Testing the Trail Rating

The CVT is your sole option if you choose the Freedom II Off-road Package. (The simpler 4WD is available with the stick.) By dropping the gear selector into the L position, also marked OFF ROAD, you change into Freedom II's additional low gear, which gives a 19:1 crawl ratio. Crawl I did — over boulders, ruts and tree limbs, giving the front and rear skid plates that come with this package a proper tryout. When properly equipped, the Patriot is definitely an off-roader. When in L, it seemed like the CVT had locked into a fixed gear ratio, so there was no unpredicted engine-revving funny business. An accompanying automatic change in the electronic throttle made for fine engine control.

In addition to the transfer case, which apportions power to the front and rear, four-wheel ABS-based traction control transfers it left and right, depending on which wheel has the most grip. While this always seems a wimpy way to do things, it's good enough for some other Jeep models, Land Rovers and similarly vaunted rock-crawlers. Compared to the Grand Cherokee's unflappable Quadra Drive II option, the brake-based control always brings more drama as the wheels alternately slip and then freeze, but the same can be said of this approach in other SUVs.

With Freedom Drive II and 17-inch wheels comes an increase of almost 1 inch in ride height for a minimum ground clearance of 9 inches. Instead of the rear axle, which is typically a truck's low point, the Patriot's unibody and four-wheel-independent suspension put the minimum clearance up front. The independent rear end exhibits drawbacks in some situations, where its suspension travel seems limited when compared to the solid, non-independent axles that purists prefer for off-roading. Having a wheel way up in the air, as in the photos, looks cool, but the lower it drops below the body, the greater the chance of getting purchase on the terrain.

Freedom Drive II includes hill-descent control, which helps you go down steep inclines by modulating the front and, particularly, the rear brakes. I didn't encounter an incline steep enough to warrant its use, and while traversing a patch of boulders it grunted away so incessantly that it seemed I was driving on the backs of hogs. Fortunately I figured out how to disable it.

When the uninitiated envision off-roading, they typically think of blasting down a sandy path at 40-plus mph, going sideways as often as forward and kicking up a smokescreen of dust, rally-race style. In truth, hardcore off-roading typically involves climbing slowly over obstacles and spending a whole day covering all of 5 miles. To my surprise, our offroad trail included a solid mile of sand, and I was able to, well, blast down a sandy path at 40-plus mph, going sideways as often as forward and kicking up a smokescreen of dust, rally-race style. Man, that's fun. (The stability system did its job, keeping everything nice and boring ... until I turned it off.) The Patriot made quick work of it, and I suspect the Off-road Package's augmented air filtration earned its keep.

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