2010 Jeep Patriot - Click above for high-res image gallery

The year was 2006, and Chrysler was fresh off the successful launch of the gangsta 300 and the oddly well-received Dodge Charger. The future looked bright for the Pentastar, with a plethora of new products set to arrive for the 2007 model year. The Chrysler Sebring and Aspen, the Dodge Caliber and Nitro and the Jeep Compass and Patriot were all primed to turn the car-buying world on-end. Or not. The Aspen is now history, the Sebring and Nitro have been abject failures, and the Caliber, Compass and Patriot, all of which share the same platform, haven't come close to meeting expectations.

But one vehicle almost had a shot: the Patriot. Despite mudding Jeep's crystal-clear brand DNA by adding a front-wheel drive soft-roader to the mix, the Patriot's all-four cylinder lineup and better-than-advertised fuel economy arrived just as gas prices rocketed into the stratosphere. So why did it flop? That's a novel unto itself, but the key culprits included poor interior materials and questionable build quality that conspired with a lackluster ad campaign and the overarching sense that Chrysler was teetering on the brink.

But in spite of all of that, the crew from Auburn Hills didn't leave the Patriot for dead. They upgraded the interior, made a host of hardware changes and reworked the rugged little crossover to be more competitive for 2010. We were keen to sample the fruits of their labors, so we picked up a fully-loaded 2010 Jeep Patriot Limited to see if the sum of its upgrades have made this front-drive stepchild a viable alternative in a crowded field of small crossovers.

Related GalleryReview: 2010 Jeep Patriot

Photos by Chris Shunk / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.

Looking at the Patriot from the outside shows a few cosmetic changes. Our tester was, however, equipped with the Patriot's attractive new 17-inch wheels, fog lamps and an additional inch of ground clearance courtesy of the Freedom II Package. But beyond some fresh new rollers and the visual cues that come with the off-road pack, the Patriot still looks like the visual successor to the Jeep Cherokee Classic, and we're okay with that. After all, the Patriot's most important upgrades are found inside.

Opening the driver's door of our Optic Green Metallic tester, it took all of two seconds to figure out that Chrysler's design team made substantial changes to the Patriot's once unbearable innards. Gone is the landfill-grade plastic on the dash, center stack and doors, replaced by far more tolerable swaths of, admittedly, hard-touch materials. Sure, we would love to see and feel soft, leathery fare, but the Patriot's upgraded bits are largely class competitive and with an entry sticker of just over $18,000 with destination, lamb skin accents aren't exactly a cost efficient option.

But do "substantial upgrades" and "class competitive" equal "nice interior?" Yes and no. First, here's what we liked: The comfy, leather-cladded seats in our tester provided great lateral support for both light off-roading and pedestrian errand-running. The leather-wrapped steering wheel had a great feel, and the switches and buttons were easily accessed, losing much of the cheap sensation of its predecessor. Our tester was also gussied with tastefully applied chrome appliqués that gave the otherwise stark black interior a kick of visual flare.

Also included was a host of infotainment options that car buyers have come to expect. Navigation, MP3 connectivity, satellite radio, UConnect hands-free system and 30 gigs worth of storage are all present and accounted for, and it didn't take a degree from MIT to get everything to work properly. Chrysler's 6.5-inch navigation system may bet a bit out of date compared to other OEM systems on the market, but it wins on ease of use.

We also enjoyed the 368-watt, nine-speaker Boston Acoustic sound system, which provides high quality sound at a reasonable cost. Two of those speakers are attached to the hatch and folds down when open – they're a perfect tailgating companion to be sure, but a bit flimsy-looking upon closer inspection. The upgraded sound system with the hard drive storage, moonroof and nav combine to be a $2,580 option; a relative bargain compared to other options on the market.

Yet while the Patriot's interior has improved dramatically since its 2007 debut, there are a few remaining issues. Our "Limited" tester will set buyers back a hefty $30,510, placing it against much more polished competition, yet the doors and center arm rest are still covered with hard, unattractive plastics at the major touch points. The massive opening above the glove box is still an ergonomic oddity and running our hands over the edges reveals sharp plastic that just doesn't pass muster. In short, you get the sense that the Patriot has gone under the knife, but the surgeon only hacked out part of the cancer and is still charging you full price.

