Three weeks ago, I reviewed a 2007 Dodge Caliber with unique features and liked it; today, the focus is on a very similar, new-for-2007 Jeep Compass...but I'm a little mystified as to why Chrysler Group opted to build it. Best as I can tell, it's a Jeep thing.

Let me explain.

My theory is that giant auto company management would be wiser to offer one fun, entry-level crossover vehicle with cool features -- like speakers that flip down from the edge of the opened rear liftgate (both the Caliber and Compass had this). Why build two?

Well, Chrysler had to give some love to Jeep fans, right? Jeep buyers tend to stick with Jeeps, purchasing several or more in their lifetimes.

Before the Compass, which starts at $17,025 for the four-wheel-drive Sport model, the lowest fare for a 2006 Jeep product was an $18,390 Wrangler. But the Wrangler is an entirely different animal -- a hard-core off-roader with few creature comforts. So BC (that's Before Compass), Jeep devotees who wanted a practical, inexpensive sport-ute with proper manners for highway cruising and surface-street maneuvers typically had to settle for a two-wheel-drive Jeep Liberty starting at $21,290 for the 2006 model year.

A Compass, including the tested four-wheel-drive Limited model, starts at $21,180. Compass shapes up as a good deal, which makes sense.

What doesn't make sense is how the Compass will appeal to the traditional Jeep crowd, which tends to favor rugged, climb-over-anything vehicles with few frills.

Jeep has an answer for that, too.

"With Compass, Jeep continues to expand globally by offering a fun-to-drive, fuel-efficient and affordably priced Jeep vehicle designed to reach youthful customers who may not have previously considered the brand," said George Murphy, senior vice president of global marketing for Chrysler Group. "Compass is a new type of Jeep vehicle for non-traditional Jeep buyers.

Murphy says it allows the brand "to compete in the fast-growing compact SUV segment, where there is increasing market demand for fuel economy, ride comfort and efficient packaging in an SUV."

There you have it. Jeep purists probably won't like the automaker's new Compass direction; but those who have pondered a Jeep in the past might snap it up.

Me, I might have saved a few hundred million dollars by building only the Caliber in the Chrysler assembly plant in Belvidere, Ill. -- the same plant where Compass is now being assembled. But assessing consumer loyalty to specific brands is a tricky thing.

Suffice it to say that the Compass does not shape up as a rock-crushing trail rider -- even with its 4WD powertrain and 8-inches-plus ground clearance. The Compass is more at home taking five people and their belongings to the beach for a summer day. With its numerous cargo-carrying configurations, the Compass can haul a hefty maximum of 60.7 cubic feet of stuff.

The tested Limited looked pleasant enough, with a smooth roofline and a signature Jeep-style grille with seven prominent vertical openings.

Handling was nimble and steering was responsive. Oddly, the vehicle's 2.4-liter in-line 4 engine with 172 horsepower -- the same as the recently tested Dodge Caliber -- did not seem as spirited in freeway driving as the Caliber's power plant -- even though the two vehicles were virtually the same weight. Go figure.

Also, the tested Compass struggled mightily to cool the cabin. Yes, the test drive occurred in July during that hideous heat wave in the Sacramento area, but still, the Compass labored to cool the comparatively small cabin even after 15 minutes of full-blast operation.

Is the Compass a nice, entry-level car for 20-somethings? Yes, it is.

Will those even mildly interested in Jeeps buy it? I don't know.

How about traditional Jeep off-roaders whose idea of a fun Sunday is bouncing over the rock-strewn Rubicon Trail northeast of Placerville? My guess is they'll want nothing to do with the Compass.

Given this, I'd recommend a thorough test drive for anyone considering the all-new Compass. Make sure you're getting exactly what you want.

Youthful motorists looking for fun and utility for a bargain price might consider it a steal. Drivers who have bent a few axles on High Sierra trails might want to stick with a tried-and-true Wrangler.

Or, prospective buyers might want to wait for the new 2007 Jeep Patriot later this year. The compact Patriot will have a more rugged, SUV-like look for a starting price of reportedly less than $16,000. It will be produced in that same Illinois plant now building Calibers and Compasses.



Jeep Compass at a glance

Make/model: 2007 Jeep Compass Limited 4X4 Vehicle type: Five-passenger, four-door, four-wheel-drive, compact crossover vehicle Base price: $21,180 (as tested, $23,500) Engine: 2.4-liter in-line 4 with 172 horsepower at 6,000 revolutions per minute and 165 foot-pounds of torque at 4,400 rpm EPA fuel economy: 23 miles per gallon city; 26 mpg highway (regular unleaded) Transmission: Continuously variable with lock-up torque converter and electronic controls Steering: Power-assisted rack and pinion Brakes: Power-assisted, four-wheel discs (vented on front), with anti-lock and other special features Suspension: Independent, MacPherson strut-type on front; independent, multi-link on rear (coil springs and stabilizer bars front and rear) Fuel tank: 13.5 gallons Passenger volume: 101.3 cubic feet Maximum cargo volume: 60.7 cubic feet Curb weight: 3,329 pounds Height: 65.2 inches Length: 173.4 inches Wheelbase: 103.7 inches Width: 69.3 inches Ground clearance: 8.5 inches (estimated) Track: 59.8 inches on front and rear Towing capacity: 2,000 pounds (with specified trailering package) Tires: P215/55R18 all-season performance radials Final assembly point: Belvidere, Ill.

About the writer: The Bee's Mark Glover can be reached at (916) 321-1184 or mglover@sacbee.com.