense its novelty. Upon hardacceleration, for example, a CVT launches engine speed to a fixed level say,6,000 rpm and the revs remain absolutely stable, even though CVT gearing ischanging imperceptibly as vehicle speed increases. Anyone who has evershoved the throttle of a boat forward to a fixed position, then felt thebuilding acceleration, will instantly recognize the CVT phenomenon.
Skeptics abound where the CVT is concerned; and nowhere is thisuntraditional CVT technology met with more suspicion than in off-roadapplications. That's why, for instance, the Jeep Compass with "Freedom DriveI" isn't really considered an off-roader. It's great for slippery roads, andit apportions traction to front and rear wheels without the driver being anythe wiser for it.
And, yes, "Freedom Drive I" is also available with the Jeep Patriot. But andnow we get to the heart of the matter Patriot is also the only Jeep that canbe equipped with a trail-rated "Freedom Drive II" powertrain. This is, it'sfair to say, the first serious and successful application of CVT technologyto genuine off-road navigation.
"Freedom Drive II" is available with the Patriot's "Sport" edition for$19,175 and with the up-level "Limited" edition for $23,530. Either way,this powertrain renders the new Patriot a totally unique vehicle for on- andoff-road driving.
In the latter instance, "Freedom Drive II" offers a unique, low-crawl gearratio combined with electronic stability control and hill-descent control(HDC) that can be toggled on and off by the driver. With HDC active,Patriot's unique "stepless" transmission virtually walks the vehicledownhill at no faster than five miles-an-hour, with both of the driver'sfeet flat on the floor. Then, with HDC disabled and the transmission inlow-crawl mode, the CVT-equipped Patriot enjoys a degree of throttle controlunequalled in most aficionados' off-road experiences. While barnstormingover volcanic boulders and through dry, sand-filled arroyos in the TontoNational Forest outside Phoenix, it was possible to alternate betweeninches-per-hour crawling descents and 40 or 50 mile-and-hour stream-bedsprints without ever applying the brakes. The CVT does it all: There'sprompt engine braking when you back out of the throttle; and instant torquewhen you floor it again. Skeptical off-roaders everywhere will themselves befloored by this new Jeep "Freedom Drive II" system when they manage to putit through its paces.
They will even learn to forgive the CVT's unusual driving feel on pavedsurfaces, where "stepless" gear changes feel like an old-fashioned slippingclutch. And they will come to appreciate the CVT's fuel-frugal ways as well.And when all potential buyers realize that off-road prowess, five-passengerseating and 54 maximum feet of interior cargo space are available for lessthan $20,000, it may well become fashionable once again to be a Patriot.