On The Road Review: Jeep Patriot

When we last looked at a Jeep Patriot, Chrysler Corp. was deep in the throes of financial insecurity with bankruptcy all but certain on the calendar. An amazing turnaround has occurred since those dark days, especially with the Jeep brand.

The former Detroit “Big Three” automakers made several untimely operating decisions that led to their fiscal crisis as well as immeasurable philosophical errors that contributed to their issues. Once the housing bubble burst and the financial system collapse steamrolled in 2008, there was no longer any way to hide the tenuous balance sheet that existed at Chrysler, GM and Ford.

While Ford had already leveraged its assets to gain some cash, Chrysler was in dreadful shape. Owned by venture capitalist Cerberus, Chrysler suffered from diminishing cash flow (sales were already dropping), a shortage of credible new products, plus a poor reputation in the marketplace for quality and value. Chrysler’s branded vehicles also had the worst fuel economy ratings of all full-line automakers. Even a planned merger with GM couldn’t occur, as both automakers had a cavalcade of problems that stymied cooperation.

While the government-ordered bankruptcy destroyed shareholders’ interest in Chrysler, transferring this wealth to the labor unions, ultimately, it appears that Chrysler and its brands will ‘make it’ under the earnest direction of Sergio Marchionne, the head of Italy’s Fiat Motor Co.

Marchionne has become the larger than life character directing all things automotive as he jets back and forth from America and Italy several times a month. As a CEO, Marchionne is apparently a hands-on operator with no fewer than 35 direct-reporting managers under his guise as he commands every detail at Chrysler, Fiat, Alfa Romeo and the rest of the merged Fiat/Chrysler empire.

Apparently this strategy is working, as Chrysler’s overall market share is rebounding. Incredibly, despite the ongoing financial malaise for many American buyers, the venerable Jeep brand has been leading much of Chrysler’s resurgence. Year to date in 2011, overall Jeep sales have increased 33 percent over last year — a huge improvement in a market making marginal sales gains in this struggling economy.

The big news at Jeep has been the all-new Grand Cherokee — sales have doubled last years volume with over 75,000 units sold through the end of August. Sales of the Wrangler continue to expand as well — up 22 percent — plus the Liberty has gained 26 percent more volume.

Yet the two small Jeeps, the Compass and this week’s Patriot, are also making big strides as American drivers continue to embrace smaller, compact SUV/crossover wagons in ever increasing numbers. Compass sales have more than doubled last year’s sales levels while Patriot sales have increased 37 percent.

Ownership surveys indicate that female drivers prefer the softer lines of the Compass wagon, while more male drivers are opting for the slightly more aggressive stance of the Patriot. Both of these compact crossovers share dimensions, powertrains and overall foundation with the Dodge Caliber — a car that is not selling as well as before. In a market with small cars suddenly very hot, Chrysler’s lone small car — the Caliber (other than the new Fiat 500) — has slowing sales. Not a good picture there.

For the 2010 model year and again for 2011, the Patriot has received several upgrades. Last year, the Patriot got a new interior, sharing much of the visual impact of the updated Wrangler. This includes a new three-spoke steering wheel with convenient fingertip audio and cruise controls strategically (and comfortably) placed, new softer materials where your elbows and hands interface with the vehicle, plus a revised gauge cluster and dash that is much more user-friendly.

This year, the Patriot received revised front and rear fascias that make it look more ‘Jeep-like’ while the chassis below has been upgraded with different shocks, spring rates and larger anti-roll bars. Tire sizes increase with new optional 17-inch wheels, plus ground clearance is up 1 inch for Patriot models with either of the two optional Freedom Drive four-wheel-drive systems. Jeep also has added three additional color choices.

Two attributes stand out. The chassis revisions are notable for how much smoother the Patriot rides. While the wheelbase is not notably different from its rivals, the Patriot does exhibit a measure of control and compliance not evident in the rest of the class — cars such as the Hyundai Tucson, Nissan Rogue and Honda CRV. Broken tarmac does not upset the Patriot and the car’s cornering angle remains stable and predictable as well. Driven within its intended limits, the Patriot impressed not because it was so much better than its rivals, but because it seemingly possessed no major flaws that will surprise you at inopportune times.

The Patriot also offers two variations of the Freedom Drive all-wheel-drive system, which is meant to act as a ‘light’ version of a real four wheel drive setup. A console mounted switch lets you lock the four wheel drive system ‘on’ up to certain speeds — rather than relying on the automatic 50/50-split that can occur when wheel-slip is detected. The Freedom Drive II setup adds downhill descent control, hill-start control, plus an off-road mode that lets this soft-roader handle more rugged terrain than is normal for these car-based crossover wagons.

Yet to be altered in the Patriot — and the Compass and the Caliber — is the power systems found under the hood.

If you choose the base Sport model ($15,995) with front-wheel drive and the standard 2.0-liter 158-hp four-cylinder and a five-speed manual transmission, you get a small wagon with EPA mileage estimates of 23/29-mpg — not bad for this class.

Add four-wheel drive, some additional amenities and the CVT automatic transmission and you are up to Latitude trim and the larger 2.4-liter 172-hp four-cylinder engine. EPA mileage estimates for this package are 21/26-mpg. My Patriot test car returned 23.2 mpg and 24.3 mpg for two fill-ups.

These two motors are slightly behind the pack in terms of refinement and performance. On cold start-up, the 2.4-liter engine often sounded like a diesel engine, with a lot of under-hood noise that was hard to dismiss. On the road, the motor also proved to be a bit slower than its contemporaries, working hard to push the 3,300-pound Patriot to the chosen velocity.

That said, the Patriot’s CVT transmission was invisible and worked seamlessly. Long grades never revealed any anxiety or shift action as the Patriot powered up hills on cruise control with nary a hint of the surging or downshifting action that plague other small-engined wagons.

Chrysler promises that a new family of direct-injected Fiat multi-air four-cylinder engines will follow on the heels of the just-upgraded V-6 versions of Chrysler’s motors. These would be welcome.

Patriot hits: upgraded interior works very well, placid ride and capable chassis, 4X4 ability, workable size.

Patriot misses: so-so fuel economy, engine refinement.

Just the Facts: Jeep Patriot

Patriot pricing starts at $15,995 for Sport edition with front-drive and manual transmission. Latitude trim with AWD begins at $17,695. Tested model shown lists for $25,145. Patriot is built in Belvidere, Ill.

Patriot measures 173.8 inches long on a 103.7-inch wheelbase. Track width is 59.8 inches. Compare to Honda CRV, Nissan Rogue, Hyundai Tucson and Kia Sportage.

Latitude trim offers: cruise control, electronic stability control, split-folding rear seat, tilt-steering wheel, roof rails, fog lamps and the larger 2.4-liter engine. Package 26B ($3,700) adds: air conditioning, 17-inch wheels, heated fold-away mirrors, height-adjustable driver’s seat, remote keyless entry, power windows, steering wheel audio controls, fold-flat passenger seat, heated front seats, stereo upgrade.

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Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.