It might look like an SUV, but its dimensions, suspension, ride height and driving personality are all car. Why is this important? Two reasons: Consumers are being sold one thing and getting another, and when you make the right comparisons, the Compass doesn't hold up to its real-car competition.
While the Compass is adequate and in some regards above average, it isn't going to set the world on fire. It's a gamble by Chrysler, which is not in the best financial position right now. It's interesting to note that when the Compass was given the green light — along with its more handsome sibling, the upcoming Jeep Patriot, and Dodge's already released Caliber — Chrysler was awash in profits. Company execs were so giddy that instead of green-lighting one Jeep car/SUV to be built alongside the Caliber, they approved two. Now that decision is coming back to haunt them.
Most debate about the Compass will come from its exterior; no one will say it isn't daring. My black test vehicle made the most of all the Compass' jutting edges and odd exterior light placements. Around front — where cars used to have bumpers — an odd lower lip juts out. Black thankfully hides this design element, but other colors do not. This is where many people find fault with the look.
Otherwise, the side glass that tapers off toward the rear of the Compass looks contemporary, as does the sporty spoiler above the rear liftgate. A tough stance adds Jeep authority from afar, but there isn't much to back it up underneath.
Chrysler can no longer get by on flashy exterior designs alone. Over the past few years, as good-looking vehicles like the Chrysler 300 and Jeep Grand Cherokee rolled out, everyone overlooked their relatively bulky and, let's just say it, cheap plastic interiors. In this $15,995 Compass, the interior is even more plasticky.
Here's where that Jeep nameplate helps out; because Jeep, unlike Dodge, is known as an offroad brand, there are rugged cues that make the plastic less offensive than in the more street-oriented Caliber. Meaning, if a car looks like it's going to get muddy, you don't want it to look too nice.
There are also convenient cubbies and cupholders in all the right places. There's even a slot above the glove box that's perfect for a run to the post office.
My tester's cloth seats were supportive and felt good to the touch, as did the roof lining. The steering wheel also felt great; it was made of soft plastic and was just the right size for any driver. An oversized shift lever was kind of bulky, but it didn't impair drivability. The gauges — with little cardinal points to play up the Compass name — were pretty cool and looked more expensive than the rest of the interior.
That said, I just couldn't get over the rough seams where one plastic part met another. They can scratch the skin — they were that unfinished. When my wife got into the car for the first time she used the word "cheap" immediately. I told her it cost a lot less than her 2004 Grand Cherokee, though. About $10,000 less. She quickly changed her tune, saying, "It's not that bad."
Even after a week, though, I'm sure I could only live with the Compass' interior if I got a version of the car that was closer to the $15,985 base price and not the $21,185 tester price.
Ride & Handling
Before this review starts sounding like a bash fest, there is some good news. For an entry-level product, the Compass handles a lot better than it should. Steering feel is light without giving up any accuracy. You can zip through traffic and around corners just like you can in any sporty compact car.
There was a fair amount of road noise on the highway, which can be expected in the compact segment, but it wasn't as noticeable as in the Dodge Caliber. Wind noise was light, and the ride over a torn-up highway of grooved pavement was much better than I imagined. An above-average driving feel like this is much harder to attain than a quality interior, so it's a good thing Jeep got this right.
Going & Stopping
Want a thrilling driving experience? This Jeep doesn't have one, but that's OK; you don't need to peel out at traffic lights if you're driving a Compass. What you need to know is that at highway speeds, the Compass doesn't waver. With some heavy boxes in the back and my wife in the passenger seat I was doing more than 80 without noticing it on the highway (this one was well-paved).
Now here's where we have to talk about the CVT. The three-lettered transmission option might be a mystery to car buyers, but it shouldn't be. Just think of it as an advanced automatic transmission that transitions between gears very smoothly — so smoothly that most people wind up missing the jolts a standard automatic delivers when shifting from one gear to the next. The CVT is also supposed to aid in fuel economy. I was very disappointed, though, with the 23/26 mpg city/highway of the Compass. Even with all-wheel drive, it barely contends with a much more outdated Subaru Impreza. It might compare to those compact SUVs we mentioned before, like the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V, but it doesn't come close to compact hatchbacks like the Mazda3 and Toyota Matrix.
The 172-horsepower engine was pretty hum-drum and nowhere near as exciting as the same setup in the Caliber. It was driving at highway speeds that made me enjoy the Compass as a competent commuter, not the launches from stoplights.
Braking wasn't nearly as acceptable; during one real-life emergency braking maneuver there was significant shudder from the brakes that had me a bit tense. Brake feel in day-to-day driving, however, was solid.
For an entry-level vehicle the Compass comes stacked with safety features. Side curtain airbags, traction control, an electronic stability system and antilock brakes all come standard at the $15,985 entry price.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety just released crash-test results for the Compass' sibling, the Dodge Caliber. It received a Good rating, the best possible, in the frontal crash test, but got a Marginal score, the second worst possible, in both side-impact and rear-impact tests. While the two vehicles aren't identical, the results should be similar for the Compass.
The Compass boasts a hard-floor cargo area as a plus. Personally I prefer carpet back there, mainly because my dog — a boxer — hates standing on the slick plastic when the back seats are flipped forward. Otherwise the cargo area size and height were ideal for her. The rear windows were right at her head level, and she could stick her face out the window all day long if she wanted.
The Compass is just adequate for cargo, and here's where those comparisons to the CR-V and RAV4 fall apart. The Compass has 21.9 cubic feet of cargo room with the seats up and 52.5 with the seats folded. The RAV4 is significantly larger at 36.4 cubic feet and 73 cubic feet, respectively. The CR-V has 33.5 cubic feet and 72 cubic feet, respectively.
That's why consumers should compare the Compass to other car-based hatchbacks, like the Mazda3 or Toyota Matrix; in this category the Compass easily bests them. If cargo is a major concern, the Compass has to be ruled out of a shopping comparison with small SUVs. But if you just want the utility, it's better than most hatchbacks. Just go into the dealership in the right frame of mind.
There are a few spiffy features in the Compass. An optional Musicgate stereo system is also a must, not because the rear speakers flip outward when the tailgate is lifted, transforming the Compass into an impromptu boom box, but because the sound inside when the rear is closed is far superior to the stock system. It's the one option I'd opt for.
There's also a holder built into the armrest for iPods or other MP3 players. I found this awkward to use with my iTunes-enabled cell phone and not at all comfortable as an armrest while driving. Instead I just dropped the cell phone into a handy cubby below the shifter and left iTunes on shuffle. There it was out of sight and out of mind, and that wasn't even the intended use.
A standard rear dome light pops out of the roof lining for use as a flashlight. I honestly can't remember the last time I needed a flashlight while looking around my trunk, and during the week of testing nothing came up that needed such illumination.
Compass in the Market
Jeep is going to have a tough time selling the Compass. Sure it's the least expensive vehicle on the lot, but it doesn't deliver as an SUV, even a small one. Its price and just-average fuel economy keep it out of the compact car debate. In the end, it's this weird limbo that makes it hard to justify the Compass to a real-world buyer. If someone wants economy and utility, they'll stick with a Mazda3 or another hatchback. If they want an SUV for higher ride height and more cargo room, they'll get a RAV4 or even the Jeep Liberty. Trying to be all things to all people, the Compass ends up not winning over any segment.
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