By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
Playing catch-up sucks — because you almost never do.
The Jeep Compass, for instance.
Launched in 2007, it was originally intended to be nothing more than a Jeep alternative to metrosexual FWD/AWD compact crossovers like the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4. This, it was hoped, would draw in buyers who liked the aura of the Jeep nameplate, but not necessarily the on-road crudities that came with the rock-crawling capabilities of an actual Jeep.
Well, not so much.
Traditional light-duty crossover buyers didn’t embrace Jeep’s new light-duty crossover — in part because it didn’t offer anything different, except for the Jeepish looks.
So for the past several years, Jeep has been trying to invest the Compass with more Jeep-like function — including (in 2011) Trail-Rated capability in the form of a specially set-up CVT transmission that replicates the low-speed gear reduction of a true 4×4’s two-speed transfer case. That — plus more ground clearance than models like CR-V and RAV4 gave the Compass some credibility as a member of the Jeep family of four-by-fours.
And for the first time, something meaningfully different than the dozen-plus other small crossovers on the market.
Unfortunately for Jeep, it hasn’t panned out. Even though the 2011-to-current Compass is capable, it still hasn’t sold very well. So it’s no big surprise that an entirely new model — sourced from Fiat, Chrysler (and so Jeep’s) new owner — will debut for the 2014 model year.
Word is it will be nothing like the current model, looks-wise or otherwise. It’s possible the new model will be powered by a version of the current Fiat 500’s 1.4 liter “MultiAir” engine, mated to a new nine-speed ZF-sourced automatic.
But what about the current Compass? Is the last of the line worth five minutes of your time?
WHAT IT IS
The Compass is a compact-sized crossover SUV similar in general layout to others in this segment, but available with more off-road capability. It’s offered in three trims — Sport, Latitude and Limited — and with either FWD (standard) or one of two AWD systems — which Jeep gamely markets as “4×4″.
Prices start at $19,495 for a base Sport model with 2.0 liter engine.
A top-of-the-line Limited with the Freedom Drive II “4×4″ system stickers for $26,395.
These prices make the Compass one of the most affordable vehicles of its type available. The Honda CR-V, a target competitor, starts at $22,795. Another competitor — the Toyota RAV4 — starts at $22,650. Both these models also come very close to the $30,000 mark in top-of-the-line trim.
Compass enters its final year as a carryover with no major changes.
Equipped with the Freedom Drive II system and off-road package — which includes M/S-rated tires, skid plates and 8.2 inches of ground clearance — Compass is capable of going most places a real-deal 4×4 could go.
It’s also capable of delivering decent gas mileage (23/29 with 2.0 engine, manual transmission and FWD).
Looks more like a Jeep than a crossover.
Costs nearly $3k less to start than a RAV4 or CR-V (and it’s a sure bet you can widen that gap more via haggling down the price of the Jeep).
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Never quite found its niche.
Not really a 4×4 — even with Freedom Drive II.
Can be fairly thirsty — if you opt for Freedom Drive II and 2.4 engine (20/23).
Not very peppy — even with the optional upgrade engine.
Last of the line. Expect resale value to tank fast.
UNDER THE HOOD
Jeep gives you two engine choices in Compass, both four cylinders.
The standard engine displaces 2.0 liters and makes 158 hp. It can be teamed with either a five-speed manual or a continuously variable (CVT) automatic transmission. All models equipped with the 2.0 engine are FWD. This version of the Compass is most like other small crossovers in this segment in terms of its layout, power and capability. The extra inches of ground clearance — almost two inches more than CR-V — and the superior grip in poor weather that FWD gives — make it a better-than-car choice for wet/winter driving.
But not off-road driving.
Next up is a larger, more powerful 2.4 liter four-cylinder engine. It gives you 172 hp and the option to buy one of two AWD systems — Freedom Drive I and Freedom Drive II.
Jeep calls both “4×4″ but given that the Compass, like other crossover SUVs, has a transversely mounted engine (either engine) and both these systems are front-drive-biased, it’s arguably more accurate to describe them as AWD rather than 4×4.
