EXPERT REVIEW

Star-Telegram.com's view


Just in time for $3-a-gallon gas: a small wagon from Jeep with decent fuel economy.

It’s the 2007 Compass, an all-new vehicle from Jeep, based on the design of the Dodge Caliber.

While these two vehicles are nearly identical underneath, including the same drivetrain, the Compass actually looks like a Jeep, even though it’s not intended for serious off-road use.

This is a vehicle for people who like the looks of a Jeep, including the signature seven-slot grille, but who don’t intend to go rock-climbing or desert-running. Like the slightly larger Liberty, the Compass also is aimed at female buyers. There is a second new Jeep built on the same chassis as the Compass and Caliber that is intended for male consumers – the Patriot.

It has the more-traditional squared-off Jeep styling, quite similar to the Cherokee model that was discontinued after 2001, while the Compass has a more-rounded exterior that is supposed to be more appealing to women.

Both vehicles begin under $16,000 and come with the same drivetrains, and the Compass is available with all-wheel drive. But only the Patriot has a four-wheel-drive system that earns the vehicle Jeep’s “Trail Rated” designation. The all-wheel drive in the Compass is intended primarily for on-road driving, especially on snow, ice or wet pavement.

Why build a Jeep that can’t go off road? Some Jeep purists have posed that question, and the answer is simple: to grow the Jeep brand so owner Chrysler Group can make money on it. That’s important for off-road aficionados because it gives Chrysler financial justification to keep developing niche vehicles such as the venerable Wrangler.

For those who have no intention of going off-roading, but who want Jeeplike styling in an affordable package, the Compass is a good choice. I’m not convinced that the exterior styling is so feminine that men would be embarrassed to drive the Compass, either. It looks pretty good to me, and I have a Wrangler in my driveway. Chrysler predicts that about 60 percent of buyers will be women, and that the median age of the buyer will be 40, and that median household income will be $60,000 annually. Half of buyers are expected to be college graduates, and 55 percent will be married.

Although it’s more like a small wagon, Jeep calls the Compass a “compact SUV.” That’s a market segment that is growing rapidly as gasoline prices continue to climb. Chrysler says compact SUV sales are expected to nearly double by 2010 from their 2005 sales of 368,000 units.

The Compass offers “the packaging and functionality of an SUV with the performance, handling, fuel economy and price of a compact car or small pickup,” Chrysler says.

Base price is $15,425 plus $560 freight, which brings the two-wheel-drive Sport model with a five-speed manual gearbox. Our tester, though, was the Sport with a few upgrades, including the continuously variable automatic transmission, a $1,000 option.

Most Compass sales will be of the automatic transmission model, which is EPA rated (using the 2007 formula) at 24 miles per gallon city and 27 highway. While there are cars that get better fuel economy, this is pretty good for a small crossover utility vehicle/wagon that can haul five adults (and their luggage) quite comfortably.

Under the hood of all Compass models is Chrysler’s new 2.4-liter, inline four-cylinder “world engine,” rated at 172 horsepower and 165 foot-pounds of torque. This is considerably more power than you would get with one of the new small hatchbacks/wagons on the market this year, such as the Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris, Nissan Versa, Suzuki SX4 and Kia Rondo.

The Compass is roomier than all of those, as well.

And even at the base price, there is a fairly long list of standard equipment, including some key safety features that are either optional or not offered on some less-expensive or smaller competitors. Those include side-curtain air bags, electronic stability control, traction control, electronic roll mitigation, four-wheel disc antilock brakes, and hydraulic brake assist.

Other standard features include cloth seats, outdoor-temperature display, AM/FM single-disc CD radio with an auxiliary input jack for an iPod or other MP3 player, a vinyl load floor, a center console with sliding armrest, manual windows/door locks/mirrors, 60/40 split fold-flat rear seat, tilt steering column, theft-deterrent system, rear wiper/washer/defroster, fog lights, and 17-inch aluminum wheels.

Air conditioning is option, but was included on our test vehicle in a “customer preferred package” ($2,600), which also brought power windows/mirrors/door locks with remote, a reclining rear seat, a height-adjustable driver’s seat, a 115-volt power outlet, a removable dome light/rechargeable flashlight, map/reading lights and passenger-assist handles.

