Sometimes, you start out with a car that seems great but starts to wear you down after a while. Other times, you start with a car that doesn't impress you, and over time you grow to really like it. The Jeep Compass falls into the latter category. Despite myself, after a week, I started to regret the time I'd have to return it.
The oft-criticized styling is the easiest thing to become accustomed to; in person, on the road and away from the bright spotlights of the auto shows, the Compass looks far better proportioned and attractive. The side profile resembles some classic European estate cars and hatchbacks, while the initial ungainliness of the front quickly recedes from your attention.
Inside, the appearance is an interesting mixed bag. Much of the car frankly looks cheap but durable, with only a few upscale touches such as the bright chrome gearshift knob, 4wd lock pull, and the word Jeep on the steering wheel cover. On the other hand, on a long trip you start to appreciate the various clever touches. For storage, there's the extra large bin above the glove compartment, useful for storing, well, just about anything; the small door pockets in each of the four doors; the deep twin cupholders, slot under the stereo (presumably filled by something on some models), the extra bin next to the cupholders, and the covered bin underneath the iPod holder, which we generally used for holding a phone.
Even the bottom of the line model comes with features like a day/night mirror, dual mirrors, sun visors that slide to cover a wider area, CD stereo with auxiliary (iPod) input, tachometer, and, oh, yes, the standard stability and traction control. Not standard are air conditioning, power locks, remote control for the mirrors, or power windows. Oddly standard, in place of power locks and such, are fog lights and a rear wiper/washer. Making life easier on base model buyers, the passenger door has a lock - uncommon these days.
The base model seats are surprisingly comfortable - several people commented on this - and the fabric in our test car was light and attractive, not to mention durable looking. Despite odd comments in Consumer Reports about “large gaps” in panels, we found the interior to be moderately cheap looking but didn't see any oversized gaps or other problems (if indeed gaps are a problem); and it seemed to look durable enough. Time will tell.
The instrument panel is quiet and competent looking, with small triangles on the trim rings to remind you that you are in a Compass, and a simple white-on-black design with the usual large speedo and tach in the center and smaller gas and temp on the outside. At night the white backlighting helps it to retain its neat, clean look; it's easy to read in all lighting conditions. Underneath the big gauges are warning lights and the combination odometer, the trip odometer, and trip computer, which provides the outside temperature, average mileage, distance to empty, and of course the miles traveled. You can only see one at a time, and to change between them you have to press an awkwardly placed button behind the right-hand stalk.
Controls are all common-sense and where you'd expect them to be, except perhaps the rear wiper-washer on the right-hand stalk. Outside lights automatically shut off after a short interval if the keys are taken out, and power memory lets the radio stay on until you open the door. Interior lighting in our base model test car was provided by a single dome light with the usual entry delay. The tilt wheel (standard) allows a variety of positions. The only real annoyance was the design of the manual window cranks, which were inconveniently placed and required some effort to use.
As befits a Jeep, the Compass has powerful front and side window demisters and a standard rear window defroster.
Now for the part many people have been waiting for - the 2.4 liter World Engine coupled with the five-speed stick, carrying an overweight body burdened with four wheel drive apparatus. How does it move? The answer is, in essence, that depends on how you drive it. As far as I can tell, the computer looks at where your foot is on the gas pedal, and adjusts the variable valve timing and other mechanisms appropriately. In short, if you want the Compass to fly, it will; you just have to push your foot down and rev it high. That said, if you're in second because you're moving, but you're only going 5 mph, you will sit like a fool on the freeway ramp waiting for the engine to get going. The World Engine calls for downshifting when you need power, or letting the engine rev high wasting fuel and making noise all the time. (If you drive considerably faster than the speed limit, based on the speed of the engine at 65 mph, you're going to be spinning that engine pretty quickly and making lots of noise while you're on the freeway; it's not bad in the “common-traffic” range. On the lighter side, you don't have to downshift for moderate acceleration over 65.)
The manual transmission really does help to make the Compass more responsive; indeed, it felt like a completely different car than the CVT-using 2.4 liter Dodge Caliber R/T. The lack of low-end torque made hill climbing and downshifting require downshifts, but there is plenty of power for acceleration once in the right gear, which I refer to as “one or two gears below where my Neon, Sundance, or PT would be.” At highway speeds the engine cranks along faster than usual to keep it near its power band, which is no doubt a major factor in the Compass' relatively low highway mileage (which, compared with truck-based SUVs of similar interior space, is actually quite good). The Compass sits lower to the ground than most SUVs but higher than most cars, and has a traditional SUV “tall wagon” form, complete with four wheel drive, so you can apply the standards you prefer. If we call it an SUV, then the Compass does well in cornering, acceleration, and gas mileage.
