The Jeep Compass is built like a car and drives like a car. Jeep redesigned the interior of the Compass for 2009, with a new dashboard and instrument panel, soft-touch surfaces on the door armrests and center console, and a carpeted load floor instead of vinyl.
The Jeep Compass uses Chrysler'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. 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. 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.
The Compass rides and handles more like a car than an SUV and it offers plenty of safety features. It has a strong steel structure and a well-planned subframe. Side-curtain airbags and electronic stability control with anti-rollover sensors are standard.
Inside, the instruments and controls are well placed and easy to use. 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. While the new interior design is a step up versus the cut-rate feel of the last version, it is still largely plastic and doesn't offer a rich or warm feel. Power windows and power door locks are optional.
For 2009, the Compass also gets more sound insulation in the engine compartment and floor, as well as revised suspension tuning on the Sport model for a more comfortable ride. Jeep's UConnect Tunes and UConnect GPS systems are also offered for the first time.
Jeep sent its brand in a new direction in 2007, introducing two car-based SUVs, the Compass and Patriot. Of the two, the Compass has more of a crossover look, especially from the sculpted side, with smoothly angular flares over the wheels and more laid back lines. The rear door handles are vertical, mounted on the C-pillars to preserve the character line. (The Patriot, on the other hand, is more upright, looking like a smaller version of the Commander and a throwback to the old Cherokee. Jeep's other compact SUV is the truck-based Liberty. It looks similar to the Patriot, but is even more upright and masculine.)
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 Jeep Compass cabin is roomy and comfortable. The front bucket seats are very comfortable without being soft. The Sport is available with Jeep's YES Essentials upholstery, a rugged fabric that's stain, odor and static resistant. The front seat jacks upward, which is nice because the long dash makes it hard to see the ground in front of the car, even though the hood is short. The long dash is a result of the sloped windshield.
The cabin layout is functional and roomy. The 2009 changes make it quieter and more attractive, but the Compass still appears to be built to a price. The cost cutting is apparent when you shut the driver's door and it sounds like you just dented a beer can. 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 now black instead of tan or gray. It's also more rounded and has nicer graining than last year, but it's still made of hard plastic. The center stack trades a cheap-looking silver plastic for matching black and adds some nice chrome trim. The center stack is wide and intelligently designed: rectangular vents on top, a single-disc AM/FM/CD stereo or the navigation system below it, and below that are three climate control knobs and various buttons for options (including the available heated seats). The gauges are clean and pleasant, white on black with a symmetrical layout and chrome trim rings. The four-spoke steering wheel is solid to grip. The shift lever, manual or automatic, sprouts from the dash. 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 now nicely lit with LEDs, another small trough for cell phones and the like, the emergency brake handle, and a split center console bin with two levels of storage. The console top is an armrest and it's newly padded.
Legroom is good, both front and rear. In fact, the Compass has 39.4 inches of rear legroom, which is almost four inches longer than in the larger Grand Cherokee. 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 now carpeted; last year's was covered by a rugged removable vinyl mat. The space-saver spare tire is neatly stored under the floor. 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. Overall, it's a spacious environment for a vehicle of this size, but not particularly warm or inviting.
The 2.4-liter engine works well in the Jeep Compass. It's relatively smooth and quiet for a four-cylinder in a vehicle with these prices. This is Chrysler's World Engine and it uses the latest technology, including an aluminum block and cylinder heads, and electronically controlled variable valve timing that helps optimize torque. It makes a reasonable 172 horsepower and 165 pound-feet of torque at 4400 rpm, and delivers an estimated 22/27 City/Highway miles per gallon with AWD and the five-speed manual gearbox, or 21/24 mpg with AWD and the CVT automatic.
An all-wheel-drive Sport weighs 3223 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. The Compass can also tow up to 2000 pounds, enough for personal watercraft, a snowmobile, a motorcycle or a small boat.
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. Jeep has made changes to improve noise and harshness each of the past two years, but no four-cylinder is as smooth as the V6s available in some competitors. We were impressed by the crisp and immediate upshifts and downshifts using the six-speed Auto Stick. The nature of the continuously variable transaxle makes such quick shifts possible. The Auto Stick in the Compass 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.
When we reached the beach, we climbed into a Compass Sport with the CVT and optional Goodyear Wrangler all-terrain tires that aren't available with the Limited. The Jeep people pointed toward the top of the nearest steep sand dune and told us to floor it. Amazingly, the Compass climbed to the summit, where there were no other vehicles except ATVs. The CVT is the ideal mechanical means for transmitting engine power in deep sand, because its pulleys and steel belt provide an infinite number of gear ratios, allowing the engine to stay in its most efficient operating range.
It's difficult to imagine getting stuck in snow or mud in the Compass Sport with the Goodyear on/off-road tires. The locking differential can offer the best possible traction from a standing start, and the Brake Traction Control dabs the brakes (at lightning speed) at individual wheels to keep them from spinning. The locked differential keeps the torque evenly distributed at 50/50, up to 10 miles per hour, at which point the torque begins transferring again, as calculated by the electronic control module based on vehicle speed, turning radius and wheel slip.
We charged full blast back down the steep dune, and found a stretch of whoop-de-doos near the waves at the bottom. It wasn't exactly our intention to turn the Jeep into a motocross bike, but we gave it a go. We finally bottomed out the front end, but it wasn't easy.
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 a comfortable ride, steady handling, decent fuel mileage, and the reassurance of all-wheel-drive capability.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Sam Moses filed this report from western Oregon, with Kirk Bell reporting from Chicago.