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Test Drive: 2011 Jeep Patriot

I’m expecting my first child, so a surefire way to pique my interest is to have me test any car that’s remotely family-friendly. So it wasn’t as a spec-happy car reviewer that I evaluated the Jeep Patriot press loaner I had last week. It was as a mom-to-be who’s actually in the market for a family car.

The Patriot makes a strong case for itself as a baby-mobile. It’s an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety Top Safety Pick for 2011. The four-wheel drive model with an automatic transmission that I tested gets an EPA-estimated 21/26 mpg – not bad for something that can handle light off-roading. The Patriot’s classic Jeep-ish styling also appealed to me. It stands out in a sea of soft and round crossovers. Then there’s the price: starting at $15,995, the Patriot won’t bust family budgets. My test car stickered at $25,147, but had a lot of features, including four-wheel drive, Bluetooth, iPod interface, heated front seats and satellite radio.

I also liked the way the Jeep Patriot drives. Unlike a lot of SUVs that can head off-road, it was comfortable and smooth around town, but had just enough roughness to remind you that yeah, you’re in a Jeep. Even though it doesn’t handle as well as other crossovers do, that touch of truck made it fun to drive. It felt rugged, but not uncomfortable. Its small size and trail-ready turning radius made it perfect for tight parking lots.

The tidy exterior dimensions of the Patriot meant compromising on cargo space, and I wasn’t happy about that. Not only was the cargo area small at just 23 cubic feet, but the load floor was high. I had to give my Labrador a boost to get in (which is what you want to be doing when you’re pregnant – lifting 80-pound dogs). I could easily see most of the space being swallowed by a stroller, and lifting one in and out multiple times a day would be no picnic either.

The 172-horsepower engine seems good on paper, but on the road it was a buzzy and hesitant passer. Getting on the highway sometimes required the goodwill of other drivers. Visibility all-around was good, thanks to the boxy design, but the rear glass was so high that seeing toys or kids who might be behind the car was nearly impossible. A rearview camera would be a good idea, but the Patriot doesn’t offer one.

There’s a lot to like about the Patriot. It’s not a cookie-cutter family SUV, its fuel economy is good and unlike the other crossovers driving car pool, it can head off-road. I felt a little bit cool driving it. But, as mom jeans and Crocs have shown us, sometimes being a mom means sacrificing being cool. I’ll be buying something else for my family.

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