There's probably a good master's thesis to be written for someone's MBA on the Jeep marketing strategy – or lack of it. Obtaining the iconic brand, with a favorable worldwide reputation, was undeniably a central reason why Fiat bought into Chrysler.
But Jeep's reputation has been diluted this past decade by opportunism. As recently as 2005, it could be argued that the Jeep brand was underrepresented in the market, with just three models -- the Wrangler, Grand Cherokee and Liberty. But within a few years, sensing opportunity in a tough market, Jeep overpopulated dealer lots, still offering the Wrangler, Grand Cherokee and Liberty, plus the Compass, Patriot and Commander. And really, the four-door Wrangler Unlimited is different enough from the regular Wrangler that it could almost be considered the seventh model.
The big Commander didn't survive, and several Jeep models aren't selling that well, though the iconic Wranger and the all-new Grand Cherokee are as good as anything on the market. But one of the challenges for the brand has been the two entry-level models, the Compass and the Patriot. Certainly there's an identity crisis there – the Compass and Patriot are very similar vehicles, both based on the same front-wheel-drive platform used by the useful but aging Dodge Caliber. In very early marketing clinics, Jeep claimed that men seemed to like the Patroit, women seemed to like the Compass. Rather than select one, Jeep decided to build both.
Ostensibly, the Patroit is the more macho of the two vehicles, but that's sort of like trying to select the most macho member of the Glee cast. And now that the Compass has just been redesigned as a late-2011 model, the Patriot seems even more extraneous.
Wisely, Jeep designers patterned the new Compass after the Grand Cherokee, which provides a suitable sense of family. The exterior makes the Compass look like a smaller-scale Grand Cherokee, and upgrades to the interior definitely qualify as an improvement. The test Compass, a deluxe Limited model, was loaded with standard features ranging from heated seats and exterior mirrors to a removable, rechargable LED flashlight. The Compass also has plenty of safety features, including front and rear side-curtain airbags, stability control and active head restraints.
There were also quite a few options, including high-quality "Deep Cherry Red Crystal Pearl" paint ($225), a premium, 11-speaker audio package for $650, a $685 "media center" that included a DVD player, custom chromed aluminum wheels for $825, and a $750 package that added an alarm, remote starting, an alarm, Bluetooth, front seat-mounted side airbags and a few other, smaller features.With a $700 destination charge, the Limited's $24,295 base price swelled to $28,130. Add a four-wheel-drive package to our front-drive test vehicle, and you could easily top $30,000, which is pretty optimistic on Jeep's part.
Mechanically, the Compass isn't that different from last year's model. The base engine is a 2.0-liter four-cylinder with 158 horsepower, mated to a 5-speed manual transmission. But the majority of Compass models you are likely to see on dealer lots will have the same engine-transmission combination the test model has:An optional 2.4-liter, 172-horsepower four-cylinder, and a CVT, which stands for Continuously Variable Transmission. A CVT works like an automatic, but rather than use a set number of four, five or six gears, it has an infinite ratio and doesn't really shift from one gear to the next.
The 2.4-liter engine isn't as smooth-running as the best four-cylinders in this class, a characteristic not helped by the CVT. Power is certainly adequate, though, and EPA-rated mileage, 21 mpg city, 27 highway, is about what we'd expect.
On the road, the five-passenger Compass rides well, but the suspension seems surprised by medium- to large-sized potholes. Handling is average. Though Jeep says the Compass can be "trail-rated" with a four-wheel-drive off-road package, it's no Wrangler, and tackling anything more ambitious than a cow trail or mildly muddy road might be taxing its ability.
As a capable, small-family SUV, though, the restyled Compass will do everything you ask, and the new exterior and interior add plenty of appeal. It may be a bit light on its feet to suit diehard Jeep fanatics, but they don't represent the Compass' mainstream target audience.
2011 Jeep Compass Limited
Base price: $24,295
Price as tested: $28,130
EPA rating: 21 miles per gallon city driving, 27 mpg highway.
Powertrain: 2.4-liter, 172-horsepower four-cylinder engine with a continously variable automatic transmission.
Length: 173.4 inches
Wheelbase: 103.7 inches
Parting shot: Competent sport-ute with improved styling that at least makes it look like a real Jeep.