It's hard to believe that more than a decade – nearly a dozen years! - has passed since the venerable Jeep Cherokee headed to the automotive junkyard in the sky.
But if you're still looking for boxy compact SUV style, Chrysler thinks it has the answer for you in the chunky Jeep Patriot.
Despite its reborn Cherokee looks, the Patriot doesn't have much in common with its grandpa, which is both good and bad, as we learned during an extended test of a 2013 Patriot Latitude 4x4.
What is it?
Patriot arrived on the scene in 2007, but a 2011 update gave it a light refresh outside and an all-new interior inside. For 2013, it mostly stands pat as a replacement based on a Fiat passenger car is expected for 2015.
Identical under the skin to the much less attractive Jeep Compass, the Patriot is the cheapest 4x4 (well, technically, it's an all-wheel-drive) in a line of vehicles that also includes the off road icon Jeep Wrangler. Unfortunately for those inclined to travel off the beaten path, about the only thing Wrangler and Patriot have in common is their seven-slot grille and round headlamps.
The Patriot is based on the old Dodge Caliber – but that's not quite as bad as it might sound. A fully independent suspension and unibody architecture hardly give it off road chops, although an optional Freedom Drive II package – not tested here – includes a low ratio continuously variable transmission designed to give it some low-speed crawling ability.
Instead of that package, our mall-crawling tester was equipped more for suburbanite duties with the Latitude mid-level trim, a safety package with side airbags to complement the standard curtain airbags and a touch-screen audio system with Bluetooth for $25,670.
Patriots offer either a 2.0-liter or 2.4-liter four-cylinder gas engine and the choice of either a five-speed manual or, as in our tester, a CVT.
What's it up against?
None of those offer anything resembling off road capability like the Patriot, although it's fair to say that most buyers in this class aren't looking for much more than inclement weather traction.
What's it look like?
From a distance, the Patriot certainly conjures up images of the trusty old Cherokee. That's either a compliment or an insult, depending on your perspective.
We're fans of the three-day beard-looking Cherokee, which we thought still looked pretty darn cool even after 17 years when it was finally put out to pasture during the summer of 2001. That means we also rather like the Patriot.
A 2011 model year update gave it more revisions inside than outside, but the two-tone look of our tester was new. The unpainted lower panels give it a pleasantly rugged look. Those seeking a more high-style vehicle can opt for the monotone Limited.
All that said, some of the Patriot's proportions still seem a little suspect to us. Its front bumper juts out like an underbite, while the bulging tailgate feels more hatchback than SUV to us – but maybe those are the prices to pay for the Patriot's passenger car platform.
Oh, and then there's the fender-mounted whip antenna, a cheap touch if there ever was one. At least your Jack-In-The-Box antenna topper will have a home.
And on the inside?
If you spent time inside a Patroit prior to its 2011 model year update, we're really, really sorry.
But what a difference a model year made. Newer rivals are fresher and more interesting inside, but that doesn't mean that the Patriot is necessarily a bad place to whittle away the miles.
Materials and design upgrades brought the look and feel of the dashboard and door panels to class-competitive levels, and although we're not sold on the van-like narrow center console and high-mounted CVT lever, at least everything is conveniently located for easy access.
At the top of the center stack sits Chrysler's now-familiar touch-screen, hard drive-based infotainment system (a $695 option), which is slowly being phased out in favor of a more comprehensive setup like that on the Dodge Journey and Chrysler 300. Sound from the un-branded speakers was good enough that we think an Infinity or Alpine label would be appropriate.
The cloth-covered front seats proved comfortable over longer drives and we liked the tough-knit feel of their center sections, but the Patriot's tiny back seat and ultra-long dashboard are reminders that most rivals are better-packaged. Ingress and egress is also mediocre in the Patriot thanks to a surprisingly high step over and low floor. At least the cargo area is well laid out and nicely finished.
But does it go?
Patriot's 2.4-liter four-cylinder cranks out 172 horsepower and 165 lb-ft. of torque in this application, which makes it among the segment's more powerful offerings. If only it had a transmission that was worth a damn.
This CVT is tolerable in light duty use, but freeway merging and passing proved taxing on our eardrums as engine revs escalated above 4,000 rpm. Around town, there's enough low-end torque to keep engine speeds low, but there's still no shortage of the elastic “rubber band” effect the CVT has on the skinny pedal. In short, the power is there, but it's delivered in a way that takes a little acclimation.
We essentially tagged the EPA's 21/26 mpg fuel economy figures and we averaged 23 mpg in a week of mixed driving.
If going fast in a straight line isn't the Patriot's forte, at least it rides and handles pleasantly and its small size gives it a nimble feel. Nicely-weighted steering feeds the driver limited feel but generally inspires confidence. The thick, leather-wrapped three-spoke steering wheel undoubtedly helps a little here, as does the taut suspension.
We learned a long time ago that the Jeep badge doesn't necessarily mean out-of-the-box off road capability, so we were hardly surprised to find Firestone Affinity Touring tires wrapped around our tester's 17-inch alloy wheels. The good news is that these tires delivered a compliant and comfortable ride quality over rutted terrain and limited noise on the highway – but they're about as off road ready as a pair of leather-soled dress shoes.
And that's not to say that the rest of our test Patriot really felt up to rock crawling duty either. The suspension offer precious little travel, which means the wheels are reliant on traction control to distribute power to the wheel in need. A chrome lever situated awkwardly behind the parking brake serves as a quasi center differential lock. To the average driver, this means a modest increase in available traction at lower speeds.
For bounding up a gravel road to a hiking spot, the Patriot should be fine, but we'd probably invest in a more robust set of tires. If you're planning on going further into the wilderness, well, hang onto your Cherokee.
Why you would buy it:
You've caught the nostalgia bug – and why not, since the Patriot is pretty pleasant.
Why you wouldn't:
For strictly on or strictly off road use, there are better options.
Leftlane's bottom line
Though its age is showing through in terms of interior room and powertrain refinement, the Jeep Patriot channels just enough of the happy-go-lucky puppy feel of its Cherokee predecessor to merit our recommendation.
We'd cross shop most rivals before signing on the dotted line, but there's certainly enough to like about the Patriot.
2013 Jeep Patriot Latitude 4x4 base price, $22,880. As tested, $25,670.
Security and Cargo package, $695; Touch-screen audio, $695; Bluetooth/SiriusXM, $475; Destination, $925.
Words and photos by Andrew Ganz.