By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
The Jeep Compass was launched way back in ’07 as a slightly manlier alternative to car-in-drag metrosexual FWD/AWD compact crossovers like the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4. It offered a notch up in the way of off-pavement capability — largely due to the two speed transfer case, low-range-gearing mimicry performed by a cleverly programmed CVT automatic transmission, more-than-most ground clearance (8.2 inches) and the availability of “Trail Rated” rugged stuff such as underbody skid plates, tow hooks and M/S-rated all-terrain tires.
This, it was hoped, would be sufficient to draw in buyers who were interested in more than just another crossover.
Well, not so much.
Traditional light-duty crossover buyers didn’t embrace Jeep’s new medium-duty crossover — probably at least in part because the specially programmed CVT made a racket (relative to conventional hydraulic automatics) and also because (so equipped) the Compass seemed to always point toward the nearest gas station.
What to do?
Fiat — Chrysler’s new owner — reportedly has a replacement for the current model in the hopper. But it won’t be here before 2015 — the model year, if not necessarily the calendar year. In the meanwhile, a few stop gap updates to the existing Compass — the chief one being a new six-speed conventional (hydraulic) automatic transmission that’s been added to the roster. It makes the Compass a much more pleasant on-road companion.
Gas mileage is significantly upticked, too.
But the Compass hasn’t been un-manned. The off-pavement-capable CVT remains available — but optional. It’s been folded in with the “Trail Rated” Freedom II off-road package.
There’s also a big price cut — almost $1,500 less to start for 2014.
Given the likelihood of being able to haggle that down even further, the Compass is worth a look relative to its newer/nicer (but also less capable) competition.
If, that is, you want something more than just another crossover.
WHAT IT IS
The Compass is a two-row/five seater, compact-sized crossover SUV similar in general layout to others in this segment such as the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV-4 and Subaru Forester — but it’s available with more off-road capability.
Prices start at $18,595 for a base Sport model with 2.0 liter engine and front-wheel-drive (vs. $19,495 for the same basic model in 2013).
A top-of-the-line Limited with the Freedom Drive II “4×4” system stickers for $28,990.
These prices make the Compass one of the most affordable vehicles — by far — of its type. The Honda CR-V, a target competitor, starts at $23,775. Another competitor — the Toyota RAV4 — starts at $24,410.
In addition to the new six-speed automatic, the 2014 Compass gets a light cosmetic makeover and updated features, including a new rearview back-up camera and audio system for Limited trims.
Equipped with the Freedom Drive II system/off-road package — which includes M/S-rated tires, skid plates and 8.2 inches of ground clearance — a Compass can risk off-paved-road situations that would not be smart to subject a CR-V or RAV4 to.
New six-speed is much more civilized on-road and returns acceptable for the segment fuel economy — as high as 21 city and 28 highway (FWD models). Even with the weight-adding/inertia-loading AWD system, gas mileage for the ’14 stands at 21 city/28 highway — a real improvement over the CVT-equipped ’13’s atrocious 20 city, 23 highway.
Manual transmission is available with either engine.
Starting price is $5k — and then some — less than competitors.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Not really a 4×4 — even with Freedom Drive II.
Still a bit on the clunky side relative to newer, more on-road-minded crossovers like the RAV4 and CR-V.
Last of the line — probably. Resale values may be worse than average.
UNDER THE HOOD
The standard Compass engine displaces 2.0 liters and makes 158 hp. It can be teamed with either a five-speed manual (standard) or the newly available six-speed automatic.
All models equipped with the 2.0 engine are FWD.
Next up is a larger, more powerful 2.4 liter, 172 hp four-cylinder engine. It can be paired with the five-speed manual or the new six-speed automatic or (optionally, if you buy the Freedom II package) the specially programmed CVT automatic.
Jeep offers two “4×4” set-ups as options with the 2.4 liter engine:
The first system — Freedom Drive I — is paired with either the manual five-speed or the new six-speed automatic. It is 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. When slippage is sensed up front, the system automatically kicks back some of the engine’s power to the rear wheels in order to avoid spinning the fronts.
But there’s no lock function or low-range gearing.
The second system — Freedom Drive II — is an interesting animal. Jeep has jiggered the gearing of the CVT automatic (standard with this package) to mimic the 4×4 Low range gearing of a traditional 4×4’s two-speed transfer case. In off-road mode (pull the chrome 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 an almost unbreakable 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 ), M/S-rated tires and generous ground clearance means you could risk taking this Compass down a rutted fire trail — and reasonably expect not to come back on foot.
The Freedom II off-road group also includes a driver seat height adjuster and heavy-duty floor mats — in addition to all the other stuff previously mentioned.
Neither version of the Compass is speedy, though.
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. Even the slow motion Honda CR-V manages to run 0-60 in the low nines.
But, keep in mind that the Compass does offer superior crappy weather day (and off-road) capability.
Gas mileage can be not-bad. A Compass Sport with 2.0 engine, FWD and the five-speed manual is capable (according to the EPA) of returning 23 city, 30 highway. 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.
The more powerful 2.4 engine does ok, too — provided you stick with the new six-speed automatic.
Max tow capacity is 2,000 lbs. — which is better-than-par for the segment especially now that Toyota has dropped the V-6 option from the RAV4’s roster.
ON THE ROAD
Even though it’s got more in common with car-based crossovers like the RAV4 and CR-V as far as its underthings go, the Compass has the solid, pleasantly heavy feel of a real-deal (truck-based) 4×4 SUV. Maybe because it is almost as heavy as a real-deal truck or SUV: 3,097 lbs. for the base FWD Sport model, closer to 3,300 lbs. with the 2.4 engine and Freedom Drive II.
The new six-speed does a lot to crutch the underlying problem of a horsepower deficit — with either engine. Instead of the CVT’s rev-it-to-redline — and hold it there — while the poor engine struggles to heave all that weight up to speed, your forward progress through each of the six speeds is much quieter — and far less frantic-seeming. You do lose some off-road capability with the new box, but the improved on-roadability will probably be more important to nine out of ten prospects.
And for that tenth man, the CVT remains available.
When the roads are slick — as they just happened to be during my test drive — the Compass is in its element. You’ll find that it’s less prone to tail-waggling 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 is a better ally than a RWD/2WD 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.
A real-deal 4×4 will, of course, do better in seriously adverse conditions — such as deep, unplowed snow on paved roads (and when there’s no road at all — just rutted tracks to follow). But how often do you do that? The answer to that question will help you decide which sort of vehicle makes the most sense for you.
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 or tipsy 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 specialty 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 current iteration. 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 for what Jeep charges (and what you’re likely to pay) it’s actually a pretty square deal.
Though you only have two rows to work with (some of the small crossovers in this segment 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 easier vehicle 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.
“For the money… “
I know, I know. 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 of course the 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 Cherokee-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 make 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 not an easy trick — and not easy to find.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Don’t cross it off your list 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.