Thursday, May 10, 2012

Review: 2012 Jeep Patriot Latitude 4x4: A compact crossover from an off-road legend

2012 Jeep Patriot Lattitude 4x4 - Subcompact Culture
The Trail Rated Jeep Patriot 4x4 has more ground clearance than many other small SUVs. Photo by Curtis Reesor.
No brand is more synonymous with life off the pavement, the outdoors, and four-wheel drive than Jeep. When most people think of Jeep, they likely think of the iconic Wrangler—a living off-road legend that can go through (and over) terrain most people would never dream of. I say this out of experience, as I’ve done quite a bit of off-roading in them. However, back in 2007, Jeep decided to try another avenue with its vehicles, and it introduced a car-based SUV with fully independent suspension. Gasp! Shunned by purists for its car-like features and less-aggressive off-road ability, the compact Jeep Patriot (and its cousins the Jeep Compass and Dodge Caliber) is based on a front-wheel-drive platform. Double gasp! The Patriot offers available all-wheel drive, and even the coveted Trail Rated badge, meaning the vehicle meets a certain level of off-road credibility. And while Jeep purists may scoff at the Patriot, I look at it as a good thing. See, if Jeep can sell more vehicles as a whole, it allows more money to be set aside to continue building vehicles such as the Wrangler. Plus, it brings in new blood to the brand.

In 2011, the Patriot got a slight exterior freshening and an interior retooling, both of which added nice touches to the vehicle, and those continue into 2012. There are several trim levels for the Patriot ranging from the base 2.0-liter front-drive model with crank windows and no air conditioning (well, it is a Jeep), to all-wheel drive versions with a more powerful 2.4-liter engine, a CVT with an off-road gear allowing for a pseudo crawl mode, and a suspension system with more ground clearance. There’s no transfer case like a true 4x4, but rather the CVT and center differential lock allow for slow going when you’d want it.

Our 2012 Patriot Latitude 4x4 test model featured the CVT, larger 2.4-liter mill, and a host of features. Plus this Patriot has the honor of wearing Jeep’s “Trail Rated” badge, meaning this Patriot is more off-road capable than some of the other trim levels.

2012 Jeep Patriot Latitude 4x4 - Subcompact Culture
The Patriot definitely has Jeep DNA in its styling. We think it resembles the old Jeep Cherokee. Photo by Curtis Reesor.
The Patriot may remind you of a certain Jeep from yesteryear; specifically the beloved Cherokee. The Cherokee, last available in 2001, did feature a true 4x4 drivetrain, solid front and rear axles, and unibody construction—the latter being the only attribute the Cherokee and Patriot share. Interestingly, they’re about the same size, and the 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine makes the same amount of horsepower as some six-cylinder Cherokees used to—170 hp. The Patriot’s four-banger churns out less torque than the venerable 4.0-liter inline-six did in the Cherokee, but that’s to be expected.

Acceleration is adequate, but it’s more than enough to keep up with traffic and to merge and pass. The CVT unfortunately saps the driving excitement out of the vehicle. It should be noted that the Patriot is one of only a small handful of compact all-wheel-drive vehicles on the market that you can purchase with a manual transmission for under $25,000 (the others being the Suzuki SX4 and the Subaru Impreza and Forester). If we were to plunk down the cash for this vehicle, you can bet we’d opt for the five-speed manual transmission which not only would be more fun to drive, but would get better fuel economy. More on that in a moment.

There’s no surprises in the handling department. The Patriot is softly sprung and has lots of body roll in the corners. The all-wheel-drive did keep the car planted, but it isn’t very happy being driven enthusiastically in the twisties. It does, however, ride quite decently. Braking required significant pedal force, and the car nose dives under hard stops. Speaking of, whenever we’d come to a stop or start, the front suspension would make a creaking noise. Keep in mind, this test vehicle had only 1,500 miles on it.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have a chance to take the Patriot off the pavement much, other than a couple dirt roads. I did try out the crawl gearing and it does noticeably slow the vehicle for increased control in rough terrain. It also has more ground clearance than a base Patriot (and other small SUVs). I bet it’d be fun in the sand, actually. That being said, buyers would likely want to leave anything more difficult than the easy trails to more capable vehicles, such as the Wrangler. But, this Trail Rated Patriot is more capable than most “cute utes” on the market.

