SCOTTSDALE, AZ – Imagine a pit bull, with its muscular jaws and taut flanks.

Now, think of the dog as a pup: vaguely intimidating, but impossible to take seriously.

Such is the challenge confronting Jeep as it rolls out the diminutive ’07 Patriot, the third variant off Chrysler Group’s front-wheel-drive C-segment platform. (The Dodge Caliber and Jeep Compass were first and second.)

More ambitious still is Jeep’s insistence on pinning its venerable Trail-Rated badge on Patriot’s top trim level.

The good news: This puppy can run with the big dogs.

On the down side, Patriot can use a little extra grooming.

Its pedigree is obvious at first glance. With its body-color, 7-slot grille and straight-edged side panels, Patriot’s 2-box design recalls the slabby but almost-iconic Jeep Cherokee midsize SUV that enjoyed a marketplace run spanning two decades, until it ended in 2001.

Other notable cues include slightly exaggerated fender flares. They help retain Jeep’s trademark trapezoidal wheel-well shape and complement the cross/utility vehicle’s high belt line.

With an overall height of 65.7 ins. (167 cm), Patriot is slightly taller than its pudgier Jeep platform-mate, the Compass. The latter was developed to capitalize on strong focus-group response from women, while the Patriot’s straightforward design played better with men.

Of the two, Patriot clearly seems more fetching.

Though trimmer to the eye, it is marginally larger than the clumsy-looking Compass. Patriot boasts a length of 173 ins. (440 cm) and a width of 69.1 ins. (176 cm).

Both CUVs share a 104-in. (264-cm) wheelbase.

Access and egress is effortless, while the driver’s sightlines are unencumbered by Patriot’s compressed greenhouse. Both of these attributes benefit from Patriot’s command-seating position.

Legroom is more than adequate, front and rear, with dimensions of 40.6 ins. (103 cm) and 39.4 ins. (100 cm), respectively. Concave front-row seatbacks afford rear passengers a little space to stretch.

And for occupants not paper-trained, there is YES Essentials stain-resistant, odor-fighting, anti-microbial upholstery from Milliken Automotive. This $250 option goes well with the cargo compartment’s rubber mat, which features a rugged diamond-plate pattern.

With its rear seats folded down, Patriot’s cargo volume grows from 23 cu.-ft (0.65 cu.-m) to 54.2 cu.-ft. (1.54 cu.-m), more than enough to accommodate a large kennel.

The instrument panel is stylish and well organized, but the proliferation of plastic is a major bone of contention. Not the quantity of plastic, but the quality.

Gloss levels on the dashboard could blind a sheepdog. Knock on any critical contact surface, from the center stack to the door panels, and it resonates with a hollow clack loud enough to resurrect the original Lassie.

This shortcoming becomes painfully intolerable when objects are placed in the handy, passenger-side, in-dash caddy. A squeaky chew-toy is less annoying than the resulting clatter of rolling pens and sliding sunglasses.

However, Patriot gets out of the doghouse thanks to its pricing and performance. Starting at a mere $14,985 – including a $560 destination charge – it is a bargain for car-buyers who expect advanced safety features, solid fuel economy and driving enjoyment in a stylish package.

Side-curtain airbags, electronic stability control with roll mitigation, and antilock brakes come standard.

Equipped with either of Chrysler Group’s I-4 World Engines, the 158-hp 2L version or the 172-hp 2.4L, the Patriot is no greyhound. But both engines can deliver up to 30 mpg (7.8 L/100 km) on the highway, depending on the transmission.

Choices include the T355 5-speed manual from Magna Powertrain and a pair of second-generation continuously variable transmissions from Jatco Ltd. – the CVT2 and the CVT2L.

The latter, optional for the Trail-Rated Patriot featuring the 2.4L I-4 and Jeep’s Freedom Drive II 4WD system, has a crawl ratio of 19:1. Ready access to its 165 lb.-ft. (224 Nm) of grunt is handy on the rain-slicked desert floor, where Patriot showed more heart than the most intrepid St. Bernard.

Used in various combinations, Patriot’s 4WD, low-gearing, electronic stability program and automatic hill-descent control make quick work of mud mounds and water holes, deep sand and steep inclines of loose rock. Its performance is certainly worthy of the esteemed Trail-Rated badge, which required Chrysler engineers to give their C-segment platform a come-uppance.

The Trail-Rated Patriot sits 1 in. (2.5 cm) higher than its other trim levels, giving it a 9-in. (23-cm) ground clearance. This enables Patriot to meet the 19-in. (48-cm) water-fording requirement to earn the storied black-and-silver badge.

The Trail-Rated Patriot also boasts a heavy-duty cooling system and high-mounted vent for the rear differential.

On-road, the Patriot is a bit doggy; “crisp” will not often be used to qualify its acceleration. But rolling over in-between surfaces, Patriot is in its element.

Its MacPherson strut front suspension and multi-link independent rear, both bolstered by gas-charged shocks and stabilizer bars, keep the vehicle planted. And there is no skitter as the car glides over the red-dirt washboard roadways overlooking Roosevelt Lake here, outside Scottsdale.

The sturdy suspension also benefits Patriot’s rack-and-pinion steering setup, which features hydraulic power assist. The technologies work in tandem to transmit consistent feedback through the ample steering wheel, which affords effortless management of these winding mountain passes.

Clearly, Jeep challenged itself when it decided to migrate its legendary off-road capability to a small, car-based platform. However, Patriot is proof that you can teach an old dog some new tricks.

emayne@wardsauto.com