Sports car maker Porsche is about to introduce its first SUV, so why should it be so hard to believe that Jeep might possibly introduce a rally car-inspired sports vehicle? After all, Chrysler Groups execs have suggested they would add a fourth model to the Jeep line up, and this niche is being heavily probed by competitors.

Unveiled at the 2002 Detroit auto show, the Compass looks like Jeep's design team was inspired by equal parts Audi Steppenwolf and some of AMC's mid-1960's concept vehicles (check out the C-pillar treatment). The concept points in the direction for an affordable, entry-level Jeep, intended to expand the brand to non-traditional buyers who are interested in the Jeep mystique, but aren't necessarily romanced by the Wrangler's inherent compromises. The Jeep Compass, when viewed in the context of last year's well-received Willys and Willys2 concepts, seems to indicate that the Chrysler Group is laying the groundwork for just such a vehicle.

The Compass' under $20,000 target price would place it in the same cost category as the Wrangler, but it wouldn't compete directly due to some fundamental and even philosophical differences. The Compass is based on Liberty hardware, employing its 210-horsepower V-6, smooth-riding yet capable independent front suspension system, and multi-link rear suspension. Because it would not need the Wrangler's extreme off-road capabilities, the Compass uses a lighter-duty, all-wheel-drive system that forgoes an expensive two-speed transfer case. Overall, the Compass is an extremely compact package and it fits into a neat slot actually combining the wheelbase of a Liberty with an overall length just slightly more than a Wrangler.