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 — I didn’t like it at first but it grew on me.
Inside, much of the car looks cheap but durable, with a few touches of chrome. On a long trip, though, you start to appreciate the clever touches. For storage, there’s the extra large bin above the glove compartment, deep cupholders, slot under the stereo, and the covered bin underneath the iPod holder.
Even the base model comes with a day/night mirror, dual mirrors, sun visors that slide to cover a wider area, auxiliary (iPod) input, tachometer, and stability and traction control. Not standard are air conditioning, power locks, remote mirror control, or power windows; but you do, oddly, get fog lights and a rear wiper/washer. The passenger door has a lock - uncommon these days.
Base model seats are surprisingly comfortable - several people commented on this. Despite 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.
The instrument panel is quiet and competent looking, 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. A trip computer provides the 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.
The only real annoyance in the controls 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.
The 2.4 liter World Engine, coupled with the five-speed stick, carries an overweight body with four wheel drive. How does it move? That depends on how you drive it. If you want the Compass to accelerate quickly, it will; push your foot down and rev it high. The World Engine calls for downshifting when you need power. The top gear is set up for decent power at 65 mph, but if you go 75, you’ll make noise and burn gas.
The manual transmission makes the Compass much more responsive; indeed, it felt like a completely different car than with the CVT. The lack of low-end torque required downshifts for hill climbing and acceleration.
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. Redline 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, 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 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, in the dashboard to save space; 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. 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 an advantage but the iPod holder is a bit of a gimmick, because Chrysler did not run a line from the stereo into the console where the iPod holder is. The holder flips but 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. We ended up using the iPod holder to stow a cell phone, and when using an actual iPod left it in the center cubby.
The sound is very good, 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 generous, but seats themselves 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 tire cover there is 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 a fine option for those who were thinking about a traditional 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. What’s more, though there was no Trail Rated Compass at this time, the body was toughened and ready to take some punches.
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