Faster off-roading is what Jeep offered with Freedom Drive II-equipped Patriots in our introductory drive. It wasn't the sort of trail that would make a Wrangler sweat, but it would've stranded key competitors like the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, Hyundai Tucson, and Ford Escape four-bangers. And even though you may never go off-roading, its nice to know that if you find yourself in a flash-flood situation, you've got something the others don't.

Patriots start at $14,985 with the 172-horsepower, 2.4-liter four, CVT, front drive, and manual window regulators. (A 2.0-liter four is available in the Patriot Sport, only with front drive and a manual transmission.) The cheapest 4x4 is $16,735 and with Freedom Drive II, Patriots start at $19,175. Likewise, Patriots are split into Sport and Limited trim levels, with $25,000 or so getting you a well-equipped model with heated leather seats and premium audio with fold-down rear speakers for tailgating. The Limited models have more chrome and polish than the Sport versions, but both suffer from the cheap interior plastics and cost-cutting look of the other Caliber-derived models.

Like its platform siblings, the Patriot is stuck with the global 2.4-liter VVT four. It's not a bad engine, but it's not stellar, and mated to the CVT, off-the-line punch feels lackluster to say the least, with an exhaust note that sounds like a blender under heavy load, especially when bouncing around an off-road course.

Whether you understand the "Jeep thing" aphorism, the Patriot is a much better Jeep than the Compass, but that's not saying much. The Patriot is more buttoned-down, more solid with more refined ride and handling, and has better body control. It's still well short of making it to the top of the class (we're not sure we'd want to take it to the top of a mountain), but props to Jeep for exploring the $15K valleys.