- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 22, 2006

If you’re a die-hard traditionalist, the 2007 Compass is not a Jeep at all.

It’s certainly not a traditional Jeep. But it is more of a Jeep than any of its competitors.

An explanation, obviously, is in order.

Since the early days of World War II 65 years ago, and through a succession of owners, Jeeps have always followed a well-worn path.

Although purpose-built to be only what they are, they more resembled trucks than cars, they always had four-wheel drive available for go-anywhere traction, and they exhibited all-American ruggedness that carried them through warfare as well as peacetime chores and fun.

But the vehicle business has changed drastically in recent years, as manufacturers created new cars, trucks and amalgams to appeal to an increasingly finicky audience of buyers.

In that atmosphere, Jeep’s customer appeal flat-lined. It still kept its many loyal disciples, but found few newcomers. So, for the first time with the 2007 Compass, Jeep breaks with tradition

The Compass is a car-based sport utility vehicle, without the customary Jeep capability to handle just about any terrain on the planet.

To maintain the distinction, Jeep now calls its fully capable models — the venerable Wrangler, midsize Liberty and big Grand Cherokee — “trail-rated.”

The new Compass is not trail-rated, which has some Jeep purists upset because they believe Jeep dilutes its character by offering a capability-challenged vehicle, however good it might be otherwise.

In many respects, the Compass is identical to the Dodge Caliber, its cousin at the Chrysler Group, which is part of a spate of new and existing car-based quasi-SUVs.

They include such vehicles as the Toyota RAV 4 and Matrix, Chevrolet Equinox, Honda CR-V and Element, Ford Escape, Hyundai Santa Fe and Tucson, Mazda CX-7, Mitsubishi Outlander, Saturn Vue, Nissan Murano and Acura RDX.

What these vehicles have in common is a unit-body structure with front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive and four- or six-cylinder power.

They generally offer a lower price, better handling and more miles per gallon than their heavier truck-based counterparts — increasingly important as fuel prices escalate.

So the Compass aims to expand Jeep’s appeal, notwithstanding the occasional jeers from traditionalists.

Yet the Compass is still a Jeep, so it could not be simply a Caliber clone in different raiment.

As a result, it has Jeep-like attributes that you cannot get on a Caliber.

The Compass starts with a different seating position that is 2 inches higher than that of the Caliber, as well as a roof that is 4 inches taller.

The result is a more SUV-like profile and a relatively airy cabin.

Jeep follows that with an array of standard safety items, including an electronic stability program, antilock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution, and side-curtain air bags.

There are two models: Sport and Limited, each of which is available with standard front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive.

Three transmissions handle the power from the 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine: an easy-shifting five-speed manual gearbox and two versions of a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT).

The CVT operates with belts and pulleys and is distinguished by its lack of shift points. One version uses Chrysler’s AutoStick manual shifter, which artificially — through computer controls — allows the driver to shift the CVT manually through six speeds.

It’s a hoot to drive because the gear ratios change instantly, with no hiccup or hesitation, as you tap the shift lever.

The AutoStick also enables the driver to hold the transmission in a selected gear for climbing or braking downhill in the mountains.

But the main characteristic that makes the Compass more of a Jeep compared to the Caliber and similar competitors is a lever on the console that, when engaged, locks the center differential for better traction in sand and other off-road conditions.

Combined with better clearances front and rear, as well as underneath (called approach, departure and break-over angles by aficionados), it gives the Compass off-road capabilities that, while not “trail-rated,” nevertheless exceed those of the other crossover SUVs.

On-road handling, even with the up-high driving position, is tight, with nicely weighted steering and a ride that is a trifle stiff but compliant.

The front seats, whether trimmed in the comfortable standard cloth or optional leather, offer good lateral support and comfort.

In the back, outboard passengers have generous knee, head and foot space.

The center position, however, lacks a headrest and foot space and is best reserved for a child seat or duffel bag.

The cargo area, though not huge at 23 cubic feet, is well shaped and features a washable floor.

Rear seatbacks split 60-40 and fold flat to expand the cargo area to 54 cubic feet. However, the rear seat headrests are fixed and restrict the driver’s vision to the rear.

The Compass Sport with front-wheel drive and a manual gearbox starts at $15,985. That includes all of the aforementioned safety equipment.

The tested Jeep Limited 4X4, with the AutoStick CVT and options that included a motorized sunroof, premium sound system, Sirius satellite radio and chromed-aluminum 18-inch wheels, topped out at a price of $26,180.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide