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Car reviews - Jeep - Patriot - 5-dr wagon

Our Opinion

We like
Squared off styling, headroom, around-town dynamics, vision out, some thoughtful cabin touches
Room for improvement
Slow, noisy, firm ride, disappointing dynamics, dreary interior

5 Aug 2011

THINK traditional Jeep and the hard-core Wrangler off-roader with flat windscreen, removable doors and soft-top roof springs to mind. Classic brand imagery that.

Think modern Jeep, though, and chances are the picture might include the XJ Cherokee – a compact 4x4 wagon that trailblazed the marque’s successful return to these shores back in 1994.

Thousands of these rugged and boxy proto-SUVs were sold in Oz despite the design being nearly 18 years old by the time its ungainly KJ replacement arrived in late 2001. And that vehicle never approached the older Cherokee’s popularity.

But Americans being Americans, a post-modern XJ revival was inevitable and, sure enough, in 2007 in came the MK Patriot. Yet, regardless of similar sizing and styling, the newcomer couldn’t have been more different than its (literally) trailblazing predecessor.

Why? Based on a co-op Mitsubishi GS platform that also underpins the current Lancer, Outlander and ASX (as well as the Chrysler Sebring/200, Dodge Avenger, Dodge Journey, Dodge Caliber and Jeep Compass), the US-built Patriot is a full monocoque design without low-range gearing, underbody protection and sufficient ground clearance for proper 4x4 action.

Only the lockable 4WD system, seven-bar grille, squared off wheel-arches, and classic XJ silhouette pay lip service to old-school Cherokee’s heritage. At least, mercifully for the brand, Aussies have been spared the emasculating front-drive model offered elsewhere.

Predictably, folk haven’t exactly flocked to the Patriot (aagh, that name!), and not least because instead of a handful of SUVs like there was in the 1990s, today there are dozens to choose from.

Now there’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Series II facelift featuring a somehow different nose, bumpers, tail-lights, alloy, and body cladding, while revisions for improved refinement and functionality have occurred both underneath and inside the car.

And that’s the whole point of the Patriot: it is a car in the same way an Outlander, Subaru Forester, Nissan X-Trail, Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V, Kia Sportage and Hyundai ix35 are.

With less than one per cent market share in its class, the Patriot is a compact SUV wallflower. Are buyers missing out on something special?

The rugged design is certainly a plus point, with a purposeful aggression that is – even after all these years – a refreshing change from the class norm. That XJ-lite styling is a handsome and well-proportioned thing.

But the cabin is on the smallish side for family duty, with quite restricted rear legroom and a limited sized cargo area that puts the Patriot on the petite side of the compact SUV brigade nowadays. Headroom is massive though.

There’s a new dashboard with some softer-feel materials among a host of minor interior changes, but the ambience is outdated and plain against more contemporary rivals – particularly the Korean brands.

Really, we actually don’t mind the hard surfaces, as this is a Jeep and so durability is paramount. But why does it all look like the Yanks chose the lowest bidder when choosing the plastics? And the chemical odour! One passenger complained that it smells like urinal cakes inside.

While we’re complaining, the half-arc speedo’s demarcation numbers are too small (UK-spec MPH markings also add to the clutter), and this is further emphasised by a ridiculously oversized compass and outside temp readouts.

Good points – and there are many of these too thankfully – include an attractive (new) leather-wrapped steering wheel, a comprehensive trip computer display, easy rotary vent and air-con controls, big buttons for the simple and effective audio set-up, and backlighting for the lower centre console-sited cup-holders and remote cabin switches.

Plus, we find 10 storage places, front head restraints that extend out as well as up for added comfort and support, a front passenger seat that folds onto itself for really long loads, sunvisors that move laterally to block out glare above the rear-vision mirror, and relatively good vision out thanks to the square windows.

Aided by the big exterior mirrors you can see the Patriot’s extremities, making it very easy to park.

Equipment levels are about up to class standards, with the only major omission being Bluetooth connectivity – another betrayal of the Patriot’s advancing years perhaps?

And oddly it does feel a bit claustrophobic up front. The driving position itself rates highly, with plenty of seat adjustment (though the wheel is a tilt-only affair). And the passenger isn’t cramped either. But the upright windscreen’s distance gives it a strange letterbox effect, so you end up peering out, and that can become tiring.

The front seats are fairly shapeless and flat on longer trips but work fine for short commutes, and the elevated rear cushion comes with a 70/30-split/folding backrest, which reclines by a few degrees to make journeys more comfortable in the second row.

