A two-Jeep family.

We had been talking about getting a primary vehicle to supplement Cathy’s Jeep TJ, of course, but it took an incident to really kick it into high gear. Cathy had been doing so well with her Jeep, even late in the pregnancy, that it just hadn’t been a critical thing for us. One snowy day, we were headed to the midwifery for a class of some sort, and the Jeep (in 2WD) started to slide on Cathy just past (not on) a bridge. I have to say, she did everything correctly by the book far as I could tell, steering correctly into the skid, and then correcting as gently as you could ask, but still it slid, first one way and then the other, and we went into one of those inexorable 180s in which you can see exactly what’s going to happen, in super slow-mo, and simply can’t do anything to change it. We tagged the front passenger corner into the guardrail, pretty hard, and she was ticked. Now, she’s also 8 months pregnant, and we have just found out that it is not just slick outside but stupid slick, so I insisted that she stay inside and let me look at it.

And look at it I did. I was not expecting what I found. I took several looks, actually, just to be sure I wasn’t fooling myself, but no, I had it right. Cathy’s new custom front bumper, which had been affixed just a few months before, positions a steel bar a few inches out from the front face of the vehicle. This bar was bent about five degrees toward the vehicle, while the driver’s side was perfectly straight. There was not a scratch to be found anywhere else—tires and fenderwells intact, winch untouched, light lenses in perfect order, nothing!

I got back in the car and answered Cathy’s look directly. “Dear,” I said, “your custom bumper just paid for itself.”

And so it did. Nonetheless, we decided we wanted a vehicle that had four meats in drive at all times, and now we had a goodly reason to step up the search. The initial thought was a Subaru Forester, based on our previous experience with Penny (the blue ’96 Outback we’d had before); we reasoned that the Forester would sit enough higher to be workable, and we could get back to the amazing sure-footedness of Subaru’s AWD system.

In the end, I’d never have guessed we’d end up with a 2008 Jeep Patriot with pretty much all the trimmings. Cathy and I both were predisposed against anything that smelled like a “Dieter-Jeep”, and this one certainly smacked of that label. In the end, what changed our minds was recognizing that we weren’t in the hunt for a “real Jeep” in the first place (duh…we already have a vehicle capable of far more than either of our driving skillsets or stomachs will tolerate), and then the test-drive. In a nutshell, we realized that we were mentally comparing DJs to “real-J”s, but we were not comparing anything else (like, for example, the Subarus) the same way. This was a mistake, of course, and when we recognized that what we were after (some sort of AWD or fulltime 4WD system, reasonable space and economy for a family utility vehicle, and if possible a truck-type ride height) was quite specifically not our beloved XJ platform (which fails the first and most critical test for us–it’s just not the surefooted wonder on ice that an AWD system is), suddenly the Patriot started to look pretty good. Then, at just that time, we had an entirely unexpected experience at a dealership, and met the Blue Raspberry (I simply call her “Blue”). She was a 2008 with a tiny handful of miles on it, with every trimming available at the time, priced almost exactly the same as the base 2009 models it sat next to. We happened across a salesman who took us on a good hour-and-a-half test-drive…he was very informative, and almost unnervingly low-pressure…and by the end of the drive, pretty much all my apprehensions about the vehicle had been answered in practice. We asked him for a little time to discuss what we’d learned…and the guy actually left us alone. We pretty quickly recognized that this was the right choice at the right time (or as “right” as you’re ever going to “know”), and bought the newest vehicle either of us had ever owned.

Several months down the road, with a trip to Fairbanks, several hauling operations and full-on family occupancy under her belt, we’re really happy with Blue. We’re both still trying to adjust not only to one of them newfangled “awtermatic transmissions”, but a CVT auto-tranny at that…it defintely has a “rubber-band” feeling to it at times, and on slick streets there is occasionally a horrible moment of panic when you can’t tell whether the vehicle is actually slipping or if the tranny is just adjusting. The power is there if you need it, and it is plenty smooth, but it take a little getting used to for those of us raised on fixed gears. But the economy is great, the space is definitely usable, the ride height is the perfect compromise between car and truck, and it will do nicely as a family vehicle (the kid-seat snaps in like butter). The AWD system is impressive, and the Patriot gives you something that the Subaru does not: an override of the AWD system into a locked 4WD state. As it happens, I’ve already had occasion to use this, and am really glad I had it available. Next year, we’ll put some tires of our own choosing on it and I suspect it will be even better on the slick stuff–which we, uh, do get up here.

Cathy and I are not exactly big on automotive gizmos, but two things I really am liking about this car are the battery heater plug and the heated front seats. The difference the battery heater makes on below-zero days is impressive (if she’s plugged in, -30 is like nothing), and heated seats are a more practical luxury in Alaska than probably any other single item you can add. The rest of it is gravy…but sometimes gravy is nice. In the end, Blue is about as sure-footed a vehicle as I have come across on ice, and that is what we wanted for our second vehicle. So, the stable is now Betty (Cathy’s TJ) for the fun stuff, and Blue for daily utility and trips.

Which leaves us free, now, to work on the next items. (An ATV and snowmachine, duh…)

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