AT A GLANCE:
2007 JEEP COMPASS SPORT 4X4
ON SALE: Now
BASE PRICE: $17,585
POWERTRAIN: 2.4-liter, 172-hp, 165-lb-ft I4; awd, five-speed manual
CURB WEIGHT: 3326 lbs
0 TO 60 MPH: 10.0 seconds (mfr.)
FUEL MILEAGE (EPA COMBINED): 26.66 mpg
Jeep, as a brand, is 65 years old this year. But rather than filing for Social Security and snagging every AARP discount in sight, Jeep is rapidly reinventing itself with a range of youthful products, including the eyebrow-raising 2007 Jeep Compass.
What’s the controversy? For starters, no matter how many times the Jeep marketing folks say the base Compass is “two-wheel drive,” this is the first front-wheel-drive-based Jeep. Those screams you hear are from the Jeep faithful jumping off a cliff somewhere in Moab.
Then there’s the fact the Compass, despite its tough truck exterior, is a car at heart, built on the same chassis as Caliber, Dodge’s upright small-car replacement for the Neon. Compass doesn’t even try to meet Jeep’s vaunted Trail-Rated off-roading standards. Those moans you hear are from the Jeep faithful slashing their wrists somewhere along the Rubicon.
If that’s not enough, consider this word combination: “diamond-plate plastic.” It’s enough to make a proud, self-respecting Jeep devotee consider buying a Hummer.
Not so fast, says Jeep marketing chief Michael Berube, who notes Jeep has created a number of variations over the years, “to meet the needs of the consumer at that time.”
Furthermore, Berube says, Chrysler consulted with the Jeep elite on Compass and learned that as long as the company did everything possible to keep its Wrangler at the top of the off-road heap, the loyalists wouldn’t mind if Chrysler added some filler to the lower end of the product pile. The steeped-in-Jeep set even allowed that Compass and its boxier and more upright sibling, the Patriot (due late this year), might even be good for the brand if they attract more customers (and profits) to Jeep.
“Compass is a new type of Jeep vehicle for nontraditional Jeep buyers,” says George Murphy, Chrysler global marketing vice president. “It allows the brand to compete in the fast-growing compact SUV segment, where there is increasing market demand for fuel economy, ride comfort and efficient packaging in an SUV.”
Fuel economy? Ride comfort? Packaging efficiency? Those traits used to rank somewhere below “bud vase” on the list of things a Jeep owner was after in a vehicle. But now they’re being embraced, as Jeep tries to extend its reach past the group it enticed into the fold with the much hardier, Trail-Rated Liberty (60 percent of Liberty buyers are women; 71 percent of Wrangler buyers are men). As the compact ute market grows—Jeep estimates the segment will double to 600,000 units by 2010 and hit 814,000 sales by 2016—Compass gives Jeep a soft-roader option neither of those models can fill.
So it’s not a true Jeep, in the rough-and-ready Rubicon tradition. It’s not even a real SUV, being more like a crossover, but so what? Compass offers a long list of strong attributes, starting with a capable 2.4-liter, 172-hp, 165-lb-ft variable-valve four-cylinder tucked transversely behind the seven-slotted grille. The base front-drive model’s starting price of $15,985 (including $560 destination) is another huge plus. A no-frills special in true Jeep tradition, the base Sport model comes with a five-speed manual transmission, crank windows and manual door locks. You won’t find cruise control or even a remote mirror control on the base Compass either. Add all-wheel drive and the Sport starts at $17,585.
The uplevel Limited model, starting at $20,140 as a front-driver, gets a laundry list of standard features, including keyless entry; power windows, locks and mirrors; leather-trimmed, heated seats; cruise control; 18-inch aluminum wheels (up from 17s on the Sport); and air conditioning. All-wheel drive pushes the Limited base price to $21,740.
Transmissions include the standard five-speed stick, and two continuously variable tranny options (more on those later).
Though Jeep had no front-drive-only mod- els for us to sample on a recent driving program in Portland, Oregon, we did spend considerable time behind the wheel in everything from a base 4x4 Sport ($18,585—some- one checked the air conditioning option—drat!) to a loaded 4x4 Limited ($26,405) with a nine-speaker audio system (including tailgating speakers that fold down from the raised hatchback), a CVT with AutoStick, power sunroof and chrome wheels.
We also drove a mid-level Sport model with the standard, non-AutoStick CVT. As with its Caliber cousin, we cannot recommend the standard CVT, primarily due to its tendency to allow the engine to thrash at high rpm whenever the driver demands a heavy dose of acceleration. Stick with the five-speed stick or the CVT with AutoStick (which mimics a six-speed automatic) and you’ll be fine.
Standard electronics on the Compass include stability control, electronic roll mitigation and antilock brakes.
Regardless of model, the Compass meets its stated objective of not being objectionable in the ride department. We cruised for hours on city streets, two-lane blacktop, freeways, winding fire trails and the ever-present construction zones with no fatigue. The upright, command-seating position lends an SUV feel, without making Compass feel tipsy in the twisties (the Jeep is one inch higher in ride height, two inches higher in seating position, and offers four inches more headroom than Caliber). Overall, the Compass rides quietly and smoothly, with little harshness, even on gravel back roads.
The interior, patterned after the Caliber, focuses on function. A 60-40 split folding rear seat and fold-flat passenger seat allow the vehicle to carry items up to eight feet long, and the center-console armrest lid flips open to provide a cradle for a cell phone or MP3 player.
All that stuff is nice, but what good is a Jeep without some off-road ability? We can’t speak to mud or deep snow, but if Pacific Coast sand dunes are any measure, we doubt the Freedom Drive I 4x4 Compass with its 8.4 inches of ground clearance will leave you stranded very often. With the center coupling electronically locked by pulling on a simple console-mounted T-handle (which sends up to 60 percent of the torque to the rear axle), our CVT-equipped test vehicle easily powered its way up a steep, sandy, rutted incline and made short work of terrain more typically tackled by balloon-tired dune buggies and all-terrain vehicles. We even dipped a wheel in the ocean, but turned back inland before we needed a rudder to go with our Compass.
True Jeep or not, Compass is clearly charting a different direction for the brand’s future. Only time will tell whether it’s the right one.