Editor's note: This review was written in September 2013 about the 2014 Jeep Compass. Little of substance has changed with this year's model. To see what's new for 2015, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
Newly available premium leather and a proper six-speed automatic transmission make the 2014 Jeep Compass the best yet, but the compact SUV continues to struggle with its cheap roots.
Jeep's compact Compass was a hard sell in the burly off-road automaker's lineup — until a redesign in 2011 brought fitting styling that casual onlookers could easily mistake for its bigger brother, the Grand Cherokee. Sales thrived. Updates sprinkled throughout the Compass' history — in lieu of a major redesign — make the Compass you see today a mismatch between the good quality we've seen from Jeep in recent years and the old Jeep that lingers inside the Compass.
For 2014, Jeep adds a high-quality leather interior option and replaces a troublesome continuously variable automatic transmission with a new six-speed automatic. Compare the 2013 with the 2014 Compass here. I tested a 2014 Compass in its most expensive, Limited trim level with the optional 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine, six-speed automatic transmission and all-wheel drive (one of two systems, called Freedom Drive I) that stickered at $29,375 with destination charge.
The Compass is the more expensive relative of the similar and more traditionally styled Jeep Patriot; a base Compass costs $19,490 and the base Patriot is $16,990. For 2014, another small Jeep comes to market: the all-new Cherokee ($23,990). The modern Cherokee offers roughly the same passenger and cargo volume as the Patriot. Compare the Cherokee, Compass and Patriot's specifications here.
Six Welcome Improvements
Seemingly only Nissan and Honda (in its four-cylinder 2013 Accord) have figured out how to do continuously variable automatic transmissions well. Jeep's previous CVT was a bad experience in the Compass. It's almost gone for 2014, replaced in most models with a conventional six-speed automatic as the optional upgrade to the standard five-speed manual. The old CVT responded slowly when passing — scratch that, when accelerating altogether — and a CVT's nature of revving the engine to the sky made for a bad combination. The coarse-sounding engine would fill the cabin with noises foul enough for passengers to ask, "Is it supposed to sound like that?"
The $1,200 six-speed automatic costs $100 more than the CVT but is well worth the cost of admission. It's available with the base 158-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder as well as the optional 172-hp, 2.4-liter I tested. The transmission isn't an example of flawlessness, but the Compass now drives like a real SUV instead of an experiment. The transmission got the job done without much drama, though one editor wasn't pleased with the six-speed's gear-hunting and inconsistent downshifting while using cruise control.
With the 2.4-liter, six-speed and all-wheel drive, the 2014's gas mileage barely increases — it's up 1 mpg on the highway, at 21/27/23 mpg city/highway/combined — but, honestly, I could accept taking a gas mileage hit with the six-speed, given its superior drivability over the CVT (21/26/23 mpg with Freedom Drive I all-wheel drive). The Compass is EPA rated at 21/28/24 mpg with standard front-wheel drive, the 2.4-liter engine and an automatic transmission, while the standard five-speed manual transmission with front-wheel drive and the 2.0-liter carries estimates of 23/30/26 mpg. With the automatic, the 2.0-liter is 21/28/24 mpg. The smaller engine isn't available with all-wheel drive.
The CVT lives on in the Freedom Drive II Off-road Package that uses the gearless transmission for its off-road-friendly, low-range crawling gear.
New Leather Outshines Old Interior
The Compass Limited, at the top of the Compass trim line, offers an attractive Saddle Brown perforated leather interior with accent stitching for $195. It's the only part of the interior with the quality and substance of the Jeep Grand Cherokee it tries so hard to emulate on the outside. The rich material covers the seats, door panels and center storage lid. However, the leather is out of character for the rest of the interior.
While the new leather impresses, the rest of the interior shows its age despite a rework in 2009 that brought in much-needed softer-touch materials. There's still no telescoping adjustment for the tilt steering wheel, the switches and buttons look and feel ancient, and the outdated, low-resolution multimedia system and gauges scream "Old Jeep." It's far from the exemplary quality and refinement that is the modern Jeep Grand Cherokee. The Compass having leather this nice is like Fred Flintstone wearing Armani.
Significant redesigns in recent years have kept the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4 and Ford Escape up to date. Compare the Compass against its competition here.
Like the Grand Cherokee, however, front-seat comfort is good for my 6-foot-tall frame. Backseat room is on the smaller side compared with many small SUVs, which isn't helped by a cramped rear floor. A medium-sized hump and narrow footwell take up space, while seating brackets from the front seats intrude on available foot room for rear passengers. Stepping into the Compass's comfy seats may not be easy for everyone; its high, 8.1 inches of ground clearance comes with higher seats as well. Lower-riding SUVs like the CR-V have as little as 6.3 inches of ground clearance and lower step-in heights.
On the Road
The Compass is one of the only small SUVs with dedication to off-roading. High ground clearance, multiple all-wheel-drive systems, available off-road tires and much more give the Compass off-road credibility and a Trail Rated badge when equipped with the Freedom Drive II Off-road Package. What works off-road isn't always a success on-road, though. The previous 2012 Compass I drove with the Freedom Drive II Off-road Package, all-terrain tires and extra inch of ride height made a three-hour road trip unpleasant, as the SUV was a wandering mess on the highway.
The 2014 Compass I tested without the off-road package surprised me with how well it handled. Its ride was comfortable, plus it wasn't offended in corners and showed agility for an SUV.
Though it's quiet around town, the wind noise shooting past the Compass' A-pillars was persistent and loud enough to make me check the window switches to make sure all the windows were closed at 65 mph. Other editors and passengers noticed the noise as well. The 172-hp engine provides decent acceleration, especially with the new transmission, but its coarse-sounding engine at higher engine speeds is off-putting. Luckily, the Compass is not a sports car that needs to be revved out too often.
Cargo & Towing
The Compass has a skimpy 22.7 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seats and 53.6 cubic feet of available space with the rear seats folded; there's an available 62.7 cubic feet with a flat-folding front passenger seat on Latitude and Limited trim levels. Space behind the rear and front seats is fairly puny compared with the CR-V (37.2/70.9), Escape (34.3/67.8) and RAV4 (38.4/73.4). Frequent cargo loaders may also find the task inconvenient: The load-in height is high because of the SUV's high ride height and tall rear bumper.
The longer and wider Cherokee doesn't offer much improvement over the Compass, measuring in at 24.8/54.9 cubic feet.
A towing capacity of 2,000 pounds is available with the optional Trailer-tow Prep Group for $250, which includes an engine oil cooler, a full-size spare tire and a trailer wiring harness. Without the package, the Compass' towing maximum is rated at 1,000 pounds. The Patriot is rated with the same figures while the Cherokee has a maximum 2,000 pounds capacity standard.
The 2014 Jeep Compass doesn't have full crash-test ratings from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. What ratings do exist are shared ones with the similar Jeep Patriot, and those are only for side-impact crash tests. The Patriot and Compass are rated Good in IIHS' side-impact testing. Ratings for rear crash protection are also Good. The Compass has not gone through the institute's frontal, small overlap or roof-strength testing.
NHTSA reports only frontal and rollover ratings for the Compass, resulting in three out of five stars in frontal tests and a rollover result of four out of five stars.
Standard safety equipment includes the federally mandated electronic stability system, antilock brakes and frontal airbags. Standard safety features also include side-curtain airbags for front and rear occupants and side-impact torso airbags for front occupants. A backup camera is optional on Sport and Latitude trims and standard on Limited models. More safety features are viewable here.
See how well child-safety seats fit in the 2014 Compass in our Car Seat Check.
2014 Jeep Compass in the Market
With a $19,490 starting price, including destination, the Compass is less expensive than competitors. While the Compass remains inexpensive and small, other small SUVs are growing not only in price, but also in size and feature content. Considering the base Compass has no telescoping steering wheel or USB input, and that it comes with a manual transmission, front-wheel drive and a less-powerful 2.0-liter engine, it's not difficult to add enough equipment to raise the Compass' price to the level of better-equipped competitors.
The Compass' value factor is quickly lost when comparing it with other small SUVs at the same price — unless you're someone who geeks out on low-range gears, approach angles and tow hooks.