CHELSEA, Mich. -- At the Chrysler vehicle research and testing facility in Chelsea, Mich., tortuous off-road driving courses incorporate virtually every type of natural obstacle one might encounter when steering a sport utility vehicle away from pavement.
There are big rocks and deep ruts to overcome, barricades of tree trunks to climb and steep inclines to scale, sandy dunes to plow and creek beds to ford, along with acres of tire-sucking mud to traverse.
We spend time at Chelsea running the off-road courses in 2013 editions of Patriot, Jeep's compact-class wagon which happens to be a CUV (crossover utility vehicle) with the unified structure of a front-wheel-drive (FWD) car,
Patriot provides an optional four-wheel-drive (4WD) device with low range gearing plus an off-road package dubbed Freedom Drive II which adds a skid plate, tow hooks and all-terrain tires (Goodyear Wrangler GTA 215/65R17 OWL) to make this particular CUV a surprisingly capable rock-crawling and mud-romping trail runner.
The off-road package also jacks up Patriot's chassis, elevating the ground clearance to 9.1 inches.
Front and rear overhangs of the body have been whittled away and the 17-inch aluminum wheels at the four corners are proportionally big, setting up a vehicle which can move up steep inclines.
With the Freedom Drive II rig, Patriot's front approach angle becomes 29.0 degrees and the rear departure angle runs to 33.9 degrees with a breakover angle of 23.7 degrees.
Such measurements signify that the 4WD Patriot can easily scamper up a rocky path, or plow through a stream with water up to 19 inches deep.
But -- since Jeep's stable already bulges with capable off-road vehicles -- what's the point of turning a CUV like Patriot into a dirt-dog trail warrior?
It's simply a matter of economics, as Patriot is the cheap Jeep, scoring the lowest price points in Jeep's line.
For 2013 Patriot models, MSRP figures range from $15,995 for the Patriot Sport in FWD format with a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine to $25,695 for a deluxe Patriot Limited with a 2.4-liter in-line-4 and 4WD traction.
Also new for 2013 is the limited edition Patriot Freedom Edition based on Patriot Latitude trim in FWD or 4WD configuration with MSRPs running upward from $21,445.
Patriot Freedom Edition wears a military-style star on the hood, an "Oscar Mike" (military lingo for "on the move") insignia on the front door, and 17-inch Mineral Gray painted aluminum wheels with bright lug nuts. Paint colors are strictly red-white-and-blue: Deep Cherry Red crystal pearl coat, Bright White clear coat or True Blue pearl coat.
Every Patriot edition looks rugged and stands tall in the traditional two-box format of a wagon but it's so square in style with edgy angles scoring fascia and fenders, a stepped hood and flat flanks interrupted only by trapezoidal wheel openings rippling in sculptured fenders blips.
Layout of the cabin consists of a pair of contoured buckets in front and a rear bench for three but indents for two. Seatbacks on the second row split in 60/40 sections and fold down to extend the floor of the rear cargo bay, which has 53.5 cubic feet of room with rear seats flat or 23 cubic feet with seatbacks raised.
Jeep provides a four-cylinder engine in two sizes to motivate Patriot through the three trim levels tagged as Sport, Latitude and Limited.
The smallest powerplant -- a 2.0-liter four-in-line with twin cams on top and dual variable valve timing (DVVT) -- serves as the stock engine for Patriot Sport FWD and Patriot Latitude FWD. It produces 158 hp at 6400 rpm plus torque of 141 lb-ft at 5000 rpm and earns EPA fuel economy figures as high as 23 mpg city and 30 mpg highway.
Available shifters include a five-speed manual (Magna T355) or automatic continuously variable transaxle (Jatco CVT2) with AutoStick.
A larger four-pack plant -- displacing 2.4 liters and also stocking dual cams and DVVT -- motivates Patriot Sport 4WD, Patriot Latitude 4WD and Patriot Limited FWD and 4WD.
The muscle numbers tally to 172 hp at 6000 rpm with 165 lb-ft of torque at 4400 rpm.
Patriot splits into three traction configurations.
The base unit uses FWD with torque from the engine directed to the front wheels all the time.
The optional Freedom Drive I package adds a full-time 4WD device with lock mode. It normally runs in FWD mode, yet an electrically controlled coupling (ECC) can divert as much as 60 percent of the engine's torque to the rear wheels when additional tire grip is required. But you can lock the center coupling so the system splits powertrain muscle 50-50 between front and rear tires for tricky traction situations like wet pavement, slick snow or sand.
Then the Freedom Drive II off-road package brings a full-time 4WD system tied to a CVT with low-range gear ratio of 19:1. It engages when the off-road mode is activated and enables Patriot to crawl over rough terrain.
Other electronic controls also apply with the Freedom Drive II package: Brake Traction Control System (BTCS) which keeps the vehicle rolling even on split-friction surfaces like gravel where one wheel loses traction, Hill Start Assist (HSA) for holding the CUV on a steep slope, and Hill Descent Control (HDC) to keep the wagon's wheels firmly planted when trekking down a steep grade.