The first system — Freedom Drive I — is in fact the same sort of system you’d find in a CR-V or RAV4 or other light-duty, on-road-minded (and car-based) crossover SUV. In normal driving, virtually all the engine’s power is routed to the front wheels. Some power is transferred to the rear wheels when the fronts begin to lose traction. But there’s no lock function or low-range gearing. This layout gives you some additional grip in the snow — but it’s still not meant for deep snow.
The second system — Freedom Drive II — is an interesting animal. Jeep has jiggered the CVT’s gearing to mimic the 4×4 Low range gearing of a traditional 4×4’s two-speed transfer case. In off-road mode (pull the toggle on the center console up) the CVT2L transaxle provides a 19:1 crawl ratio — comparable to a truck-type system in 4×4 Low. The system also locks the front and rear torque split at low speeds — again, comparable to what a truck-type 4×4 system does when the transfer case is shifted to 4WD Low.
While this version of the Compass still has a transversely mounted engine like other FWD-based light-duty crossovers — and doesn’t have a truck-type solid rear axle or a 4×4 truck-type two-speed transfer case — the CVT’s low range gearing plus electronic aids (such as off-road parameters for the traction control system and Hill Descent Control ) confers an extra measure of off-road capability that’s extremely rare to find in a crossover SUV. You could take this Compass down a rutted fire trail — and expect not to come back on foot.
With 17-inch M/S rated tires, it’s also very capable in adverse weather on-road, too — including unplowed snow and so on. The off-road group also includes an oil cooler, tow hooks a driver seat height adjuster and heavy-duty floor mats.
Neither version of the Compass is speedy — which has long been a liability.
Expect a best case 0-60 time of 10.2 seconds or so with the stronger 2.4 liter engine. This is much slower than other small crossovers — such as the V-6 version of the Toyota RAV4, which is capable of low sevens, zero to 60. Even the Slow Mo CR-V manages to run 0-60 in the low nines. The Jeep isn’t even close to that. But the Compass does offer off-road capability that neither the RAV4 nor the CR-V nor any other vehicle in this class does. The problem for Jeep is that much as people like to talk tough about the off-road bona fides of their vehicles, most of them never actually go off-roading with them. Which means that on-road performance ends up mattering more when push comes to shove — and it’s time to buy rather than talk.
Gas mileage can be not-bad — if you stick with the 2.0 engine and FWD. In that case, the Compass can return 23 city, 29 highway with the five-speed (27 highway with the CVT). That’s competitive with other small crossovers, including the CR-V. Best case for that model is 23 city, 31 highway with FWD — 22 city, 30 highway with AWD.
Not that big a spread.
The 2.4 engine isn’t bad, either — provided you stick with FWD. If you select either of the two “4×4″ systems, expect the gas mileage of a 4×4 — 20 city, 23 highway.
Max tow capacity is 2,000 lbs. — a bit more than weak sisters like the CR-V (1,500 lbs.) and a bit less than the strongest models in this segment like the V-6 RAV4 (3,500 lbs.).
ON THE ROAD
Except for being a little slow — and a little thirsty (“4×4″ versions) the Compass isn’t objectionable.
Even though it’s got more in common with car-based crossovers like the RAV4 and CR-V as far as its underthings go, it has the solid, pleasantly heavy feel of a real-deal (truck-based) SUV. Maybe because it is fairly heavy — 3,101 lbs. for the base FWD model, closer to 3,300 lbs. with the 2.4 engine and Freedom Drive II.
It lumbers along, taking poor roads in stride.
Some reviews have denounced the CVT for being noisy but that’s true of all of them — not just Jeep CVTs. It’s the nature of the beast. Instead of shifting up as you accelerate, a CVT — which doesn’t shift but rather changes ratios in response to throttle inputs — runs the engine to the higher reaches of the tachometer and keeps the RPMs high as long as you keep your foot down. It’s not unlike holding a manual transmission car in a given gear at or near redline, without shifting up to the next highest gear. That makes noise — a lot of noise. You can reduce the racket by backing off the throttle — which will drop the RPMs — but that means a drop in power. And when — as in this case — there’s not much power to spare — you’re left with very little in the way of acceleration. The big issue with CVTs is not that they’re CVTs. It’s that they tend to be paired (for reasons of fuel economy) with engines that are over-taxed for the application, resulting in a powertrain that feels — and sounds — overworked and over-loud.
