The 2011 Jeep Patriot may be no Wrangler, but it represents the direction the brand MUST take to stay relevant. For the consumer, it means a crossover that does many things well, especially for those who want versatility that will pay dividends in EVERYDAY driving, rather than those few moments on the Rubicon trail.

When the Patriot was introduced along size the Compass, it resulted in a collective groan from Jeep enthusiasts, watching the brand’s iron-strong off-road reputation being smelted right in front of them.

As hard as it was to hear for those who loved the unrivaled capabilities of the Wranglers and Cherokee’s of the world, Jeep needed the Patriot and Compass to survive. As the SUV craze turned into the crossover land grab, Jeep needed an entrant. It found two, actually, in the Patriot and Compass. These two 5-passenger crossovers that share more DNA with the Dodge Caliber hatchback then they do a Wrangler.

The major setbacks for the Patriot were not its off-road prowess (or lack thereof). Rather, its sub par interior and rough ride (especially for such a road-borne SUV) were its major hindrances. It was a common thread for almost all Chrysler products going into the recession and when the auto industry took a nosedive, people favored well-designed import brands like Kia, Hyundai, and Subaru. The Patriot and Compass were no different, and sales suffered as a result.

Since the bailout (and Fiat’s new ownership of the Chrysler brand) Jeep, Dodge, and Chrysler models are quietly and quickly being improved, starting with the interior. The Patriot that we tested is no exception. The once clunky, and ill-fitting panels of the earlier Patriot have been replaced. This new cabin doesn’t blow it away from the competition, but finally puts it on an even playing field. (that competition includes the Kia Sportage and Subaru Forester). The layout of controls has not been changed, rather the fit, finish, and actual design of the new dash, instrument cluster, and center stack blend for a cabin that’s easy on the eyes, and an easy place in which to spend the daily commute.

Trims for the Patriot are the Base($15,995), Latitude ($19,695), and range-topping Latitude X ($22,195), which we drove. Complete with the $3,700 customer preferred package, that featured heated seats, a leather-wrapped multifunction steering wheel, and a trip computer with compass and ambient temperature readouts within the gauge cluster. IPod-toting drivers should get a lot of use out of the standard audio input jack and the center-stack located 115-volt wall-style power outlet is great for anyone looking to charge a laptop on the road.

Our test model also featured the optional $650 Media Center 430- CD/DVD/MP3 player, complete with 30GB hard drive (which can store up to 6,700 songs), all operated via a 6.5-inch touchscreen display. Match that with the $375 Uconnect package, featuring Bluetooth, USB input jack, and 1-year Sirius subscription, and you have a crossover highly routed in real-world utility.

The rear pop-out flashlight is something of an easter egg, and will prove useful when camping or tailgating. I don’t suggest trekking to the Rubicon Trail to camp, though- that’s where the Patriot runs into trouble.

Base power for the Patriot is a 2.0-liter inline-4, making 158 horsepower, while the uprated Latitude gets a 2.4-liter inline-4 putting out 172 horsepower. That smaller engine will get you the better fuel economy, but you’ll be struggling to make it up to highway speed. If you want any semblance of power, go with the 2.4-liter.

The Patriot is available in both front and all wheel drive forms (Jeep calls it 4WD, but lets be serious, people). A FWD Patriot is a great choice if its space and fuel economy you’re after. If you live in an inclement region, one of the two all wheel drive models would be advised. To be precise, its two AWD-to-transmission  combinations. Power is sent through either a 5-speed manual, and two continuously variable transmissions. The CVT II is an $1,100 option, while the CVT with off-road crawl ratio we tested is a $1,050 option. The latter setup gets the “Trail-Rated” accolade, and works simultaneously with the downhill descent control to bring some actual off-road chops to the Patriot.

For when Patriot meets an obstacle in the road or a seriously degraded dirt road, Off-Road Crawl Mode is engaged by putting the CVT into “Low”, and lifting up on the lever located at the bottom of the center console. It won’t turn the Patriot into a Wrangler Rubicon, but it WILL get the Patriot through some relatively rough terrain that some other road-going crossover drivers may have to think twice about. It is Trail Rated, but I would say just barely.

That moderate off-road prowess comes at a cost. The all wheel drive CVT Patriot gets 20 miles per gallon city, 23 miles, highway. That’s not very impressive. The best performer in terms of MPG’s is the base 2.0L with front wheel drive and the 5-speed manual gets 23 miles per gallon city, 29 highway. Nothing to write home about, but still, near 30 MPG’s is respectable.

So, its clear that the Patriot is not a rugged example of a long line of sold off-roading machines. Traditional Jeep? No, but the Patriot is, a capable everyday runabout that has what it takes to trudge through inclement road conditions. Fact is, those likely to look at the Patriot will never push it to the bounds of its soft-roading capabilities. Taking that into consideration may not ease the gripe of those diehard Jeep enthusiasts.

What should ease the pain is in knowing that the Patriot is a competent vehicle, and fully capable of selling well. The Patriot, and for that matter redesigned Compass, and Grand Cherokee (all vehicles that Jeep diehards would argue water down the brand) all must do well to ensure Wranglers will keep being built for decades to come.

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