Driving a Jeep is all about roughing it. The name Jeep conjures up a burly off-road vehicle that can go anywhere and do anything. It can ford streams, climb up the side of a mountain and still take you to church on Sunday. Every Jeep is trail-rated to be able to drive the Rubicon Trail.
That is, until now.
The new Compass is a Jeep in name only. Oh, sure, it can be ordered with all-wheel drive, but the standard setup is front-wheel drive. Whattt? A Jeep with front wheel drive?? Yep. The compass is built on a car platform, the same one that underpins the Dodge Caliber. It is a new direction for this brand, and not a bad car as long as you stay on civilized surfaces.
Be that as it may, I still roughed it with this Jeep. I roughed it in a way that I haven't done in a long while. No, I didn't go off road and try to climb boulders of slog through mud. You see, this Jeep was a base model with almost no options. The only thing that was checked off on the option list was all-wheel drive and air conditioning.
You may have believed that every car sold in the US would have AC as standard equipment, but you would be wrong. This Jeep had crank operated windows, no power door locks and no remote controlled outside mirrors. I haven't driven a car equipped like that since the '80s. Boy, am I spoiled.
I have become so used to having that remote in my pocket to unlock the doors, I had to relearn my etiquette. Unlock the passenger door first to let my wife in, then walk around to the driver's side to let myself in. After the first few days of this, my wife remembered to reach over and unlock my door for me, like she used to do in the good old days.
You had to remember to lock all the doors when you exit (don't forget the tailgate lock). Then there is that other ritual we used to go through. Run around the car and wind up all the windows before you lock it. The thought flashed through my mind that there should be four cranks on the drivers door to make things easier.
Remember what it was like to adjust the outside mirrors without a control for them inside the car? Open the driver's window and reach out and adjust the left mirror. That's the easy one. The right mirror is an exercise in trial and error. Once you have it where you want it, stay away from those car washes and the attendant who loves to briskly wipe the mirror dry so that all you can see when you get back in the driver's seat is the right rear tire. Hmm, looks like I need some air in that one.
I could never understand why anyone would order a car this way. Sure, it's a few dollars saved, but if those features aren't there when you are ready to sell, don't expect to find a buyer unless you reduce the price by at least double what these options would have cost. Even after 10 years, you would be lucky to recoup that money.
Ok, now that that's off my chest, I am going to ignore this stuff and talk about the car, which is really quite good.
The Compass is a kinder, gentler Jeep, a car-based SUV with room for 5 and is not bad looking either. The face is all Jeep and the sides have an interesting flair. And yes, all those wonderful conveniences left off of the test car are readily available, including leather, fancy sound systems and power everything. My guess is that you would be hard pressed to find a stripped Compass like the one I had when visiting a dealer's lot.
If you option it out normally, the Compass is a rather nice urban runabout that has plenty of utility in a rather small package. There are troughs and bins sprinkled throughout the hard plastic interior. The seats are comfortable up front, even though there was no height adjustment. Tall passengers had a surprising amount of legroom in the rear.
Acceleration from the 2.4 liter 4 cylinder engine was leisurely, but adequate for most needs, going from 0 to 60 in 10 seconds. With foot to the floor, the engine sounded somewhat strained as the RPM moved past 3,000. During normal driving, throttle response is on the soft side making it easy to drive smoothly, but disappointing drivers who would like a sportier feel.
The ride is smooth and quiet on the highway with little wind or road noise. The Compass felt stable and secure at speed and had good steering response at lower speeds that gave the car a good sense of control.
Cornering produced a bit of body lean, but this was because the suspension was tuned for a good ride instead of being optimized for sharp handling and aggressive cornering. Conservative drivers prefer this relaxed feel and should be happy with the way the Compass feels.
The base price of the front-wheel drive Compass Sport (the lowest priced model) is $15,425. If you include the quick order package, which gives you the AC, power windows, door locks and mirrors and a few other good-to-have features, you bring the price of entry up to just over $18,000. Still a good price for this type of vehicle.
Also available as an option is a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) which will add $1000 to the total. A CVT automatic transmission is as smooth a transmission as you can get because there is no shifting, just a smooth transition from low gear to high gear.
Not sure what I'm talking about? Let me explain how a continuously variable transmission works.
A CVT has no forward gears or complex clutches and bands. Instead, there are two tapered pulleys with a steel belt connecting them. These pulleys can change their effective diameter through a signal from the computer. If the pulley halves are squeezed together making them narrower, the diameter in effect, increases causing the belt to move to the outer edge. At the same time, the other pulley would spread out causing the diameter to decrease. Changes in the two pulleys are always coordinated to keep the belt taut.
If the smaller pulley is being turned by the engine (the drive pulley), the steal belt would turn the larger pulley (the driven pulley which is connected to the drive wheels) more slowly. If the diameters change, the speed of the driven pulley will also change. By allowing the computer to control the diameters of the two pulleys, the transmission ratio will smoothly and gradually change from low "gear" to high "gear"
This design eliminates the need for a 4 speed, five speed or even a six speed automatic, instead allowing for an infinite number of "speeds". The net effect is better fuel economy (at light throttle, the engine rpm is always at the optimal point for maximum fuel efficiency), and better performance (the engine can stay in its sweet spot for maximum horsepower delivery)
The transmission on our test car was a 5 speed manual unit. What is unique about it is that the shifter grows out of the stack in the center of the dash instead of the console. This leaves the console relatively uncluttered so there is room for a couple of well placed cup holders.
I wasn't crazy about the shifter feel. To me, it felt a bit rubbery, but it always found the correct gear and never really gave me any problem. Clutch take-up was fine and the car was easy to drive smoothly.
The Compass was loaded with standard safety features for the base price, including: 4 wheel disc brakes with ABS, traction control, stability control, front and rear head curtain air bags, and other electronic features like emergency braking assist and electronic brakeforce distribution.
You can equip the Compass with a host of upscale features like leather interior, high end sound system, heated seats and even a GPS navigation system with an in-dash 6 CD changer. A fully loaded Compass Limited with all the good stuff will set you back around $26,000. There is good value for the money here.
Overall, this was a practical utility vehicle that is comfortable to drive, gets decent gas mileage and has a face that any red blooded off-roader would love, just don't take it too far off road.