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2014 Jeep Compass test drive / car reviews: the final run

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2014 Jeep Compass test drive / car reviews: the final run

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When we last reviewed the Jeep Compass, in 2012, we observed that the changes made under Cerberus and Fiat made it almost a new car. Some changes were skin deep (new front end styling), but still welcome; most were deeper (controls, seats, suspension) and changed how the car felt. Now, the Compass has finally overcome the single biggest complaint of its critics, jettisoning the original Nissan/JATCO CVT for a conventional automatic transmission. The CVT is now relegated solely to the Trail Rated version (pictured in the Marc Rozman photos on this page).

The current Compass series includes one Trail Rated version, which is fitted out to be a good off-roading rig - not as versatile as a Wrangler, but still quite capable (see our Jeep Compass off-road test drive.) This review covers the Limited, which instead of skid plates and such has luxury trim, along with all wheel drive to get you going when the weather gets rough. The Compass Limited can still handle many trails, though you'd want to add skid plates if you were serious about that sort of thing; still, it's more for those who want a car that can overcome snow and other traction challenges, not cross major obstacles.

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The driver's seat on our test car was comfortable for half our drivers, and had substantial side bolsters. We had power fore/aft and up/down controls and a manual recliner. The optional Saddle Tan leather has the look of luxury, and is more attractive than the usual plain tan or black, at least to our eyes - some people dislike it, but color is always subjective.

The instrument panel is clean and attractive, with bright chromed rings around the gauges. Gauges are easy to read under all light conditions.

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Underneath the larger gauges are warning lights, the odometer, and the trip computer. The latter provides the outside temperature/compass heading, average gas mileage, distance to empty, and miles traveled, along with providing various settings (power memory, locking behavior, etc - but not DRL behavior). The control button is on the steering wheel, making it easy to operate.

Controls are common-sense; 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 (these are driver-programmable options). The interior is well lit, with backlighted controls (including on the steering wheel). The conventional headlight/turn signal stalk included the fog lights and rheostat; unlike some other cars, turning the parking lights on does not shut off the daytime running lights. (Indeed, we could not find a way to shut them off.)

The stability control and seat heaters are controlled from pushbuttons below the center stack, next to a DC outlet. On cars with the feature, a 110V outlet is also provided, back by the center console; there's no power inside the center console or glove compartment.

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Storage areas include the bin above the glove compartment, small door pockets in each of the four doors, an extra rubberized bin (EZ-Pass sized) next to the cupholders, and a well-padded center console/armrest that can be slid back for the rear seat denizens. The climate control knobs are the Brian Nagode/corporate setup which is pleasant to use and to see, and effortless to figure out.

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As befits a Jeep, the Compass has powerful front and side window demisters and a standard rear window defroster, though air conditioning was weak when we tested in 2011 and remains weak in 2014. Visibility is good in nearly all directions, with a large right-rear-quarter blind spot. The interior generally feels fairly light and airy, with large glass areas.

The sound of the RHB stereo (Media Center 430N) with optional Boston Acoustics speakers was okay when playing from the hard drive, CD, or USB, with good stereo separation but surprisingly muddy bass; we remembered the audio as being better in the 2011 car we tested, with the same head unit and speaker package. Satellite radio, as usual, suffers from compression.

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 rattle the windows, and midrange is available as well - but all tone controls are done through the touch screen (press Audio, press Equalizer, fiddle with touch screen controls, explain to the police why you didn't notice the car in front of you stopping). Fortunately, there are mode, skip/tune, and volume controls on the back of the steering wheel, but the equalizer is an issue - and remains one on the current Chrysler systems, too.

Our car had the optional SoundGate system as part of the $650 Premium Sound Group; most of the time they simply sit in the hatch, but if you raise the hatch, you can unlatch SoundGate and inflect your music on others, as shown in the photo.

Rear seat space is generous for the class, with good headroom and legroom, and it's easy to get in and out; the high-mounted rear door handles are handy if unconventional. The cargo area is large for the class, and underneath the spare cover, there is room for jumper cables, a first aid kit, and the like. Both rear seats fold down for a flat loading surface, and the passenger side front seat also folds down.

Powertrain: 2.4 liter four cylinder, stick-shift or CVT

A MultiAir-equipped 2.4 dubbed TigerShark is used in the Dodge Dart, but Compass still has the Mercedes dual variable valve timing version, and it still sounds something like a sewing machine when revved. There is also a 2.0 liter engine, with a five-speed stick shift but only on the base model. The easy-to-shift manual increases gas mileage from 23/27 mpg to 23/29. Going to the 2.4 engine drops it to 21/27, with either FWD or 4x4. The CVT was supposed to save fuel, but the Hyundai six-speed automatic matched the CVT's gas mileage perfectly (admittedly, when Compass was launched, it would likely have had a four speed, not a six speed, as an alternative to the CVT).

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The Compass is moderately peppy around town, though full-power launches are slow until 20 mph. Part of the responsive feel comes from an overly aggressive throttle curve (programming of how much the engine reacts to movements of the pedal). Highway-ramp sprints are not thrilling, but they are good enough. Once you get past 20 mph, the car is quick; that first 0-20 can take a while, or seem like it when you're in a real hurry. In normal around-town or highway driving, the powertrain fades into the background; the shifts are impossibly smooth, and the engine has good enough power to be ignored most of the time.

