When is a Jeep not a Jeep? When it’s a Compass. That’s might be a little harsh, maybe even a bit unfair. But Jeep folk all over the map are shaking their heads in dismay about the latest vehicle to call itself a Jeep. Throughout its history, ever since the original Jeep proved itself during World War II as a go-anywhere, do-anything critter, the brand has kept the faith as a rugged off-roader. Or at the very least, a tough SUV. Compass is the first Jeep to break the mold, being not really as rugged as it looks. Rather than a rock-climbing Wrangler, Liberty or Grand Cherokee, Compass is a mild-mannered crossover that’s unsuitable for anything off the pavement or, at most, a graded dirt road. Essentially, Compass is a rebadged Dodge Caliber, front-drive or all-wheel drive, with signature Jeep styling cues, such as the seven-slot painted grille. It’s not a bad craft, driving well enough despite its annoying continuously variable transmission, but it falls far short of Jeep’s vaunted “Trail Rated” criteria. So is this a naked bit of trickery? A cynical ploy? Well, not really. Compass is more of an effort to give Jeep dealers a slice of the compact crossover pie, the fastest-growing piece of the SUV market, while giving consumers a Jeep that drives like a car. Anyone who thinks they’re getting genuine Jeep off-road performance is just not paying attention. So while Compass might not pass muster as a true Jeep, it’s still a cool-looking little wagon that will take you most places. Just not off-road.
PERFORMANCE: The 173-horsepower inline four would be strong enough if not for the power-robbing continuously variable transmission. The CVT’s positive effect on fuel mileage and smoothness is laudable, but it turns Compass into a droning slug. One saving grace is the Autostick, which allows the driver to shift manually, with the CVT quickly choosing ratios, improving performance and control. Still, I would have preferred the capable five-speed automatic from the Caliber or, better yet, the standard manual transmission.
DRIVABILITY: Compass is a decent runabout, with steering, cornering and stopping that’s capable if not brilliant. Some people might object to the stiff suspension, but it is a Jeep. Isn’t it? The test car had all-wheel drive, which improves traction on dry pavement, snow or slippery terrain. Just don’t try to follow your Wrangler-driving buddies into the hills. Four-wheel antilock disc brakes, stability control, traction control and electronic rollover mitigation come standard.
STYLING: Compass has a good look, taking styling cues from the Jeep Liberty SUV. Compared with the Caliber, the roof is higher, the clearance higher and the flanks bulgier.
INTERIOR: Though accommodating, with plenty of nooks, bins and cupholders, the interior has too much hard plastic on the dash and console, which makes it feel cheap and chintzy. The tight back seat feels claustrophobic. Driver space is roomy, though I have the same complaint about visibility I had with the Caliber: What’s with those thick, heavy-looking windshield pillars? The Limited test car came with loads of convenience and safety features, though I wonder why it has side curtain airbags without the lower side airbags.
BOTTOM LINE: A decent, good-looking package for the price, with a base front-drive model starting at about $19,000.
Jeep Compass Limited
Vehicle type: Five-passenger, four-door crossover SUV, all-wheel drive. Engine: 2.4-liter inline four, 172 horsepower at 6,000 rpm, 165 pound-feet torque at 4,400 rpm. Transmission: Continuously variable with manual shift points. Wheelbase: 103.7 inches. Overall length: 173.4 inches. Curb weight: 3,196 pounds. EPA rating: 25 city, 29 highway. Highs: Versatility, fuel mileage, Jeep styling. Lows: Annoying transmission, chintzy interior, a Jeep poseur?
Base price: $21,180. Price as tested: $25,550.
– Continuously variable transmission, $1,150. – Power sunroof, $830. – Chrome-alloy wheels, $825. – Premium audio, $450. – Convenience group, including auto-dimming mirror, temperature and compass display, tire-pressure monitor, $425. – Premium paint, $150. – Shipping, $550.