OAK RIDGE ESTATE, ARRINGTON, Va. -- Red clay, wet. Worse than ice. Jeep on a side slope. Gravity takes over. Yikes.
Some miracle prevents the Patriot from smashing a tree that was supposed to be off to the left but now is dead ahead of the driver. And prevents it from slipping another few inches sideways and rolling into a sufficiently alarming gully — on the driver's side, of course.
What do we learn from this exciting close call, boys and girls? First, just as in swimming, go with a buddy (but in Jeeping, be sure the buddy has a winch with a long cable). Second, make sure your trail spotter, the person who's supposed to guide you through the seemingly impossible spots using hand signals, is outside the vehicle. Inside, where it's warm and dry, the spotter's view is no better than yours.
But, as enthusiasts like to say, "You ain't four-wheelin' if you ain't stringin' cable." So we were four-wheelin'. Winch cable hooked into Patriot's right front tow hook, then off to the right, around a tree and back down to the winch-meister. A little tug sideways by the Jeep-mounted winch, a little backing up by the Patriot and, there you have it. Realigned and free to press on.
That was the only get-stuck episode. Actually more fun than scary, especially when the sheetmetal that might get bent belongs to somebody else.
Small trees across the trail, a deep and fast stream, mud puddles — all handled without much hassle.
And that was the point Jeep wanted to make: Properly equipped, the Patriot's no wimp.
Even though it has relatively modest ground clearance. And no separate transfer case with a set of low-range gears. And is built atop what you might reasonably view as a car chassis, given that it also underpins the car-like Jeep Compass, and the Dodge Caliber, which by any sensible definition is an economy car.
Ah, hah, says Matt Liddane,. Patriot chief engineer: We didn't start development with the Caliber in mind and then, oops, have to heavily modify that chassis for the off-road Patriot. No, indeed. Started with the off-road Patriot in mind and just didn't make the Caliber and Compass chassis quite as robust or put on skid plates to protect the underbody's key parts — powertrain and fuel tank — from nasty rocks, as on the Patriot when it's fitted with the Freedom Drive II (off-road) package. You get "Trail Rated" logos on the fenders to remind your buddies that you're no poser.
The off-road ability is partly due to a devilishly clever application of the continuously variable automatic transmission, or CVT — CVT2L, as it's designated in the case of the off-road package. It is modified to include an unusually low, crawler-gear ratio for low-speed slogging. No need for the weight and friction of a separate four-wheel-drive transfer case to accommodate a set of low-range gears, as you find in other off-roaders. Less weight, lower cost, better ground clearance. Good thinking.
Also clever: You can shift into four-wheel drive without using the crawler gear. In fact, you can leave the Patriot in four-wheel drive all the time, at a slight cost in fuel economy. The system is normally front-drive, and will send up to 50% of power to the rear wheels when the fronts slip.
Traction control apportions power side-to-side at each end of the vehicle. Wheel on one side begins to spin, the brake slows or stops it and power flows to the opposite wheel. Jeep's soon-to-be-estranged corporate relative Mercedes-Benz pioneered that on the ML SUV years ago, considerably less effectively than Jeep does it.
So, high marks for unexpected off-road prowess. But on-road, where you spend nearly all your time, Patriot's not as nifty. What might bother you:
• Side windows aren't very tall, making it seem as if you're peering out through slits.
• Back seat, roomy and comfortable in general, can't handle a middle rider. Center tunnel's too big. Center console's rear cupholders extend too far back. Think of it as a four-passenger vehicle, not five.
• CVT, so effective off-road, is annoying on-road. It allows the engine to rev a lot without generating commensurate increases in forward motion. And it jerks a bit as the vehicle comes to a stop. CVT state-of-the-art is beyond that. Patriot's seems like yester-tech.
• The engine sounds course, crude. That's amplified by the drivetrain gearing, which spins the engine at a busy 3,000 rpm at highway speed. Can you say "aggravating drone?"
• Fuel economy is underwhelming for the off-roader. Figure 20 or so overall. The Freedom Drive II model sits an inch higher in the airstream and is geared differently, dragging down mileage, as well as costing you the best part of $2,000, so think twice.
• Interior is on the cheap side. Plastic surfaces aren't abysmal but neither are they alluring. And lines are obvious where trim pieces meet. In the test vehicles, both of them regular production models, the pieces didn't always mate perfectly. Minor, but we're beyond that, aren't we?
There are some counter-balancing attributes.
If you get the manual transmission, you'll enjoy easy, smooth shifting and a light-touch clutch that minimizes jerky starts and engine-killing embarrassments.
