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Jeep Compass test drive / car reviews: The "Marchionne Makeover"

Five years after our last review of the Jeep Compass, we took a new one out for a spin - and, despite having no architecture or powertrain changes, it's almost like a new car. The original Compass' awkward front end styling was replaced by the "little Grand Cherokee" look. Designers worked on every detail, including having black lower body cladding to avoid damage from flying rocks and debris for those who go out on the trail or into the fields.

Inside, the surfaces have all been changed. Round vents provide better, quieter airflow; controls have been changed and moved around; and new skins and new parts bring far more upscale experience. From "durable but cheap" (our words in 2007) to "looks and feels good" is a serious improvement.

Looks are skin deep, though, and cars are built to a purpose. How well does the Jeep Compass fulfill its dual missions of providing good transportation and upholding Jeep's image? The answer is, it depends, but certainly the current Compass does a better job than the original. See our Jeep Compass off-road test drive.

The driver's seat on our test car was surprisingly comfortable, allowing the driver to sink into the ample cushioning and supporting the driver on both sides; we had power fore/aft and up/down controls and a manual recliner, while the front passenger had all manual controls. Oddly, though the two seats looked the same, the front passenger seat was uncomfortable (more so than the back seat) for both of our testers.

The instrument panel is cleaner and more attractive, with bright chromed rings around the four original (but reskinned) gauges; it retains the usual white-on-black design with a large speedometer and tach in the center and smaller gas and temp on the outside. Gauges are easy to read under all light conditions.

The control button was moved from the cluster itself, where it was hard to reach safely, to the steering wheel, making it easier to operate. Interior lighting in our test car was provided by a three dome lights versus the single one in the original.

There are many storage areas. The center stack has been resculpted so it is no longer a single unit in appearance, and the cheap-looking climate control knobs have been replaced by the beautiful Nagode setup which is pleasant to use and to see, not to mention easy to figure out.

As befits a Jeep, the Compass has powerful front and side window demisters and a standard rear window defroster. Visibility is good in nearly all directions, with the usual right-rear-quarter blind spot ameliorated somewhat by a triangle window. The interior feels fairly light and airy, with large glass areas. Air conditioning was on the weak side.

The sound of the RHB stereo (Media Center 430N) with optional speakers was excellent when playing from the hard drive, with strong stereo separation and clarity; the satellite radio was not in the same league. 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.

Rear seat space is generous for the class, with good headroom and legroom. Getting in is made easier by Lumina-style window-frame-mounted door handles.

The cargo area is large for the class as well, 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 to increase capacity when needed. The passenger side front seat also folds down.

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

The Compass engine is unchanged, while the CVT has been retuned. A MultiAir-equipped 2.4 dubbed TigerShark is coming soon for the Dodge Dart, but Compass currently retains the Mercedes dual variable valve timing, which is not by any means an antique. There is also a 2.0 liter engine - unlike Dart, this is still the original non-TigerShark version - which comes 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 or so, with either FWD or 4x4.

The CVT (continuously variable transmission) automatic. It's been considerably refined since it first came out, and is now a viable option for people who prefer automatics.

The World Engine is much smoother when idling, and less buzzy when revved with the CVT, though when pushed to the limit it still sounds like a sewing machine (partly because of the CVT pushes it to redline and keeps it there, unlike conventional automatics which make the engine rise and fall as the gears go by). On the highway and around town, it's far less obvious that one is driving a CVT-equipped car, and the average driver will most likely let it fade to the background.

The CVT-equipped Compass is peppy around town, though part of that 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 more than adequate; we've been conditioned to the sudden transitions you get with an automatic, the drop-down-and-regain-power pauses, and the CVT doesn't have those, it gets the engine near maximum revs and stays there. On the highway, the pedal has to be pushed down for more power, and there can be a delay while the CVT and engine find the right combination; there's plenty of power there, but it's not necessarily on tap for instant use.

The transmission is generally responsive; one could mistake it for an automatic most of the time, but it's more efficient than a normal automatic. With a regular transmission, the engine can't be kept at its peak horsepower or torque because it changes speed as the vehicle changes speed; with the CVT, the vehicle speed can change without changing the engine speed. It also helps gas mileage by keeping the engine at a constant speed while gearing changes up and down, when possible. The main drawbacks are lack of repairability (it gets replaced as a single unit) and a limited gearing range, compared with the best traditional automatics - not that most competitors have those.

In our experience, city mileage rarely got up to 20; traditional 4x4s do even worse, and in more "rural biased" suburban driving, gas mileage jumped up to 24 fairly easily (we also achieved over 26 mpg on a long highway trip involving typical Route 80 speeds and some steep hills). Laying off the throttle and driving with restraint certainly pays off in the Compass, 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 like an old-time Hemi. Fortunately, warmups don't take all that long, but gas mileage will be poor if you take multiple short trips.

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. The engine is quiet at idle but noisy when revved. Interior noise on blacktop is not bad even at fast highway speeds, with low wind noise, albeit not in Dart's class. Concrete pavement can greatly increase noise, presumably because the tires were chosen for their grip, not their quietness.

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.

Wrapping up

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 in ordinary cornering, including in enthusiastic driving, the Compass sticks to the ground without fuss. The car felt far more confident on sharp, fast turns than it had any right to, especially given its size and shape. If there was any competitive advantage we could easily point to, it would be Compass' confidence on the road.

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, not even resorting to 4x4 Lock (the system probably activated 4x4 on its own).

Ride seems better as well, with good cushioning from bad pavement, though it remains firm moderately busy. The Compass handles large bumps and steep ramps with aplomb, including some which cause even some CUVs to scrape. The Compass might not look like a capable vehicle, 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."

Prices and features

Our test car, the top of the line Compass Limited 4x4, cost $26,825 including destination, a fairly steep toll; you can get a base Compass for far less. That doesn't include any skidpads or serious offroad equipment, which comes packaged with Freedom Drive II and the Trail Rated model. 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. 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 ($750), with front seat-mounted side airbags, 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.

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, $685 bought the Media Center 430N upgrade with a 28-free-gigabytes hard drive, navigation, and satellite travel/gas/weather information.

With all that, the car came in at $28,910 before the inevitable rebates and special offers, pushing it up against the entry level Grand Cherokee, Liberty, Patriot, and Wrangler, along with too many competitors to mention. A loaded Compass might not be the best deal around; the base price on Compass is $20,805, a far more reasonable amount if you can live without the frills. The 4x4 starts at $21,925, still well in the realm of reason for the class, especially after the rebate (currently $1,000) and dealer negotiation.

The Compass comes with a 5/100,000 mile powertrain warranty and 3/36 basic warranty; 70% 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 Mexico (from a Japanese design).

Overall, the Jeep Compass remains, as discounted, a good option for those who really want something that looks like an SUV and can deal with snow and slush, and maybe go on some mild trails. 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 real-SUV Liberty, Impreza, and far, far too many others in what can only be described as an incredibly crowded market.

Jeep Compass information and specsJeep Compass forumsJeep Compass Off-Road TestJeep Patriot Review

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