To quote an obscure U.S. Supreme Court justice (Potter Stewart, ruling on a famous obscenity case), "I can't define pornography, but I know it when I see it." The same could be said for the new Jeep Patriot. We can't really define "Jeepness," but we know it when we see it.
Jeep has two new four-cylinder sport/utility vehicles in its showrooms: last year's Compass and the new 2007 Patriot. Earlier this year, the Compass ran in Motor Trend's Car of the Year competition (it's essentially an all-wheel-drive Dodge Caliber with a taller seating position).
What does that make the Patriot? Car, crossover, or SUV? Is it a real Jeep? The Patriot takes the same Mitsubishi Lancer-derived platform and gives it an extra inch of ground clearance with better approach and departure angles.
Visually, the Patriot distinguishes itself from the Compass with a boxier greenhouse, which creates more useable interior space. It has a blockier front fascia and four real door handles (instead of the Compass' rear handles, hidden in the back of the door frame). It's not quite a modern-day version of the 1984-2002 Cherokee.
Its equipment and personality will probably earn the Patriot a spot in the 2008 Motor Trend Sport/Utility of the Year competition, rather than Car of the Year. Like Potter Stewart, we'll know it when we see it.
Patriots will be available in front drive or Freedom Drive I or II all-wheel drive. Freedom Drive I (which is optional--all base Patriots will be front drivers), uses an electronically controlled coupling (ECC) to the rear differential, transmitting torque through a two-clutch system. The driver can lock the center diff with a T-handle to assure up to 60 percent of available torque goes to the rear wheels.
Freedom Drive II uses the same ECC, tuned for more serious off-roading, with a low-ratio CVT, called CVT2L. This package adds one inch of ground clearance, 17-inch all-terrain tires and aluminum wheels, a full-size spare, skidplates, two front tow hooks, fog-lamps, manual seat-height adjuster, and a lower ratio for the continuously variable transmission. Unfortunately, there's no manual gearbox available in the Trail Rated (Freedom Drive II) version. Engineers did work on one, but couldn't get the five-speed gearbox to handle the setup. With FDII, the low-gear "crawl" ratio is 19:1, versus a 14:1 standard low-gear ratio for the CVT.
Dropping the CVT from Drive into Low shuts off the electronic stability-control program and adds hill-descent control--a first for a Jeep and for a vehicle this inexpensive. You can manually shut off the hill descent control while in Low for faster off-roading if you so choose.