2012 Jeep Patriot Latitude 4x4 cargo area - Subcompact Culture
There is scads of cargo capacity in the Jeep Patriot, and the passenger's seat folds flat, too. Photo by Curtis Reesor.
We found the Patriot’s exterior to be handsome and masculine—a quality not found on many compact crossovers; there’s plenty of Jeep DNA in its looks. The interior is simple and utilitarian. Fold down the rear seats and the interior becomes voluminous. Plus, the passenger’s seat folds flat as well, which allows for longer loads to be carried. Heck, you could probably sleep in this thing if you wanted (and were under 6 ft. tall). The front seats are comfortable, but lack support and bolstering. The dashboard layout is simple and clean, featuring my favorite intuitive three-dial climate control setup. Compared to some compact SUVs and crossovers, the Patriot has a very long hood, and the overall feeling of the interior combined with this factor makes you feel like you’re driving a much larger car. Outward visibility is good, but the windows are tiny and the cabin feels dark and smallish.

Although the interior of the ’11 and ’12 Patriot is much improved over previous iterations, there were still items that felt cheap. The center console, for instance, rattled incessantly. Some of the trim pieces felt hard and hollow, too. I’m fine with hard and hollow for utility’s sake, but the rattles, not so much.

2012 Jeep Patriot Latitude 4x4 interior - Subcompact Culture
We felt the interior was clean and simple, but there were some squeaks and rattles. Photo by Curtis Reesor.
This review subject also had amenities including a four-speaker stereo with MP3 and Bluetooth (with streaming audio), power windows/locks, four-wheel disc brakes, air conditioning, hill assist and descent control, a very convenient 115V two-prong outlet, and side roof rails.

Our Latitude model also featured options such as the attractive 17” wheels and 215/65/17 all-terrain tires, skid plates, tow hooks, an engine oil cooler, and roof crossbars.

We really wanted to love the Patriot, and it was on our short list of AWD cars that could replace our now-replaced Suzuki SX4. However, the driving experience wasn’t as engaging as the SX4 or the Subaru models (we bought a Forester). The test model’s handling, small windows, and build quality issues turned us off. In addition, our tester had low fuel economy ratings of 20 city and only 23 highway. At this point, you’re only a few MPGs away from a more capable 4x4 that has more off-road prowess, such as the Jeep Wrangler.

2012 Jeep Patriot Latitude - Subcompact Culture
The Patriot has a masculine look for a compact SUV. Photo by Curtis Reesor.

This 2012 Jeep Patriot Latitude 4x4 has an MSRP of $25,235. While on par with the segment, the fuel economy, build quality, and on-road handling keep the Patriot from achieving greatness. There’s a good chance the Patriot will be replaced in the near future with something that has some Fiat genes, since Fiat now owns Chrysler. And while a Jeep with Fiat underpinnings may sound odd (especially to Jeep purists), it’s likely it’ll be an improvement over the current vehicle in terms of driving dynamics, build quality, and overall performance. The Patriot is very utilitarian and attractive looking. However, it faces some very stiff competition from a variety of manufacturers, both import and domestic.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review. I think I'll pass on it. I wish there were more small, but capable offroad vehicles offered. Suzuki was the only one that gave us something small & capable: the Samurai & Sidekick in the early '90s. Everything else is too gigantic: FJ Cruiser, Pathfinder, Cherokee, Wrangler, etc. I love the looks of the Patriot, but the trail rated version with the CVT tranny scares me as far as reliability goes. If they offered a trail rated manual, I would probably consider it.

TimothyPilgrim said...

I have the equivalent 2008 model, in Canadian form called the North Edition, but essentially identical. Mine is Trail Rated as well. My 2008 has the older hard plastic interior which is quite awful, but very utilitarian as Jeeps are meant to be. I also have the same front suspension creaking from the time I bought it at 40k kms. It's an annoyance more than anything. The power is fine and I've had no problems with drivability. I don't find a problem with the brakes either. The CVT is what it is, and I went for this vehicle because of the Trail Rated package (which gives the higher ride height, tow hooks, driveline sealing, skid plates, and 19:1 crawl ratio) to endure our harsh winters. The fold flat passenger seat cannot be understated, it is awesome for carrying longer items, and I'm even going to try to sleep in it. This is the worst version of the Patriot for fuel mileage though. I get about 18 mpg on 87 octane. But I'm no longer afraid of getting stuck in the snow or tackling unimproved roads. And it was dirt cheap used ($11k) which is the main reason I didn't go with what I originally wanted, a Wrangler Unlimited.

Randy Zeitman said...

This is my dream vehicle for offroading. Love all the space available for cargo. Thanks for the great review!