One way to measure the value of the Compass might be to compare it to the trusty Jeep Cherokee that was enormously popular for 18 years and finally ended its run in 2001. The Compass is slightly bigger and light years better than the Cherokee was 10 years ago. The new Compass costs about $1000 less, in today's dollars. When you consider inflation (28 percent by the Consumer Price Index), that number blows up to more than $6000 cheaper.
The Compass is built on a front-wheel-drive, car-based platform (called the GS, a modified version of a platform that supports the Mitsubishi Lancer). The Compass comes with a choice of front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive.
The Jeep Compass uses DaimlerChrysler's 2.4-liter, four-cylinder World Engine, developed jointly for 21st century efficiency with Mitsubishi and Hyundai. It's a solid, sophisticated, 16-valve engine, quieter and stronger than a four-banger was believed capable of being, 10 years ago. It features electronic variable valve timing that continually changes the torque curve, bringing more versatility to the 165 peak pound-feet of torque, and more capability to the 172 peak horsepower. Emphasis during development of this engine was on fuel mileage; even carrying 3326 pounds, the Compass 4WD with a five-speed manual transmission delivers 25 city and 29 highway miles per gallon, estimated by Jeep.
The Jeep Compass offers a Continuously Variable Transaxle, which performs like an automatic transmission, and it's a doozy. The CVT is optional with the Compass Sport model, and standard on the Limited, where Autostick can be added to the CVT. Autostick enables the driver to shift up and down over six steps, making it feel like a six-speed gearbox without a clutch pedal. The combination of CVT with six-speed Autostick is the best of both worlds, and works more precisely than the manual/automatic transmissions in many expensive sports sedans.
The safety, ride and handling of the Compass are all excellent, with a strong steel structure and well-planned subframe. Side-curtain airbags and electronic stability control with anti-rollover sensors are standard. Although, in order to keep the advertised MSRP down, air conditioning and power windows and locks are optional.
The styling is similar but sleeker than Jeep's other small SUV, the Liberty, which uses a six-cylinder engine. There's good interior space all around, with rear seats that fold flat to make about 54 cubic feet of cargo space. Options for added versatility include reclining rear seats and a passenger front seat that also folds flat, creating either a table or eight-foot-long space for storage.
Jeep Compass Sport 2WD ($15,425); Sport 4WD ($17,025); Limited 2WD ($19,580); Limited 4WD ($21,180)
The liftgate on the Compass is sloped at nearly a 45-degree angle while the Liberty's is vertical; and the third side window, into the cargo area, is a stylized triangle (leaving more sheetmetal and reducing visibility) while the Liberty's window is, again, squared.
That slope at the rear of the Compass is matched by the steeply raked windshield, leading up to a roof that's six inches lower than the Liberty's. Black plastic roofrails continue from the top corners of the windshield all the way to the spoiler over the liftgate, channeling water over the roof.
The Compass is one inch closer to the ground than the Liberty. The more car-like styling and relative sleekness make the Compass look longer than the Liberty, but it's actually one inch shorter.
The Compass Limited has aluminum-looking trim on the sides and bumpers. The less-costly Sport looks classier in its cleaner monotone. The optional 18-inch chromed aluminum wheels on the Limited will appeal to those who want their Jeep SUV to look more like a Cadillac Escalade.
The cabin layout is functional and roomy. It isn't very exciting to look at, trimmed in a lot of two-tone vinyl (boring in beige but better in gray), but what mostly matters is room for your stuff, including your elbows and legs. The front door pockets are short but deep enough to get your hand in, at least. They're short to make room for big stereo speakers in the doors.
The gauges are clean and pleasant, white on black with a symmetrical layout against a simple silver background. The four-spoke steering wheel is solid to grip. The center stack is wide and intelligent: rectangular vents on top, over the one-disc AM/FM/CD, over a slot that might hold a paperback book. Below that are three climate control knobs, some buttons and then the shift lever at the driver's right knee. Both the automatic and manual transaxle levers are mounted in this practical high forward position, introduced by Honda after being copied from rally racing cars, where ergonomics matter.