Even worse is the powertrain. The Patriot continues to be saddled with an anemic 2.4-liter mill that provides the bare minimum of acceleration. We know we're talking about a 3,315-pound utility vehicle equipped with a Trail Rated 4WD system, but it would be nice to feel like we could get out of our own way when the need arises.

That said, the Patriot's 172-horsepower, 165 pound-feet engine is perfectly adequate around town, but taking off from a stop or passing on the freeway can be a white-knuckled chore. And it's not like we're getting world-beating fuel economy in exchange for sacrificing get up and go. The Patriot's trip computer averaged just over 22 mpg during a week of mixed driving, which isn't horrible, but certainly not worth the four-pot's atrophied muscle. And while it doesn't feel like Chrysler's "World Engine" is working very hard, it sure sounds like a soprano without a voice coach. Or a gaggle of bees ricocheting around the crank case.

When we looked over the Patriot's list of equipment, the 2.4-liter motor wasn't the only red flag. Chrysler opted for a continuously variable transmission to manage its asthmatic powerplant, a tranny that tends to agitate rather than inspire. But while we braced for the worst, we quickly discovered that the CVT wasn't part of the Patriot's powertrain predicament. In fact, we hardly noticed that droning "one-speed" sensation found with many CVTs – the transmission eased the engine into the optimum RPM range without fuss or muss.

We managed to travel about 500 miles during our week with the Patriot, and while we are left wanting more power, we had no qualms with the little ute's ride and handling. The Patriot doesn't have the off-road chops of it's Liberty sibling, but the little CUV is far more comfortable around town. On paved roads, the Patriot goes Clark Kent, behaving like other crossovers in its class. Pot holes are tackled without drama, the brakes are solid, the steering decently weighted and body roll is nicely controlled. However, unlike many of its competitors, this Clark Kent has some surprising off-roading superpowers.

That's right, the very same front drive "soft-roader" that Jeep enthusiasts derided has an available "Trail Rated" package for those who enjoy the road less traveled. Our tester came equipped with the aforementioned Freedom II package, which incorporates a one inch higher ride height over the Freedom I package, a 27.5 degree approach, 23 degree brakeover and 31.4 degree departure angle. The Freedom II package also includes its own CVT configuration with a class-leading 19:1 low ratio for crawling over rocks, undulating uneven surfaces and clearing otherwise troublesome rough spots. Fog lights, tow hooks, 17-inch all-terrain tires, a full-size spare and an air filtration system are among the other features included in the package.

We didn't have any undulating hills or Mojave-style rocks at our disposal, so instead we set out into a field filled with dirt, mud and several hidden holes that would leave most vehicles stuck and stranded. The water-mud mixture we tackled ranged from four- to 10-inches deep, with six-foot tall grass hiding large rocks and even larger water-filled crevices. Thankfully, the package includes additional body sealing and high-mounted drivetrain vents to traverse 19-inches of liquid fun. At one point there was some deliberation as to whether or not we should step into the swamp and take some pictures (our better judgment told us not to), and while we were noodling over our options the Patriot began to sink. Naturally, we got a bit nervous and decided to back out before we had to make an apologetic call to Chrysler. But to our amazement, we escaped so effortlessly that we popped the slush box back into D and retraced our steps to show the mud who's boss. We never even came close to getting stuck, but the smiles were seemingly frozen in place for quite a while. It appears Jeep takes its Trail Rated badge very seriously and to our amazement and delight the brand's DNA remains intact.

When we first analyzed the Patriot on paper, we couldn't wrap our heads around why Jeep would build a vehicle almost identical in size to the Liberty, but minus the off-roading capability. But after a week's worth of plebeian runs and inspired flogging, there is one big reason anyone would buy the Liberty at a $5,000 premium. The engine. While the Patriot is more comfortable, almost as roomy and has 90 percent of the capability of its more rugged sibling, its uninspired powertrain remains its Achilles' heel. Outfitted past $30k, the Patriot is certainly a tough pill to swallow, but its increased fuel economy, improved road manners and off-road ability give it a reason for being. It might've been born under a bad sign, but in its second life the Patriot is worth a second look.

Related GalleryReview: 2010 Jeep Patriot

Photos by Chris Shunk / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.