The automatic transmission was responsive and faster to shift than the CVT could change ratios by similar margins. On the highway, downshifts were common when we tried to pick up speed; the power curve on the 2.4 engine is not quite as broad as it could be. The Hyundai automatic downshifted quickly and smoothly, and under full throttle took the engine all the way to redline (under part throttle, it shifted earlier to keep things smooth). Most of the time, the transmission was so smooth and fast to shift, it almost seemed like the CVT was still installed... but still, the engine noise changed when we pressed lightly on the gas, rather than, with the CVT, the engine staying at the same speed and the ratios changing.

In our experience, city mileage stayed around 20-22; in more "rural biased" suburban driving, gas mileage jumped up to 25 fairly easily. Driving with restraint pays off, as the 2.4 gulps down fuel rapidly when it revs high. So does taking longer trips; while the 2.4 is warming up, it burns through fuel quickly.

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Interior noise on blacktop is not bad even at fast highway speeds, with low wind noise.

Under the hood, as with all Chrysler vehicles since the Neon, servicing points are clearly marked in yellow; new to Chrysler in recent years, the recommended oil is marked on the filler cap. Chrysler has had many problems resulting from shadetree and oil-change-place (and dealer) mechanics putting in the wrong fluids, and hopefully this will go a long way towards solving that problem.

Steering is tight and cornering is far better than it was when we first got a Compass; the tire squeal is no longer an issue, and the Compass sticks to the ground without fuss. The car confident on sharp, fast turns.

That confidence extends to bad weather; caught in a severe thunderstorm that had numerous SUV drivers seeking shelter on the shoulder and under viaducts, we continued with the Compass having no traction issues at all.

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The ride is not bad, with good cushioning from bad pavement, though it remains moderately firm and busy. The Compass handles large bumps and steep ramps with aplomb, including some which cause even some CUVs to scrape. It might not look particularly capable, but its ground clearance and ability to handle bad situations is much better than average, at least in 4x4 form. Whether it's good enough to be a "real Jeep" is a different story, but at least it maintains a good edge over the "pure cute-utes."

There is one area where all Compass buyers can benefit from meeting Jeep design criteria - body strength. In some cars, you can do a lot of damage by raising up the front-right and rear-left wheels while dropping the other two. Compass was designed to handle that kind of body flex without blinking, which may account for some of its heft. It makes one wonder whether the Compass would be an extra-good bet as a used car, at least in terms of body integrity.

Prices and features

Our test car, the top of the line Compass Limited 4x4, cost $29,290 including destination, a steep toll; you can get a base Compass for far less. That doesn't include any skid plates or serious offroad equipment, which comes packaged with Freedom Drive II and the Trail Rated model, which is a shame. As long as you have the tough body, you should have the skid plates.

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Safety equipment includes front and rear side curtain airbags, active head restraints, stability and roll control, brake assist, theft deterrent, rear defroster and wiper/washer, and four-wheel antilock disc brakes. Since our 2011 test, the company added front seat-mounted side airbags as standard equipment, which may explain part of the price increase.

Luxury stuff includes cruise, power windows and locks, remote, automatic filtered air conditioning, power driver's seat, heated front seats, steering wheel mounted audio controls, trip computer, garage door opener, tilt steering, auto-dimming rear view mirror, AC outlet, full length floor console, floor mats, 18 x 7 aluminum wheels, power heated folding mirrors, fog lamps, and deep tint glass. The stereo comes standard with an audio jack and satellite radio.

Our test car came with three option groups. First was Security and Convenience ($495), with alarm, remote start, voice-controlled hands-free cell phone, cargo cover, USB port, and DRLs that run on the high beam to annoy other drivers.

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The premium sound group ($650) added the big speakers in the liftgate, which can be released to swing down and provide music for tailgate parties, eight Boston Acoustics speakers, and a subwoofer. Finally, $395 bought the Media Center 430N upgrade with a hard drive for music storage, navigation, and satellite travel/gas/weather information. The saddle tan leather seats added another $195 to the bill, well worth it if you're into that color.

With all that, the car came in at $30,025 before the inevitable rebates and special offers, pushing it up against the entry level Grand Cherokee, 2014 Cherokee, and Wrangler, along with too many competitors to mention.

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A loaded Compass might not be the best deal; the base price on Compass is $19,490, a far more reasonable amount if you can live without the frills. The 4x4 starts at $21,295, still well in the realm of reason, especially after the rebate (currently $1,500) and dealer negotiation. Jeep Compass Latitude seems like a more sensible setup, forsaking the 2.4 engine, automatic climate control, leather seats, six-way power driver's seat, auto-dim mirror, fancy stereo, various cosmetic updates, tire pressure display, trip computer, garage door opener, standard rear park assist and camera, and four-wheel antilock brakes. Some of those items can be added relatively cheaply through various option groups; the 2.4 engine, for example, is under $500.

The Compass comes with a 5/100,000 mile powertrain warranty and 3/36 basic warranty; 72% of the car is made from US or Canadian parts, and it's all assembled in Belvidere, Illinois. The engine is made in Michigan, the transmission in Korea.

Overall, the Jeep Compass remains, when discounted, a good option for those who really want something that can deal with snow and slush, and go on mild trails - or, in Trail Rated form, can deal with most obstacles people are likely to encounter without actually seeking out challenges. It provides SUV styling and all wheel drive in a sensibly sized package that is nimble and can hold four people in comfort, while still carrying a reasonable amount of cargo; and since its restyling, it carries upscale looks, particularly from the front, with the Grand Cherokee style front end. There are numerous alternatives, including the closely related Jeep Patriot, the somewhat larger Cherokee, and many, many others in what can only be described as an incredibly crowded market.

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