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2008 Jeep Patriot

At first glance, the Patriot looks like it's about six years late to its own party, because it's such a faithful evolution of Jeep's Cherokee. It even shares the Cherokee's boxy bluffness, a big part of that vehicle's charm. But back in 2001, the Cherokee was replaced by the Liberty instead, a more gently curved, doe-eyed Jeep-on-Prozac.

The Patriot shares its platform with the Compass, Jeep's attempt to satisfy a perceived demand for a car with Jeep styling cues. Or a Jeep with car styling cues, depending on the salesman's reading of your inclination.

Like the Compass, the Patriot gets a 2.4-liter four that generates 165 lb-ft of torque at a high 4400 rpm. Mated to the standard five-speed manual, it provides lively, if vocal, performance. The optional continuously variable transmission (CVT) is less work but also less amusing. More baffling is the optional 2.0-liter four--CVTOnly--whose only claim to fame is that it's slightly more fuel efficient, according to the EPA, than the CVT-equipped 2.4-liter. With a manual gearbox, the 2.4 gets the same fuel economy rating as the 2.0-liter.

The Patriot competes with the Toyota RAV4, the Honda CR-V, and the Hyundai Santa Fe. In this company, the Jeep looks far more like a tough-guy off-roader than its curvaceous urbanite rivals. Inside, the Patriot's upright dash and flat expanse of hood make you feel as though you're in something substantial--more truck than minivan--and the simple controls are logically laid out.

And while it isn't particularly fun to drive on-road, this Jeep offers good ride quality and competitive dynamics that are miles ahead of the Wrangler and the Cherokee before it.

Jeep claims that the Patriot is the most capable compact SUV in its class when it comes to mud. Specify the Freedom Drive II off-road package and you get four-wheel drive (a front-wheel-drive Patriot is available), a CVT with a low ratio, heavy-duty engine cooling, skid plates, tow hooks, and a form of hill descent control. It's not Rubicon-ready, but the Patriot is actually pretty good off-road, which is all it needs to be.

At $14,985 for the two-wheel-drive Sport, it's cheap, too. That includes side curtain air bags, stability control, and a CD player with MP3 capability, plus the five-speed manual and the 2.4-liter engine. The Patriot Limited with Freedom Drive II starts at $23,530.

Even though the Patriot is six years late, we can't think of a better replacement for the Cherokee.

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