Patriot games

2007, Jeep, Patriot

It has become fashionable of late to declare the sport/utility vehicle unfashionable. Whether the charge is fair or not, this circumstance puts Jeep, whose product line comprises SUVs exclusively, at something of a disadvantage. And yet far from cowering at the prospect of making and marketing unfashionable vehicles, Jeep has embraced the challenge with admirable, even unusual, gusto. With the introduction in the spring of 2007 of the new Jeep Patriot, the automaker now boasts a stable of seven distinct vehicles, all of them SUVs. And to think that it all started some 60 years ago 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 2007 Patriot caused more than a few eyebrows to rise. After all, a compact SUV dubbed the Jeep Compass appeared last fall; and the company disclosed that both the Compass and the Patriot would be built upon the same basic platform, which the Dodge Caliber compact car also shares. Would it indeed be possible to wring enough distinctiveness out of so many shared components to give Patriot a genuine personality of its own?

And then there was the tease, initiated by Jeep itself, that the Compass was the SUV intended for her, whereas the Patriot was intended for him. Can you really do that in the midst of a full-blown PC epidemic? It certainly seems so, particularly if your entire product line is already considered unfashionable.

Well, as of February 2007, with the introduction of the Patriot to the world's automotive media in Phoenix, Ariz., all the second-guessing and teasing and speculating can be put to rest. The Jeep Patriot can confidently stand on its own as a versatile "utility" vehicle, an invigorating "sport" vehicle and a remarkably affordable vehicle. Patriot is, in fact, the new entry-level model for the Jeep brand; and when it is configured as a front-wheel-drive "Sport" edition with a 2.4-liter inline-4 and a five-speed manual transmission, the price is a phenomenal $14,985.

Patriot's entry-level value makes it special, but what makes it distinctive requires a bit more of an explanation. So it's important first of all to point out that the Patriot can be configured with two engines and three powertrains for prices ranging from just under $15,000 to $23,530. The 2.4-liter twin-cam inline-four uses variable valve timing to achieve 172 horsepower and 165 foot-pounds of acceleration torque. An optional 2.0-liter twin-cam four rates 158 horsepower and 141 foot-pounds on the way towards delivering 26 mpg/city and 30 mpg/highway; and it is available only in a front-wheel-drive Patriot "Sport" equipped with a "stepless" CVT automatic transmission.

It is the Patriot's pair of CVT, or constant velocity, transmissions that endows this vehicle with special distinction. "Freedom Drive" is Jeep's name for a proprietary all-wheel-drive system that depends upon the novel CVT technique for matching engine torque to road speed without a distinct shifting of gears. There's no need to understand the complex "belt-and-pulley" system in order to sense its novelty. Upon hard acceleration, 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 is changing imperceptibly as vehicle speed increases. Anyone who has ever shoved the throttle of a boat forward to a fixed position, then felt the building acceleration, will instantly recognize the CVT phenomenon.

Skeptics abound where the CVT is concerned; and nowhere is this untraditional CVT technology met with more suspicion than in off-road applications. That's why, for instance, the Jeep Compass with "Freedom Drive I" isn't really considered an off-roader. It's great for slippery roads, and it apportions traction to front and rear wheels without the driver being any the wiser for it.

And, yes, "Freedom Drive I" is also available with the Jeep Patriot. But and now we get to the heart of the matter Patriot is also the only Jeep that can be equipped with a trail-rated "Freedom Drive II" powertrain. This is, it's fair to say, the first serious and successful application of CVT technology to 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- and off-road driving.

In the latter instance, "Freedom Drive II" offers a unique, low-crawl gear ratio 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 vehicle downhill at no faster than five miles-an-hour, with both of the driver's feet flat on the floor. Then, with HDC disabled and the transmission in low-crawl mode, the CVT-equipped Patriot enjoys a degree of throttle control unequalled in most aficionados' off-road experiences. While barnstorming over volcanic boulders and through dry, sand-filled arroyos in the Tonto National Forest outside Phoenix, it was possible to alternate between inches-per-hour crawling descents and 40 or 50 mile-and-hour stream-bed sprints without ever applying the brakes. The CVT does it all: There's prompt engine braking when you back out of the throttle; and instant torque when you floor it again. Skeptical off-roaders everywhere will themselves be floored by this new Jeep "Freedom Drive II" system when they manage to put it through its paces.

They will even learn to forgive the CVT's unusual driving feel on paved surfaces, where "stepless" gear changes feel like an old-fashioned slipping clutch. 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-passenger seating and 54 maximum feet of interior cargo space are available for less than $20,000, it may well become fashionable once again to be a Patriot.

By Marc Stengel
2007-02-28

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2007 Jeep Patriot newcar review
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