Mountain Wheels: Jeep’s Patriot aims for a lower-priced 4×4 experience |

Mountain Wheels: Jeep’s Patriot aims for a lower-priced 4×4 experience

2014 Jeep Patriot Latitude 4x4

MSRP: $23,795; as tested, $26,575

Powertrain: 158-HP 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, six-speed automatic transmission

EPA figures: 23 MPG combined (21 city, 27 highway)

While there’s been a lot of attention to the new non-grand Jeep Cherokee — a blast from the past that’s come along to replace the Jeep Liberty — let us turn our attention for a moment instead to the Jeep that still looks a whole lot like the 1990s-era Cherokee you may have grown up driving yourself.

The Jeep Patriot was one of a flurry of Jeep products created in the latter part of the last decade that seemed, on the surface, to spread the core DNA of the Jeep brand just a little too thinly — the Compass crossover being the most boldfaced example.

Patriot at least still looks like a Jeep, mostly behaves like a Jeep and, with a new and pleasantly smooth and capable six-speed automatic transmission, behaves in a more civilized fashion when cruising the highways.

General intel suggests that long-term planning of the now entirely Italian-owned Fiat Chrysler Automobiles company will see both the Patriot and the Compass bumped by some new, more globalized product — not a 4WD version of the Fiat 500, one hopes, but instead some spiffy, sorta-Alfa Romeo blend.

So, in the meantime, if your budget precludes you from the increasingly spendy Wrangler options and you’re not quite in love with either the small or large Cherokees, Patriot might still be an option.

Much of Patriot’s marketing push addresses the fact that it’s about the least expensive actual 4×4 in America, now that Suzuki has left the building, though the somewhat more well-rounded Latitude model I drove still managed to reach nearly $27,000, not the $16,000 bargain-basement MSRP you might find on some Patriot, somewhere.

It will also become abundantly clear to you on first inspection and drive that Patriot was created from the same stock that went into the now-defunct Dodge Caliber. That means deeply potted foot wells and cloth bucket seats perched on platforms, in a style that’s just a little ungainly and also makes for a bit of an awkward step to get inside.

That new six-speed transmission does make Patriot a lot less of a horror show it was when the CVT was the go-to option; you can also get a five-speed manual.

The bargain-priced 4×2 Sport and Latitude models are powered by a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine rated for 158 horsepower; 4×4 models jump up to a 172-horse, 2.4-liter four cylinder, which was rated at 27 mpg highway in my Latitude test model.

That meant brisk acceleration and, when I pushed the car a bit, a surprisingly capable feel in the corners; you will notice that the rock-solid suspension tends to be less forgiving and even a little jarring going over rutted pavement.

That might be less of a downer when you think that Patriot also features two different 4×4 systems, either an active, full-time 4×4 setup or the Freedom Drive II with its low-range setting and more chunky, offroad-oriented capabilities. Add the full Offroad Package and you’ll get skid plates, tow hooks, hill-start and hill-descent assist and a more Jeepish demeanor, overall.

The Patriot’s looks are still, indeed, an unusual and just slightly rounded amalgam of the traditional boxy previous-generation Cherokee. You get absolutely gigantic A-pillars and tons and tons of headroom – the deep-dish headliner gives a lot of extra room in what seems like it should be a claustrophobic atmosphere.

The Caliber-styled pedestal on the center console for the automatic transmission gear selector leads to some of Patriot’s least well-executed bits, including the appallingly plasticky center armrest, the lower doors and even funny little open storage slot above the glove box.

The cupholders are very brightly illuminated, as well, if that is of great concern to you.

On a nicer note, you do get a litany of new-era Chrysler bits, including the chrome-edged, fully closeable air vents, the wheel-mounted audio controls, simple-to-use standardized AC controls and even a non-navigation Uconnect audio system with a burnable hard drive and a decent sound setup.

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