The engine is quiet at idle but makes a good deal of noise when revved, which, if you're in a hurry, is most or all of the time. Despite that, because the sealing is good, interior noise is not bad even at fast highway speeds, with low wind and tire noise. The engine's various sounds provide a good alternative to the tachometer once you've figured out which particular noise comes just before redline — and redline, though it comes up surprisingly fast once you're in the power band, is relatively gentle and holds the engine to its peak instead of killing the gas completely. That's a great improvement over some past designs where the rev limiter was like hitting a wall.
Visibility is good in just about all directions, with the usual right-rear-quarter blind spot ameliorated somewhat by a small triangle window. The interior feels fairly light and airy, with large glass areas. The headlights are strong for night driving, and the mirrors are generously sized. The standard manual day/night mirror is far more effective at diminishing headlights than the automatic variety.
The clutch can be easy to ride, with a long sweep that only engages near the top (but feels like it's about to engage before that). It can take a while to get used to. Ditto the five-speed shifter, mounted in the dashboard rather than in the console to save space and commonize the design with the automatic; the throws are fairly long and the mechanism stiff, but we never missed a gear. Reverse is in the odd Japanese-style sixth-gear position rather than in the German off-to-the-left area, and there didn't seem to be a lockout (oddly enough we didn't try going from fifth to reverse that to make sure that there wasn't). The usual ball-shaped gearshift knob was superceded by a large, oddly shaped knob which wasn't quite as comfortable.
Steering is tight but the base model's tires tended to squeal easily on sharp turns. The Compass generally felt competent but did not invite sports-car treatment.
The iPod-enabled stereo is often mentioned as a feature, and it is really an advantage to have an input line on the stereo; but the iPod holder is a bit of a gimmick, because Chrysler did not run a line from the stereo into the center console where the iPod holder itself is, so if you want to keep your iPod for any length of time, you have to stow the cord when you leave the car. While the holder does flip open (and the console slides forward for easier access), you're not supposed to drive while it's open, and there's no allowance for the extra width of even a tight fabric iPod cover. The iPod can't be controlled through the stereo's normal controls, either. We ended up using the iPod holder to stow a cell phone, and when using an actual iPod left it in the center cubby.
On the lighter side, the sound is simply excellent, with strong stereo separation. The standard stereo provides surprisingly good sound from CDs and radio as well, though bass could sometimes be a little muddy. Audio fine tuning covers a broader band than in most stereos, so bass response can be turned down dramatically for talk radio or drummed up dramatically to, um, have very strong bass.
Rear seat space is fairly generous, with good headroom and legroom, but seats that don't feel large enough. Getting in is made easier by Lumina-style window-frame-mounted door handles. The cargo area is both large and conveniently arranged, with a bin on the right for items that shouldn't roll around and a grippy surface. Underneath the cleverly hinged/latched tire cover - which unfortunately covers the entire cargo space - there is plenty of room on top of the spare for jumper cables, a first aid kit, and the like. Both rear seats fold down for a flat loading surface to increase capacity to a surprising size when needed. The passenger side front seat also folds down.
Our test car listed for $17,605 including destination. That buys you the electronic stability and traction control, four-wheel antilock brakes, four wheel drive, side curtain airbags for both rows, roll mitigation, SentryKey theft deterrent, rear wiper/washer and defroster, surprisingly good CD stereo, tilt wheel, floor mats, 17 inch alloy wheels, fog lights, and roof rails. Our test car had air conditioning, an $850 extra, for a total price of $18,435. About 70% of the Compass is made in the US (including engine and transmission), with 16% made in Mexico. The front wheel drive model starts with similar equipment at just under $16,000 including destination.
The Jeep Compass is an interesting vehicle; like the Subaru Impreza, it provides four wheel drive in an SUV-like, but clearly car-based, form. Where the Impreza comes with a base engine that has plenty of torque but little horsepower, the Compass comes with loads of horsepower and less low-end torque (both have similar gas mileage, with the Compass getting about 3 mpg more in the city according to EPA estimates). The Impreza costs about $1,000 more, but comes with standard cruise, power locks, windows, and mirrors, and remote entry; while the base Compass does not come with these, it does have a standard stability control system and slightly better crash test ratings, and has more interior space than the subcompact Impreza.
If you prefer an automatic, see our review of the Dodge Caliber for impressions of the same basic vehicle with the same engine and a CVT (continuously variable automatic). The Compass CVT beats the Impreza in gas mileage but may not be as quick or responsive.
Overall, the Jeep Compass is an excellent option for those who were thinking about a Ford Escape, Ford Explorer, or other larger-than-really-needed SUV. It provides SUV styling and four wheel drive in a sensibly sized package that still manages to be nimble and quick on its feet (with the stick at least) and can hold four people in comfort - especially if two are kids - while still carrying a reasonable amount of cargo, and with a reasonable price. On the other hand, there are lots of alternatives if you can do without the SUV styling and four wheel drive, including Dodge's own Caliber, and even if you want the SUV styling, there are plenty of car-based SUVs out there - not all with Jeep's four wheel drive experience, admittedly, but to be fair, we didn't take the Compass through its paces off-road.
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