Though that the narrow door apertures might make entry/egress difficult for broader passengers though, and why are the rear cup-holder receptacles by the feet of the squeezed-in centre occupant?

The fat head restraints look like they’re out of a 1989 Pulsar Reebok and impede driver rear vision despite their hollowed-out centres. They completely mismatch with the front ones, while the Americans have neglected to fit map pockets of any shape or description.

Even more annoying, the rear backrests return to a bolt-upright position rather than in their previous raked state after they’ve been folded flat, meaning that a second tug of the awkward release lever is necessary.

For urban lifestyle duties (the odd mountain bike, gym gear, running the dog down to the local park – that sort of thing) the Patriot makes for a fine load hauler, with plenty of length provided by that folding front seat. Dropping just the rear backrest extends boot space from a reasonable 536 litres to a useable 1357 litres.

But with a high load floor (covering a steel rather than alloy full-sized spare) don’t expect a massively deep cargo bay. Jeep still fits a removable flashlight as part of the headlining rear map light assembly. There’s also a rather ill fitting, two-position retractable bay cover.

So far, everything we’ve said about the Patriot is ascertainable from the comfort of a dealership forecourt.

Start up the 2.4-litre four-cylinder petrol engine – sampled here in standard five-speed manual Sport guise, although a six-speed CVT Continuously Variable Transmission is also available – and the Patriot really begins to feel its years.

Basically this is a vocal vehicle to travel in, with noise emanating from the oily bits ahead as well as the tyres and suspension below. There just isn’t much finesse at all about this car.

If you’re willing to rev this engine it transforms beyond 3000rpm by providing acceleration that is brisk up to about 100km/h, but soon your ears will be assailed by gear whine and exhaust roar unless you’re quick with the upshift. And above the national speed limit there’s not much left in the 2.4.

Load the car up with people and stuff and the drop in oomph is palpable. What this powerplant needs is a big fat injection of torque.

On the other hand, it will happily rumble along at lower speeds in higher gears all day long, as long as you can put up with leisurely low-rev performance. The choice is yours – strong noisy thrust or quiet languor. You cannot have both in the Patriot and that’s a shame.

Too bad Jeep doesn’t offer a diesel version in Oz any more either. It would certainly be the more frugal option – our hard driving saw our average L/100km readout soar past 11.3.

Equally disappointing is the gearshift quality, which is notchy and tiresome, and gained the most whinges from the various drivers who sampled our Jeep. We reckon the CVT option might be the go just to shut them up.

Look past the drivetrain and the Patriot continues to provide a mixed bag of results.

Jeep has fettled with the suspension by increasing the ride height installing a bigger rear anti-roll bar.

The outcome – on the Continental 215/60R17 tyres fitted to our vehicle – is a firm ride, transmitting many of the smaller bumps and road irregularities through to the cabin. And the incessant droning at higher speeds is something we can live without.

Yet the suspension does deal with the larger stuff with a degree of comfort and compliance.

Furthermore, the steering – while not especially sharp or communicative at lower velocities – does become eager and responsive at higher urban speeds on smooth bitumen, so you can hustle this along at a fair rate of knots through turns and not lose much composure.

But on country roads, where the surfaces aren’t so consistent, the Jeep begins to lose its nerve.

There’s far too much rack rattle from the steering, like the front-end is loose. The (switchable) traction control intervenes very early and too intrusively, cutting power even on relatively even bitumen. In fact, on one occasion, during a fast sweeping curve, it turned the cruise control off at the first flash of the ESP light.

And what seemed sharp around the burbs now feels nervous and a little too slow to react. There’s no joy to be had driving the Patriot with any sporty intent, despite what Jeep calls it, but at least it feels secure and controllable on long gravel straights.

In conclusion then, we are perplexed by who exactly this car is aimed at. Trad Jeep 4x4 enthusiasts will scoff at its soft-roader approach while more family-orientated buyers will baulk at its mediocre-at-best packaging, presentation, performance, refinement, and dynamics in what is a hotly contested corner of the market. The Patriot falls short either way.

On the other hand, it looks rugged, honest and functional – and for the most part it is – with some dynamic appeal if the driver is willing to extend that vocal engine up to the rev-limiter on slick suburban roads.

Sorry Jeep, there are more modern and capable compact SUVs out there, even if none quite have the macho looks and blocky charm of this American icon.

Despite the raft of improvements the Series II version brings, we doubt the Patriot will even come close to achieving the affection of its XJ Cherokee ancestor in years to come.

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