A “driver convenience group” ($425) tacked on a self-dimming rearview mirror, tire-pressure monitoring system, driver-information center, outdoor temperature/compass display, and a universal garage/gate opener.

Our vehicle also came with the optional YES Essential cloth seats ($150), a patented fabric that resists stains – especially the kinds of stains that small children might inflict on regular cloth seats. Chrysler says it has tested this fabric with ketchup, mustard and even red wine, and all of these clean up easily without leaving stains. The low price of this upgrade makes it well worth the money.

Other extras on our test vehicle included green metallic clearcoat exterior paint ($150), premium floor mats ($30), and Sirius satellite radio with one year of service ($195).

With all of the options, the sticker of our vehicle totaled $20,535, including freight. I’m not sure all of the extras are necessary. I could live with the base model plus just air conditioning, stain-resisting seats and automatic transmission. The air conditioning isn’t offered as a standalone option, however – it comes only in that $2,600 package.

Those who don’t mind using a clutch and shifting manually can save the $1,000 cost of the automatic transmission – and get better fuel economy as well. Ratings for the manual model are 26 mpg city/30 highway.

Chrysler says the Compass is the first Jeep front-wheel-drive vehicle with a fully independent suspension, designed to help give the vehicle a smooth on-road ride. The optional four-wheel-drive system is called Freedom Drive I. It is a full-time system with a lockable center coupling. Four-wheel-drive models begin at $17,585 (including freight).

Other available options include a sunroof, upgraded audio system with six-disc CD player and MP3 CD playback, cruise control, and a Boston Acoustics premium 458-watt sound system with two flip-down speakers in the tailgate.

The top-of-the-line Limited model ($20,140 for two-wheel drive; $21,740 with four-wheel drive) includes such premium features as leather seats, 18-inch aluminum wheels, driver lumbar support, and bright exterior trim. Options on the Limited include the automatic transmission, 18-inch chrome wheels, and a hands-free communications system.

Chrysler builds the Compass on the same assembly line with the Patriot and Caliber at a plant in Belvidere, Ill., which was completely renovated to accommodate these new vehicles.

G. Chambers Williams III is staff automotive columnist for the San Antonio Express-News and former transportation writer for the Star-Telegram. His automotive columns have appeared regularly in the Star-Telegram since 1995. Contact him at (210) 250-3236; chambers@star-telegram.com.

At a Glance: 2007 Jeep Compass

The package: Compact, five-door, five-passenger, four-cylinder, front- or all-wheel-drive wagon/crossover utility vehicle. Highlights: This is an all-new vehicle in the Jeep lineup for 2007, the only Jeep that is not engineered for serious off-road driving. Based on the similar Dodge Caliber, this is a compact family vehicle that has good power, decent fuel economy, a roomy interior, and Jeeplike styling. Negatives: Can get pricey with all the options; not suited for serious off-road use. Engines: 2.4-liter inline four-cylinder. Transmissions: Five-speed manual; continuously variable automatic. Power/torque: 172 HP/165 foot-pounds. Length: 173.4 inches. Curb weight: 3,071-3,329 pounds. Cargo volume: 22.7 cubic feet (behind rear seat); 53.6 cubic feet (rear seat folded). Trailer towing capacity: 2,000 pounds (with factory tow package); 1,000 pounds (without tow package). Brakes, front/rear: Disc/disc, antilock. Electronic stability control: Standard. Side air bags: Side curtain standard, both rows. Fuel capacity/type: 13.6 gallons/unleaded regular (13.5 gallons with all-wheel drive)/unleaded regular. EPA fuel economy: 24 miles per gallon city/27 highway (CVT, 2WD); 26 city/30 highway (manual, 2WD); 23 city/26 highway (CVT, 4WD); 25 city/29 highway (Manual, 4WD). Major competitors: Scion xD/xB, Toyota Matrix/Pontiac Vibe, Suzuki Forenza wagon, Subaru Forester, Suzuki SX4, Kia Rondo. Base price range: $15,425-$21,180 plus $560 freight. Price as tested: $20,535 including freight and options (2WD, CVT). On the Road rating: 8.4 (of a possible 10).

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