A brand new Jeep Compass is upon us, meaning the old one— a universally derided conglomerate of hard plastics, weak suspension parts and just general automotive incompetence—is on its way out. Thank god.
The Jeep Compass represented a huge step for Jeep: it was the first front-wheel drive vehicle the brand ever offered, and the first with a fully independent suspension. In a lot of ways, when this thing launched, it was the final step in Jeep’s transition from old-school, solid-axle Jeeps to the car-based, on-road oriented vehicles populating Jeep showrooms today.
But even though you could say the Compass paved the way for the fairly-decent new Cherokee and Renegade, the history books won’t be kind to the Mitsubishi GS-based crossover.
Though many early reviews weren’t horrible—in part because the automotive climate in the U.S. in 2006 dulled many journalists’ senses into thinking terrible hard interiors, poor NVH and uninspired handling were acceptable, and because fawning early reviews remain common in the sycophantic world of auto writing—within a few years, the Compass became the laughing stock of the industry.
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To be sure, part of the reason why people hated it was the Jeep badge in the front; this little hatchback built on a compact car platform challenged the very notion of what a Jeep should be more than any other vehicle with that badge ever before. But badge notwithstanding, there were still plenty of very good reasons why the Compass will go down in history as America’s 21st century Pinto.
For one, the styling from any angle was just god-awful. Why Jeep decided to copy the AMC Gremlin’s D-pillar is anyone’s guess. Combine that with the very soft, toy-like front end and the car’s supremely awkward proportions, and you’re left with a car that you really hope at least has a “nice personality.”
But it doesn’t. Hooked up to a pair of fairly decent World Gas Engines (a derivative of which, called the Tigershark, still plays a huge role in Fiat Chrysler’s lineup) co-developed with Mitsubishi and Hyundai, was a continuously variable transmission that acted as a black hole for power, giving the car acceleration akin to a Sherman tank.
Worse than that though, was the fact that that power-sucking transmission made the car actually sound like a Sherman tank, droning endlessly on the highway, driving rental car drivers around the world to pierce their own eardrums with forks to escape the pain.
Then there’s reliability. Ask anyone who owns a Dodge Caliber, Jeep Compass, or Jeep Patriot about their tie rod ends or ball joints, and there’s a very high chance they’ve been through at least a few sets if they’ve driven the car at all since purchasing it. Yes, the Compass was a Jeep with a suspension made of glass.
But the biggest offender, besides the terrible styling and weak steering and suspension parts, was the interior. Not only was rear visibility abysmal thanks to the Gremlin-eque D-pillar, but for a car this big, there was just no space inside. Somehow, Jeep had managed to build a car the size of a small SUV with the cargo capacity of an Austin Mini.
Even worse were the interior plastics, which were at the bottom of DaimlerChrysler’s barrel at the time, and that’s saying something, because the company was using some seriously low-quality stuff all across its lineup back in 2007.
The materials—caught up in DaimlerChrysler’s Material Cost Management initiative, which forced Chrysler to thrift every penny from its interiors—made that grimy Playhouse in the back of a McDonalds look like the Buckingham Palace.
The plastics were so hard, it may have actually felt better to be hit by a car directly than to be shoved against the interior panels, which might as well have been made from ceramic.
But in 2011, Sergio Marchionne and his company Fiat took over, saw Jeep’s lineup—joked that parts of it were “unfit for human consumption”—and made major updates across the board. The Compass got new interior and exterior styling, the latter of which made the hatchback-on-stilts look like a baby Grand Cherokee. In 2014, Jeep made its final major update to the Compass, finally offering a decent Hyundai six-speed automatic to replace the CVT on some trims.
But it wasn’t enough! Nowhere in history has the phrase “lipstick on a pig” been used so frequently as in the reviews following the Compass’s refreshes. Even though it looked nicer, shifted better (shifted at all, I should say), and had a more pleasant interior, the Jeep Compass and its brother, the Patriot, remained, and always will remain, embodiments of of an era that brought the American automobile industry to its knees.
Jeep kept the first-generation Compass around for 10 long model years, in part because, even though it was a loathsome car, it and its brother the Patriot represented gateways into the Jeep family. People, inexplicably, bought the damn thing.
Car buyers wanted in on that “rugged” brand, and the baby Jeep twins, with their ridiculously low asking prices (aided by steep discounts, which Jeep could afford since the car’s tooling had long since been paid off) offered them exactly that.
But now a handsome new Fiat-based Compass is coming in to give the old model the boot, and that’s a damn good thing. Because as much as Fiat tried to correct its path, the first-generation Compass’s needle never managed to stray far from mediocrity.
Good riddance, old Compass. You will not be missed.