Moving rearward between the front seats, there are two fixed cupholders, the emergency brake handle, and a flip-up center console containing a slot for a cellphone or MP3 player. The console top is an armrest, and can be slid three inches to accommodate drivers of different sizes.
Legroom is good, both front and rear: 39.4 inches in the rear. The Compass will be a fine vehicle for a family trip, with reclining rear seats, optional on Sport and standard on Limited. There are cupholders in the rear but no net pockets on the front seatbacks, which would be nice. Grab handles make it easy to climb out.
The rear 60/40 seats fold flat with the touch of a finger on each side, as easy as it gets. The front seat on the Limited model folds flat, making a table. The rear cargo area, a decent 53.6 cubic feeet with the rear seats folded, is covered by a rugged vinyl mat that's removable for washing. The space-saver spare tire is neatly stored under the mat. One innovative feature on the Limited is the removable rechargable LED flashlight mounted in the headliner above the cargo area.
The one-piece liftgate has panels for structural integrity, and the rear bumper has a non-skid rubber surface for stepping onto.
A four-wheel-drive Sport weighs 3326 pounds, so the acceleration is hardly neck-snapping, but the Compass is no dog. It just takes some forethought and bit of patience to get it to do what you might demand.
Our test model was a Limited with the CVT automatic and Autostick, but we also drove a Sport with the CVT without Autostick and another Sport model with a five-speed manual transmission. The five-speed manual is good, and gets the most out of the four-cylinder engine. But if you need an automatic transmission and believe it's worth the extra cost, then you should go for the Autostick option (available only with the Limited), because it totally changes the nature of the CVT, giving the Compass two great transmissions in one vehicle. These Continuously Variable Transaxles, or CVTs, operate like automatic transmissions: Just put it in Drive and go.
However, the Autostick feature allows semi-manual shifting for those who are so inclined. We like this feature. We were dazzled by the crisp and immediate upshifts and downshifts using this six-speed Autostick. A Jeep engineer explained that the nature of the continuously variable transaxle makes such quick shifts possible. Jeep has made the two systems beautifully compatible. The Compass Autostick is as sharp as any manual automatic we've felt, including those on expensive sport sedans. With such accuracy, it always works: easily downshifting to knock off a few miles per hour for bends, instead of using the brakes; or downshifting to pass on a two-lane, instead of waiting for the transmission to kick down on its own.
Along the winding wooded roads between Portland, Oregon, and the Pacific Ocean, the Compass revealed itself to be steady and silent thanks to liberal use of sound deadening material, sealants and structural adhesives. The suspension does all the work as it should, isolating the cabin from the bumps and tosses. We aimed for potholes and weren't jarred when we hit them. There was none of the old Jeep head-toss, or side-to-side jouncing, and there was no trace of wallow over ripples. Only the good feedback was transmitted through the steering wheel to our hands. The turn-in for corners was secure, with no play in the wheel or wandering.
Jeep has designed a new four-wheel-drive system for the Compass, which it calls Freedom Drive I 4x4. On the surface it works much like all-wheel-drive systems by other manufacturers: On a dry, flat road, virtually all of the power goes to the front wheels, but as traction is needed elsewhere, as much as 60 percent can shift to the rear wheels. The coupling is through a two-stage clutch system that's magnetic and electronically controlled, rather than viscous, and Jeep says this is markedly more efficient.
We drove the Compass over 30 miles of loose, wet gravel roads that climbed, descended and twisted in every direction. We pushed it to find some limits, and they were suprisingly high; the Compass didn't skate on the slick round stones as we expected it to, even with standard touring tires, although the ESP activated a couple of times to keep us out of the ditches. We slammed on the brakes at about 40 mph, and the ABS with rough-road detection worked hard but successfully.
When we reached the beach, we climbed into a Compass Sport with the Continuously Variable Transaxle and no Autostick, and optional Goodyear Wrangler all-terrain tires that aren
The all-new Jeep Compass brings great things to the compact SUV market. Safety, style, comfortable ride, steady handling, high fuel mileage, advanced engineering with the four-cylinder World Engine and Continuously Variable Transaxle, and superb four-wheel-drive capability. Last but definitely not least (except in a good way): affordability. It's an intelligent vehicle with which Jeep should do well.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Sam Moses filed this report from western Oregon.