But it’s not all bad news.
When the roads are slick — as they just happened to be during my test drive — the Compass is good to have around. One thing I noticed is it’s less prone to tail-waggling on snow-covered roads than a RWD-based truck or SUV that’s operating in 2WD (vs. the Compass’ FWD or AWD). In fact, on pavement, a FWD-based layout can be a better ally than a RWD-based layout by dint of the fact that it’s easier for the vehicle to pull rather than push — and also because you’ve got the traction advantage of the drivetrain’s weight on top of the primary drive axles.
One other thing I’d like to report as a positive is that even though the Compass has a higher center of gravity than many other compact crossovers (maybe all of them, at least the ones in this price range) it’s not top-heavy feeling. Possibly, much of this is due to the fact that the layout discourages running the Compass at a rapid clip through the corners. The steering is not quick and the suspension seems to telegraph, take it easy.
Which you should in a a vehicle such as this.
Jeep or otherwise.
AT THE CURB
The Compass got a Grand Cherokee-themed front clip in 2011 — and this carries over to the final year of production. It’s a shame that Jeep didn’t make the Compass look this handsome back in ’07. But no use crying over spilt milk.
The interior is thematically what it probably ought to be — with a nice, meaty steering wheel, beefy looking dashpad and large dials for the climate controls that can be operated even while wearing heavy work gloves. Functionally, it all works well and the materials, fit and finish are — despite the hate hurled this Jeep’s way — by no means shockingly sub-par. For what it is — and what Jeep charges (and what you’re likely to pay) it’s actually pretty good.
Though you only have two rows to work with (RAV4 and other small crossovers offer a third row option) they are reasonably roomy. Rear legroom is better than in the CR-V (39.4 inches vs. 38.3) and you’ve also got about three-quarters of an inch more headroom up front (40.7 inches vs. 39.9 inches in the Honda). Ditto the RAV4 — which like the CR-V has a bit less backseat legroom than the Compass (38.3 inches) although fractionally more front seat headroom (40.8 inches).
Because it is about seven inches shorter overall than the Toyota (175.1 inches vs. 181.9 inches) total cargo capacity is lower: 53.6 cubic feet vs. 73 cubes for the RAV4. Same story as regards the CR-V, which at 178.3 inches long overall is also several inches longer end to end than the Compass — and also has more total cargo capacity (70.9 cubic feet).
But if you don’t need all that space — or the extra row (as in RAV4) the Compass has the advantage of taking up less room in the garage and being a bit easier to maneuver. The Jeep’s turning circle is less than the Honda’s: 35.6 feet vs. 37 feet (the RAV4’s — 34.8 feet — is virtually the same as the Jeep’s). That plus less length makes the Compass an easy car to drive in close quarters.
Compass also has a few unique/unusual creature features worth mentioning, such as available reclining back seats and — in Latitude trims — a Sun and Sound group that includes a Bose premium audio system with a pair of speakers that flip down from the raised tailgate — ideal for tailgate parties.
Really good seat heaters (not merely lukewarmers) are available, too.
Another neat little item is the pop-out LED flashlight (look up).
“For the money… .” When you hear that, it’s usually a good idea to not want to hear more. But despite the Compass’ lack of market success, it’s not a bad vehicle and has its good — and unique — points.
The good points being (chiefly) its extremely competitive price, nice looks and Jeep heritage. The unique points being what it can do — as opposed to what most other crossovers can’t.
Some (make that many) reviewers have heaped abuse on the Compass, but in my opinion that’s been unwarranted since 2011 — when the current nice-looking body came out and also the Trail Rated equipment. It’s got enough guts to be driven down into the field (my field — I actually did this) and not sweat making it back. And once on-road, it behaves with better manners than your typical He-Man 4×4 (including Jeep’s own Wrangler).
That’s no easy trick — and not easy to find.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Don’t hate on it before you get to know it a little. It might just be enough for what you need — without being too much for what you don’t.