The bet was simple: There was no way that the restyled 2011 Jeep Compass could make it through the advanced off-road course designed for the more capable Wrangler and Grand Cherokee. After all, this snow-covered trail offered some of the hairiest features we've witnessed on a press drive: slippery boulders, axle-twisting off-camber obstacles, plus steep drops and deep holes certain to remove the lesser Jeep's bumpers or underbody.
And we'd already proven, on the easier course, that the Compass was operating at the ragged edge of its off-road ability when we slammed it quite ungracefully up a mud-covered embankment just to prove we could. The Compass made it, but it wasn't pretty.
This was before we met Brian Nathan, chief engineer of the 2011 Jeep Compass. Nathan promised us the Compass would "walk right through" the advanced course. And then, with us at the wheel, he proved it.
All this gambling was set in the snow-covered wonderland of Jackson Hole, Wyoming. In December. It was wet and cold and muddy — far from the highly coddled, over-managed environment that accompanies most media introductions. This was about testing the vehicles, not sipping tea and discussing nuances. Heck, we even ate lunch in a barn with visible owl scat on the walls. Take that, Land Rover.
That Jeep was confident enough in the Compass to offer it with its Trail Rated designation for 2011 speaks highly of the often-overlooked SUV. The new option is called the Freedom Drive II Off Road package and it adds an inch of ground clearance, 17-inch all-terrain tires, a full-size spare tire, skid plates, tow hooks and a few other items. Most importantly, there's now a low-range mode for the continuously variable transmission (CVT) with a crawl ratio equivalent to 19.1:1.
The manually operated electronically locking center differential remains. Front and rear differentials are mechanically open units, but Jeep's brake-lock technology, which applies the brakes independently to a spinning wheel, effectively redirects power during wheel-lift situations like we encountered above.
And as much as we'd like to call Jeep on this one, we're reminded that Trail Rated isn't just marketing hype. It has its origin in the Nevada Automotive Test Center, which established the five criteria (traction, ground clearance, maneuverability, articulation and water fording) and a formula to combine them to determine the worthiness of off-road vehicles for the U.S. government. Jeep now owns the rights to the Trail Rated label, but the standards remain.
Same Power, New CVT
Our test car is an all-wheel-drive Compass Latitude fitted with the biggest available engine, a 2.4-liter inline four-cylinder mated to a CVT. This particular CVT — known as the CVT2L thanks to its low-range ratio — is available only on all-wheel-drive Compasses with the 2.4-liter engine. It's offered as part of the Off Road package. The engine is rated at 172 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 165 pound-feet of torque at 4,400 rpm and can also be matched with either a five-speed manual or a conventional CVT (with no low-range ratio) in either front- or all-wheel drive.
Also available on front-drive base and Latitude style Compasses is a 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder rated at 158 hp and 141 lb-ft of torque. It comes with either a five-speed manual transmission or the CVT2.
Fuel economy varies widely depending on powertrain configuration. Our 2011 Jeep Compass test car, with the low-range CVT, additional inch of ground clearance and all-terrain tires, is rated at 20 mpg city and 23 mpg highway, making it the least efficient Compass available. The most efficient, the front-drive model with the smaller engine and five-speed manual transaxle is rated at 23 mpg city and 29 mpg highway. All other styles fall somewhere in between.
Slow but Steady
Our all-wheel-drive tester, loaded with three people and burdened with a 6,200-foot test altitude, lacked the power to spin its tires from a standing start on a snow-covered road. The message here is clear: This isn't a Subaru WRX — or even a Forester for that matter. Its powertrain isn't designed for low-grip, high-speed shenanigans. But what the Compass lacks in power, it makes up for in off-road capability.
It's also no Wrangler. Sure, it was able to walk through the not-inconsiderable off-road route we navigated, but the 2011 Jeep Compass lacks the wheel articulation, crawl ratio, grip and impressive approach and departure angles of its dedicated off-road brother. We wouldn't be afraid to use the Compass to access a somewhat remote fishing hole but don't plan on taking it to Moab for the Easter Jeep Safari.
On the road the base Compass' manners are on par for the segment. Higher-rate springs, dampers and a larger rear antiroll bar keep it from bouncing over Wyoming frost heaves at freeway speeds — something the old Compass was fond of doing. But you're still going to need to plan ahead when hard acceleration is required — especially at altitude.
Genuinely Better-Looking, Too
And in a move sure to sour some 2011 Grand Cherokee owners, the 2011 Jeep Compass wears virtually all-new sheet metal, which closely resembles its bigger, more expensive, more capable counterpart.
There's a new hood, fenders, front and rear fascias and a body-color spoiler. Black lower-body cladding designed to protect against rocks and debris when off-roading is also new this year. Perhaps most significant, the Compass is no longer such a homely little pug.
Inside, things are better still. In the you're-going-to-touch-this-everyday-so-you-better-like-it department is a new, thick-rimmed steering wheel with integrated radio, cruise control and hands-free phone controls. It makes a difference. It's so good, in fact, that it makes us forget that this very same Compass once had a noodly, circular scrap of rawhide plastic with which to manage directional changes. New materials on the door panel and a new armrest go a long way toward improving the otherwise unchanged interior as well.
There's also an iPod interface and optional AM/FM/CD/DVD audio system with a 30GB hard disc drive. Navigation is available only on Limited styles. We weren't expecting such minor changes to elevate the whole interior of the Compass, but they do. It's not quite a mini-Grand Cherokee, but it's not the penalty box it once was either.
The Bottom Line
A Compass Latitude outfitted with the 2.4-liter engine, CVT, Off Road package and Security and Convenience package will lighten your bank account to the tune of $26,195 including destination (base price is $23,295). About $1,550 of that is thanks to the Off Road package, which requires the CVT ($1,050) and the Freedom Drive II package ($500).
That's no small chunk of change, but at least Jeep is delivering a competitive package in return. And we say this not only because it looks 10,000 times better than the previous version, but because it is now authentically competitive within its admittedly narrow segment. Its interior look and feels — dare we say it — nice.
What's more, its newfound off-road abilities expand the 2011 Jeep Compass' repertoire far beyond its previous capabilities. It's now legitimately capable of moving over moderate off-road terrain with ease, which is something you won't do in, say, a Subaru Forester.
It's enough to make it entertaining in the rough stuff, and it might even win you a few bets.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored press event to facilitate this report.