Jeep has always signified a go-anywhere-and-damned- if-I'm-not-allowed-to mentality. It's a marque that's retained the muddy patina of its roots as a military vehicle, despite post-decommissioning hazards that included rotating ownership and a raft of spotty offshoots. It even survived (and flourished amid) a more "feminine" — as some would say — tangent with the Jeep Liberty. That's because, despite the front office's desire to attract a wider audience, the Liberty shared the same "Trail Rated," status as the company's other Rubicon-crossing models. All of that history ends with the Jeep Compass, an economy car.
So what exactly is Jeep doing sticking an AWD grocery getter into its fleet of 4WD rock climbers? Is it, as many are saying, the worst possible choice for a brand that's built its name on an image of off-road utility? Or rather, like the Chrysler Group's crosstown competitors, is Jeep attempting a bold move by leveraging the brand's cachet to increase sales?
Before we answer that question, let's take a look at what the Compass is. In structure and styling, the Compass is a badge-engineered clone of the Dodge Caliber — except with a big 'ol Jeep grille on the front. And it's right at the grille that the similarity between a Jeep and this ... vehicle ... ends.
Under the hood, the Compass diverges only slightly from the Caliber. Although the Compass is available with all-wheel-drive, it certainly doesn't have the goods to perform off-road like a Jeep. It does have an uprated, 172-hp version of Chrysler's 2.4-liter four-cylinder world engine with dual Variable Valve Timing (VVT) to optimize the torque curve and maximize fuel economy. Five-speed manual is standard, with a Continuously Variable transaxle (CVT2) optional.
All of this focus on fuel economy maximization and smoothing out the torque curve leaves the Compass with little Jeeplike capability off road, not that we were expecting any (Jeep's ad folks have gone out of their way to get us to Free Our Thoughts regarding the Compass). The base Compass is fitted with a standard front-wheel-drive system, and our test model had the available active full-time four-wheel-drive system with a lockable center coupling, which offers "lock mode" to handle somewhat rougher terrain.
What do I mean by somewhat rougher terrain? About the only place a Compass won't be flummoxed off-road is a flat stretch of hard-packed dirt. On a short trail of light crag, lock mode felt similar to that of a standard AWD car. That is to say, woe to it on a hard, rutted doubletrack. But again, Jeep is marketing the Compass as a versatile vehicle that offers just a "piece of the Jeep experience." It is a fun vehicle to drive, with more responsive pickup than the standard Caliber. With the seating set higher than most cars', it at least offers the on-road feel of a "real" Jeep. But with an MSRP of only $15,985 — it comes at two-thirds the cost. In the end, the Compass is a versatile car with some decent storage room that can handle run-of-the-mill snow showers with aplomb. But it's not a Jeep, so why call it that? [By Ray Wert]