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 much more comfortable than the Cherokee was 10 years ago, though without as much off-road capability.
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. Like other new four-cylinder engines, it is 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 EPA fuel economy estimates of 22/27 mpg City/Highway.
The Jeep Compass offers an optional continuously variable transaxle, which performs like an automatic transmission. The CVT comes with the Auto Stick manual shiftgate feature for 2008. The Auto Stick enables the driver to shift up and down over six preset gear ratios, making it feel like a six-speed gearbox without a clutch pedal.
Also new for 2008, Jeep has recalibrated the engine and transaxle for improved drivability and reduced noise. Chrome interior accents brighten the 2008 models, and air conditioning and a tire-pressure monitor are standard equipment.
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. Power windows and power door locks are optional, however. Remember manual door locks? Some cannot.
Inside, the Compass is thoughtfully designed. The instruments and controls are well placed and easy to use, though the materials feel cut rate. 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 2WD Sport ($16,475); AWD Sport ($18,225); 2WD Limited ($20,505); AWD Limited ($22,255)
The liftgate on the Compass is sloped at nearly a 45-degree angle, while those of the Patriot and Liberty are vertical; and the third side window, into the cargo area, is a stylized triangle (leaving more sheetmetal and reducing visibility) while the others, again, are square.
That slope at the rear of the Compass is matched by the steeply raked windshield, leading up to a roof that's slightly lower than that of the Patriot and almost five inches lower than the Liberty's. Black plastic roof rails continue from the top corners of the windshield all the way to the spoiler over the liftgate, channeling water over the roof.
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, though obviously built to a price. The cost cutting is apparent when you shut the door and it makes a sound one might expect from a beer can. The interior isn't very exciting to look at (boring in beige but better in gray) and the feel is far from luxurious. But it is quite functional. There is plenty of room for your stuff, including your elbows and legs. The front door pockets are deep enough to get your hand in, but to make room for stereo speakers, they're short.
The dash is made of economy-grade plastic materials. 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 intelligently designed: rectangular vents on top, a single-disc AM/FM/CD stereo below it, and below that a slot that might hold a paperback book. Lower still are three climate control knobs and various buttons for options (including the available heated seats). The shift lever, manual or automatic, sprouts from the dash below these buttons. This practical high forward position was introduced by Honda, but actually originated in rally racing cars, where ergonomics really 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 cell phone or MP3 player. The console top is an armrest, and can slide forward 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 seatbacks fold flat with the touch of a finger on each side, which is 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 feet 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 rechargeable 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 grip when people need to step on it to get to the roof.
An all-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. Jeep hasn't quoted 0-60 mph times, but a manual transmission model with the 2.4-liter engine is probably in the mid-to-low nine-second range. We'd expect the automatic to be about a half second slower and 2.0-liter models to be one to two seconds slower. Those estimates are adequate, but not near the best in the class.
We've driven a Limited with the 2.4-liter engine and the CVT automatic and a Sport with the 2.4-liter and a five-speed manual transmission.
The five-speed manual works well and gets the most out of the four-cylinder engine. But if you need an automatic transmission, you can also work the Auto Stick to get more power when you need it. The CVT is like two transmissions in one. You can put it in the gear you like or just put it in Drive and go.
We like the Auto Stick's manual shift feature. Though we didn't experience any problems, some complained of excess noise and hesitation with the CVT in its first year. Jeep says it has recalibrated the engine and CVT for 2008 to eliminate those problems and make the vehicle more drivable. Actually, we were impressed by the crisp and immediate upshifts and downshifts using the six-speed Auto Stick. A Jeep engineer explained that the nature of the continuously variable transaxle makes such quick shifts possible. The Compass's Auto Stick is as sharp as any manual automatic we've felt. 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 all-wheel-drive system for the Compass, which it calls Freedom Drive I. 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. The system also has a locking center differential.
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 surprisingly high; the Compass didn't skate on the slick round stones as we expected it to, even with standard touring tires, though 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.
The Jeep Compass is not a traditional Jeep with go-anywhere off-road capability. On the negative side, it appears to be built to a price and has modest interior materials and build quality. On the positive side, it offers safety, a comfortable ride, steady handling, high fuel mileage, and the reassurance of all-wheel-drive capability. Those positives and its affordable pricing make the Jeep Compass worth a look.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Sam Moses filed this report from western Oregon, with Kirk Bell reporting from Chicago.