Leather seats are especially good looking and comfortable. Cloth also is handsome and comfy.
Optional steering wheel audio controls, as on all Chrysler brands, are the best in the business. Sited on the back of the wheel (from the driver's perspective), they don't mar the appearance and are a fingertip's twitch away from activation.
Open-air comfort — ignored by most vehicle developers — is excellent in Patriot. No buffeting with the windows down, just the breeze you wanted.
If you're new to off-roading, or need a boonie buggy for modest challenges in a machine you also can drive every day, Patriot is on a very short list.
2007 Jeep Patriot
What is it? Small, inexpensive starter Jeep, now that the rough and ready Wrangler has gotten pricey. Resembles the old Cherokee. Four-door SUV available with front-wheel drive (fwd) or four-wheel drive (4wd). Manufactured at Belvidere, Ill., alongside the mechanically similar Jeep Compass and Dodge Caliber.
•How soon? On sale since January.
•How much? Starts at $15,110 including $560 destination as of Wednesday, an increase of $125 over the launch price. About $28,000 with every option.
Test vehicles were Patriot Sport 4wd with five-speed manual nicely equipped, priced $21,265, and Limited 4x4 with Freedom Drive II, CVT2L off-road transmission and other options, priced $24,180.
Early popularity means tight supplies means little discounting. Expect to pay within a few hundred dollars of full window-sticker price, according to Edmunds.com and CarsDirect.com.
•Who'll buy? Budget-minded Jeepers who need a dual-purpose machine, weekday grind and weekend mud puddles.
•How many? Chrysler won't say. Factory can build up to 400,000 vehicles a year, split among Patriot, Compass and Dodge Caliber.
•What's the drivetrain? 2.4-liter, four-cylinder engine rated 172 horsepower at 6,000 rpm, 165 pounds-feet of torque at 4,400 rpm, five-speed manual transmission.
Optional on some models for maximum fuel economy: 2-liter, four-cylinder rated 158 hp at 6,400, 141 lbs.-ft. at 5,000.
Continuously variable automatic transmission, called CVT2, is $1,050 option. Off-road-geared CVT, called CVT2L, is priced the same and required with off-road package called Freedom Drive II.
4wd system normally operates as fwd, sends up to 50% of power to rear, as needed. Traction control manages side-to-side power flow. Transmission ratio and traction- and stability-control systems have special off-road settings controlled by CVT2L.
Overall low gear ratio with CVT2L is 19.1 to 1, vs. 14.4 to 1 with CVT2. Hardcore off-road vehicles with two-speed transfer have 30 to 1 or higher overall low-range ratio. Higher is better.
•What's the safety gear? Expected bags, belts, plus side-impact bags in front, anti-lock brakes, stability control. Side-curtain bags front and rear are optional.
•What else? What you might expect to be standard that isn't: Air conditioning; power locks, windows and mirrors; floor mats. Features vary by model. See www.Jeep.com for details.
•How big? About 1,000 pounds lighter, several inches smaller than 2008 Jeep Liberty, but about as roomy inside. Patriot is 173.6 inches long, 69.1 inches wide, 65.7 inches tall on a 103.7-inch wheelbase. Weight ranges from 3,108 pounds for Sport with fwd to 3,310 pounds for Limited with 4wd.
Passenger space is listed as 101.7 cubic feet. Cargo space, in cubic feet: behind rear seat, 23; with rear seats folded, 54.2; with rear seats and front passenger seat folded, 62.7.
Rated to tow up to 2,000 pounds with proper equipment.
Rated to carry 925 pounds of people, cargo.
Turning circle is listed as 35.6 feet, curb-to-curb.
•How thirsty? Varies widely according to model and equipment. Worst is off-road model with 2.4-liter engine, CVT2L transmission: 21 miles per gallon in town, 23 on the highway, 22 in combined driving under 2007 federal formula; 19/21/20 under '08 formula.
Best is optional 2-liter engine with CVT2: '07 ratings are 26/30/28 and '08 ratings would be 23/27/24.
See www.fueleconomy.gov/feg for all ratings.
Trip computer in Limited, 4wd with CVT2L and Freedom Drive off-road equipment showed 22 in 145 hilly highway miles, dropping to 20.2 when 70 suburban miles were added.
Tank holds 13.6 gallons (fwd) or 13.5 gallons (4wd). Regular-grade gasoline is specified.
•Overall:Surprisingly competent off-road equipped properly. Acceptable on-road despite annoyances.