It seems like there used to be only one Jeep. Now there are dozens. What's a brand to do?
With the introduction of the 2007 Jeep Compass, Jeep will accomplish one of two things. The legendary American brand will either build a true entry-level (cheap to buy) Jeep, or make us all sad by hawking the company's heritage to gain quick sales.
The first FWD-based Jeep
The Compass targets the entry-level compact-SUV market with Jeep's first front-wheel-drive-based chassis. Our worries began here...a FWD Jeep? Well, at least it's priced right: under $16 grand for the front-wheel-drive Sport model, and $17,585 with destination charges for the four-wheel-drive Compass Sport.
Know this: Jeep could have taken a big step off a steep cliff with the Compass. Look at the situation: The Compass is a sister vehicle to the Dodge Caliber and Mitsubishi Outlander. Smell that? Something already stinks of badge engineering. But keep reading.
Further escalating concerns, Jeep pits the Compass against cargo ships full of cute-utes like the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4 and Suzuki Grand Vitara. Domestic competitors include the Ford Escape/Mercury Mariner twins and the Saturn Vue . These are not considered off-road vehicles by anybody. Would those in charge at DaimlerChrysler water down their Jeep brand enough to be competitive in this market?
Keep reading and take heart, Bunkie. Jeep didn't grow the brand by making mistakes. We drove several different preproduction Compass models and found them truly worthy of the Jeep name.
Compass versus Caliber (and the world)
First, the Compass is not simply a Dodge Caliber with Jeep badges tacked on. While the two vehicles share a 103.7-inch wheelbase, the Compass' body is 2 full inches taller than the Caliber. Further differentiating the two, Jeep's approach to departure and break-over angles — the measure of how steep an obstacle a vehicle can climb on, off and over — is much more aggressive on the Compass. At 8.1 inches, the Jeep also has more ground clearance versus 7.6 inches for the Caliber. The Compass' ground clearance also matches or betters most of its competitors.
Given these body and chassis differences, it's not surprising that the driver and front-passenger seating position is significantly different compared to the Caliber. The Compass' seats position your hip 2 inches higher and 1 inch farther forward. The difference gives the driver a better view of whatever is out the windshield, be it a road, two-track or sea of sand.
Despite these significant platform differences, the powertrain is similar in the Compass and Caliber. Both use DaimlerChrysler's new four-cylinder world engine. The 2.4-liter version is the Jeep's only engine, while the Caliber can also be had with two smaller variants of the same mill.
The Jeep's engine pumps out 172 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 165 pound-feet of torque at 4,400 rpm. This output bests the four-bangers from the volume leaders while delivering class-leading fuel economy of 25 city/29 highway with the five-speed manual transmission and 23/26 with the automatic. These figures are for the four-wheel-drive powertrain. At 250 pounds lighter, the two-wheel-drive configuration may beat these numbers when official stats are released later this summer.
It bears special mention that the Compass' automatic is a CVT (continuously variable transmission). This means the transmission does not have distinct gear ratios — 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc. A CVT allows for an infinite number of ratios within a range, electronically adjusted to optimize engine output according to driver demand, be it power for acceleration or cruising-speed fuel economy. DaimlerChrysler estimates its fuel savings over a conventional four-speed automatic transmission to be about 5 percent.
Freedom Drive I
When equipped with the new Freedom Drive I (that's "one," not "aye") four-wheel-drive system, the Compass can do plenty that would curb just about every other car-based compact SUV. In its "normal" operating mode, the on-demand system continuously splits engine torque from about 99 percent front/1 percent rear up to 40 percent front/60 percent rear.
Freedom Drive I earns its position in the Jeep line by providing a locking differential of sorts. This one is called an electronically controlled coupling (ECC). Send it the right electric command and power flows to the rear driveshafts all the time, with a torque split that still varies, but ranges between 40-60 percent front/60-40 percent rear. To lock the ECC, reach down to the console and lift a chromed T-handle. Mission accomplished. The ability to lock the ECC differentiates the Compass' running gear from the all-wheel-drive Caliber and just about every other entry-level competitor. Only the Toyota RAV4 offers a similar locking feature.
Compass on-road and off
This locking feature is significant. Wanting to run two-tracks or logging roads...no worries. Not even the soft sand dunes along Oregon's Pacific Coast stopped the little Jeep. However, in this true off-road situation, the Compass' bevy of safe-handling nannies (including ABS, traction control and electronic roll mitigation) needed neutering. Wheelspin in sand is gonna happen. To shut down the electronic safety aids, simply press and hold the Electronic Stability Control button on the center stack for a full 4 seconds. Then, it's as simple as point and shoot.
Along with proving the Compass' off-road capabilities, the off-roading also highlighted the powertrain's most prominent fault: There's simply not enough power — and the CVT contributed to the Jeep's feeling pokey. Rowing the gears ourselves with the five-speed manual transmission helped, but you should still expect 0-60-mph times in the 10-11-second range.
On the variety of roads we sampled, the body proved rigid. Generous amounts of lightweight high-strength steel used in the structure allowed the Compass to stay composed and tight, even on heavily rutted washboard roads. Nothing rattled or shook itself loose, and the way we were encouraged to drive, we gave it our best shot.
It certainly didn't hurt that Jeep engineers calibrated the Compass' MacPherson strut-front/multilink-rear independent suspension using Jeep's time-tested durability cycles...tests that are significantly different — tougher — from those used by Dodge and Mitsu.
The Compass inside
From inside, the Compass provides a modern-looking interior that is competent, but not terribly original. Interesting features include a shifter that comes out at an angle from the center stack, somewhat like the previous-generation Honda Civic Si. Everything is where it should be, but there's nothing monumentally advanced in the overall execution. Interior room is plentiful, especially in the rear seat — the 2 inches freed up under the raised front seats gives the Compass one of the most generous rear legroom measurements in the class.
Three features we liked inside the Caliber— the iPod holder in the center armrest (above a 115-volt AC outlet), the snap-in/snap-out flashlight in the cargo area and the fold-down speakers recessed into the rear hatch — are also on this Jeep. Open the hatch, flip down the stereo speakers to aim out toward your picnic or volleyball game, and crank it up. Very clever stuff.
Our compass says...
Given the Jeep stylists' penchant for putting compasslike styling cues on the Compass, we were a bit surprised to not find a traditional-looking compass inside. Granted, an electronic compass is included in the driver information center, but it just would have been so cool to have a nice spherical compass or steam gauge somewhere in the instrument panel.
After a thorough day of workouts in the dunes, the 2007 Jeep Compass proved that it's not a badge-engineered Dodge Caliber or a Mitsubishi Outlander knockoff. If anything, it has the off-road guts to help get people hooked on playing beyond the pavement. And at its price point, who would want only a cute-ute when they could have the real thing?