by David Zatz in July 2013
Twice in two years, we went to the Chrysler Proving Grounds to see if the Compass and Patriot were Jeeps or weenies. In 2013, photographer Marc Rozman snapped some photos from outside the Jeep.
In our first run, Wrangler Program Manager Dave Vrabel piloted a Trail-Rated Compass for me, because I wanted to see what Compass could do when handled by a pro. Mr. Vrabel took the course two or three times as quickly as I did, giving the Compass a tougher workout and showing what it could do in the hands of a pro. Then I took the Patriot and, a year later, the Compass over the same obstacles, to show what the Compass can do with an inexperienced rank amateur at the helm. While Mr. Vrabel may have been able to cover up weaknesses, my untrained driving would be almost sure to highlight any problems the Compass had. (Why the Compass, you may ask? Because it's the Jeep most likely to be considered a joke or insult by “real Jeepers.” It's hardly a contest to take a Wrangler around.)
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 is not a special course for journalists; it is used for testing vehicles that need off-road capability. (Photography tends to “flatten” the landscape, hiding grades and flattening hills, so whatever you see, it was rougher than it looks.)
In 2012, the Jeep bounced along the dirt road without problems, but I can do that in a minivan, too. It was tougher in 2013; a series of thunderstorms had passed through Detroit the day before, flooding many areas to the point where power had still not been restored days later. The trail was no longer dirt; it was now mud, rather deep mud in some parts. Chelsea workers will most likely be putting in a lot of time restoring it, but it was a better test of Compass' abilities now. Would I, an inexperienced Eastern driver (that's an insult in some parts), be able to handle it? Would I get stuck in my “mall runner fake Jeep,” as the Compass has been called? In short, would a well designed off-road-ready vehicle save me from myself in these rather nasty conditions? Or will the last photo show a Wrangler coming to the rescue with a winch?
The Compass went up the railroad-tie steps, but 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. When crossing the log bridge, the skid plates got a good healthy thump at the top, from the top log, when I did it the first time, applying too much throttle; the second time I did it, the Compass didn't seem to have any problems. In any case, there's one differentiator: the skid plates mean that even if you're willing to tear off some bits from underneath, you probably don't have to.
The photos don't show how well the Compass climbed up out of pits, ran through the water without hesitation or pulling to the side or stalling (or, as Volkswagens are prone to do, without sucking water into the engine). Nor do they show 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. 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, but that was nothing... in the Patriot, I slammed into it, accidentally, with a jar that knocked my hands off the steering wheel, and absolutely no damage to the car; it didn't even knock the alignment out of kilter. (Due to the heavy rain, this was taken off the route in 2013, to avoid excess damage to the course).
Compass' plates worked for the situations we ran into. Wrangler and Grand Cherokee Trailhawk are more seriously outfitted, but the Compass did things I did not think it could — including surviving the slams, bounces, and general rough treatment with no visible changes, no rattles, no shakes, and no difference in how it felt when we got back onto the road. The skid plates are tough and designed to prevent damage; they're not thin sheet metal for looks only.
Ideally, the suspension would have more articulation, so we'd always have all four wheels on the ground (as far as I know we did in 2013), 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 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. The left and right wheels were clearly and deliberately treated in opposite ways (one raised, the other dropped); there were other parts of the course with deep trenches or mounds on one side only, again to test independent suspensions at their weakest.
After our first run, two former Chrysler employees told me (with a good laugh) about taking a Ford Explorer onto the course, and having the body burst apart right at the beginning of the trail. That highlights the work which was put into Compass, Patriot, and Grand Cherokee — all vehicles scoffed at by some dedicated Jeepers, but still able to handle difficult situations in their stride.
The Compass and Patriot felt confident and stable throughout the course, 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. The second year, the Compass encountered much more mud and standing water, but never lost traction or felt anything less than confident. As a rank beginner, I found it surprisingly easy to negotiate the entire course while paying as much attention to the photography as the driving.
The Compass is in its element when off-road, whether 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 tougher course such as the one at the Proving Grounds, or 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 few (if any) competitors in the Trail-Rated Jeep Compass' segment. 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.
I still can't approve of the “flexible” Trail Rated system, since it can be weakened too far under future leaders, but experiencing the reality of the Jeep Compass inspires confidence in the next generation. After speaking with Mike Manley and other Jeep and Mopar people, I believe that Jeep's Trail Rated vehicles will continue to impress, an evolution of Jeep rather than treason against the brand. Of course, I haven't taken a new Cherokee along this course yet — though I hope to do so next year.
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