Jeep Compass and Patriot Off-Road
I went to Chrysler’s off-road course in Chelsea, Michigan (within the famed Proving Grounds) to see if the Compass and Patriot were really Jeeps, or just mis-badged weenies. I asked Dave Vrabel, Wrangler Program Manager and a much more experienced off-road driver, to pilot a Trail-Rated Compass for me — because I figured the Compass would be handled more roughly and fully by Vrabel than by journalists who did not want to break it. It turned out to be a good decision, because Mr. Vrabel took the course at higher speed than I did, and gave the Compass a tougher workout. Afterwards, I took the Patriot around the course, over the same obstacles.
As a disclaimer, I am not an experienced off-roader or Jeeper; just a journalist.
Knowing that the Proving Grounds’ roads were carefully engineered, with exact replicas of real-world challenges, we can assume that the off-road course was created, and is maintained, deliberately to seek out and expose weak areas. This was not a special course for journalists; it is used for testing vehicles that need off-road capability.
Unfortunately, the course doesn’t show up well in my photography, taken from within a vehicle as it was bouncing around the trail. The ideal for us would have been to get out and photograph the Jeep, but that was not in the cards, mainly because the Jeep people wanted everyone alive and well at the end of the day, despite the 104°F heat.
The Jeep bounced along the dirt road without problems, but I can do that in a minivan, too. It went up the railroad-tie steps in the photo above, but again, that really just requires ground clearance, which most AWD crossovers have, and either skid plates or the willingness to tear off a few bits from underneath. What the photos don’t show well is how the Compass climbed up out of pits, ran through the water without hesitation or excess “pulling,” and how many times the Compass slammed down onto rock or ground or logs without any damage. It had been doing so for around six hours, nearly continuously, as a steady stream of writers had gone out...and I have no doubt that many of them were as inexpert as I was, but less cautious.
The first drop set the tone — and even if I had tried to provide a photograph, you wouldn’t see much in it. The trail started with a moderately steep hill, and then a sudden drop into a pit; the vehicle slammed down, hitting something hard, and Dave Vrabel turned to me and grinned, saying, “That’s why we have skid plates.” He’d hit the pit harder than he intended to, (or at least I think he did), but that was nothing... in the Patriot, I slammed into it, quite accidentally, with a jar that knocked my hands off the steering wheel.
One place where the camera was definitely insufficient was with the shot above. It looks like a gentle slope; it isn’t. This little “bridge” was quite steep, ascending like the railroad-tie steps; unfortunately, getting out and shooting it from the side was “not on.” While Dave Vrabel was able to easily traverse it in the Compass, with no more than a gentle scrape, I was more ham-footed on the gas and slammed the bottom of the Patriot down hard on the top log, with no visible effect on the car.
Compass’ plates are not all-encompassing, but they worked for the situations we ran into, (or Chrysler would have modified either the course or the Jeep). Wrangler and the Grand Cherokee Trailhawk are more seriously outfitted, but the Compass did things I did not think it could — including surviving the slams, bounces, and rough treatment with no visible changes, no rattles, no shakes, and no difference in how it felt when we got back.
Ideally, the suspension would have more articulation, so we’d always have all four wheels on the ground, but as it was, we did not get stuck, even on the “wave course” — a set of rocks that test cross articulation, lifting up two tires on opposite sides at once. That part of the course, which had a dirt road around it in case one wanted to bypass it, causes the body to flex and tests the strength of the welds and joints, as well as making sure that the weaknesses of independent suspensions are addressed. It was one of the few places where left and right wheels were clearly and deliberately treated in opposite ways (one raised, the other dropped), though there were also trenches or mounds on one side only.
Overall, I gained a much higher respect for the Trail-Rated version of the Jeep Compass. Driving through, the Compass and Patriot felt confident and stable throughout the time, and though I personally hit a couple of deceptive places too quickly, resulting in plunge-then-slam!, neither car showed any signs of damage or any problems when we were done.
In the end, I got the idea that the Compass was in its element driving off-road, whether simply taking a badly maintained dirt road at a reasonable speed (rather than crunching along at 5 mph) and being tossed around inside the cabin, or going through a somewhat tougher course such as the one at the Proving Grounds, or, for that matter, simply eschewing roads entirely. It isn’t a rock-crawling demon like a customized Wrangler, and suspension articulation and ground clearance and skid plate coverage are all still issues on tougher routes; but there are, nonetheless, few if any competitors in the Trail-Rated Jeep Compass’ particular segment, and it still has what it takes. Overall, I have to give these cars a 4 of 5 rating — not 5, because they don’t match Jeep’s pre-Daimler demands; not less, because they are still impressive.
Does this mean I approve of the “flexible” Trail Rated system, or have no concerns about Jeep “dumbing down”? No, but I’m a lot more confident than I was. Experiencing the reality of the Jeep Compass inspires confidence in the next generation. I personally believe, after speaking with Mike Manley and other Jeep and Mopar people, that Jeep is planning a U-turn. Its Trail Rated vehicles will, I think, be more impressive in their next generations — and in their current generations, they are, as modified under Sergio’s leadership, an evolution of Jeep rather than treason against the brand.