I try to approach each new SUV with an open mind, but I have to admit that I had low expectations for the 2007 Jeep Patriot. I wasn't sure where it fit into the expanded Jeep lineup, and I just didn't get it. That all changed with a week behind the wheel. Patriot is now my official favorite Jeep, and may be one of my favorite small SUVs. The 2007 Jeep Patriot Sport 4x2 carries a $14,425 base price ($18,785 as tested), along with 3 year/36,000 mile basic warranty, a lifetime powertrain warranty for the original owner and an EPA estimate of 26 mpg city/30 mpg highway. Let's drive.
Patriot is an all-new design for 2007. You can be forgiven if you feel like you've seen it somewhere before -- Patriot's design is a vivid echo of the first-generation Jeep Cherokee (1984 Ð 1996). Cherokee was Jeep/Eagle's attempt to capture a new market segment with a midsize, fuel efficient SUV, a smaller version of the Wagoneer. Cherokee eventually succumbed to the SUV bloat of the late 90s/early 2000s, ostensibly replaced in the lineup by the larger Grand Cherokee. Even though Liberty and Compass anchor Jeep's presence in the compact market, something was missing -- a genuinely authentic compact Jeep SUV. Now there's Patriot.
Riding on the same 103.7 wheelbase as Compass (a half-inch shorter than Liberty's), Patriot's chiseled physique gives the impression of greater bulk than its measurements betray. Big chunks of fender hang over high wheel arches. Slab sides and squared-off corners abound. Jeep's traditional six pillar grille is flanked by big round headlights. There's a retro feel to the whole design -- that's a compliment. Where Liberty feels slightly feminine and delicate, Compass feels ultra-modern and car-like, Patriot feels like a Jeep. I like.
My test vehicle wore a set of optional ($590) 17" aluminum wheels, a nice upgrade over the 16" styled steel wheels that the factory bolts on by default. Other than that, my Patriot was bone stock on the outside. The coat of Light Khaki Metallic Clear Coat paint was smoothly applied, and fit and finish overall were excellent.
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In the Driver's Seat
Too bad Patriot's interior doesn't keep up with its cool exterior. Inside, there are striking similarities to the Compass dashboard and instrument panel. For all I know, they may be out of the same parts bin. Which is unfortunate, because the quality of materials on Patriot's interior is lacking. Cheap plastics, unappealing textures and a generally "bleh" atmosphere detract from an otherwise cool vehicle.
It's not all bad inside Patriot, though. For one thing, the high roofline creates a roomy greenhouse with great visibility all around. Where Compass follows the trend toward cocooning rear seat passengers with a rising shoulder line, Patriot keeps its shoulders level. Big rear side windows provide an expansive view from the back, and a healthy tailgate window assures panoramic views out of the rear view mirror. A sculpted headliner maximizes interior headroom. Seating is adequate, with reasonably comfortable vinyl-covered front buckets and a flat, thinly-padded vinyl reclining bench for the second row. The second row folds down in a 60/40 split to create a level load floor and 54.2 cubic feet of cargo space. You can fit 23.0 cubic feet of luggage behind the second row.
On the Road
Rugged looks and Jeep heritage aside, Patriot is an SUV for the road, not the dirt. Four-wheel independent suspension (as opposed to Liberty's front independent/rear live axle approach) mated with rack-and-pinion steering delivers a smooth, comfortable ride. I always want more power, but the 2.4 liter inline four-cylinder engine cranks out 172 hp and 165 lb-ft of torque, which was adequate considering Patriot's relatively (for the class) svelte 3108 lb curb weight. Incidentally, Patriot's curb weight is very close to the original Cherokee's weight, a credit to Jeep's engineering team. Keeping curb weight down is a fundamental approach toward increasing fuel economy and improving handling and road feel, and it's not easy to do with changing safety requirements.
My test vehicle was equipped with a five-speed manual transmission. The extremely light clutch took some getting used to, and I didn't love the rubbery shifter. There's an optional ($1,050) CVT (continuously variable automatic transmission) available for those who don't enjoy shifting.
Even though I could never describe Patriot's ride as "fun," I really did enjoy driving it around. There's a pure sense of utility in the cabin, and the driving experience is quite elemental. Driving a retro SUV while knowing that you're surrounded by modern safety equipment (advanced multi-stage front airbags, supplemental side curtain front and rear airbags, electronic stability and traction control, four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes, electronic roll mitigation and brake assist) is the best of both worlds.
Patriot prices range widely, depending on equipment package choices. Starting at rock bottom, the Patriot Sport 4x2 base model, without air conditioning, power windows or many other features that we've come to expect in modern SUVs, begins at $14,425. Add a few conveniences and you're up over $16 grand in a hurry. Step up to the Limited trim line (starting at $20,365), add four-wheel drive and click every option box and you can get up over $27,000 before you're done.
If you're considering a Patriot, you should also look at the competition. Honda's CR-V, Toyota's RAV4, Nissan's Rogue and Mazda's CX-7 are all excellent compact SUVs. The Ford Escape/Mercury Mariner/Mazda Tribute lineup is also worth considering. Mitsubishi's Outlander, Suzuki's Grand Vitara, Hyundai's Santa Fe and Kia's Sportage are also interesting variations on the theme. If you're into the retro design thing, you might also check out the Chrysler PT Cruiser and Chevrolet HHR -- not really pure SUVs, but still very versatile vehicles.
A good SUV is the product of a complex interaction between design, engineering and magic. Sometimes all the great design and engineering in the world can't capture the magic. And other times, the magic overwhelms so-so engineering and design work. That's what happened for me in Patriot. I can easily pick apart the interior. I can carp about the engine and transmission. I can complain about where Patriot fits into the Jeep family. Still, Patriot is the one Jeep I would love to own.