Since WWII Jeep has been the most macho nameplate around. Now the company is risking that equity on two car-based four-cylinder crossovers, hopefully without bringing down the brand's well-honed reputation. As the story goes, the Compass and Patriot were equally well received in extensive buyer clinics. But while the Patriot will come with a Trail Rating (mostly because of a clever CVT with a separate first gear, low enough to act as a low range), the Compass's optional full-time system, which includes a locking center differential, doesn't make any attempts at all-terrain capability.
Make no mistake: This is a well-tuned, tall hatchback. The Compass rides just high enough to keep drivers from feeling like they're piloting a conventional car and provides a good amount of confidence with only moderate body roll. Steering is precise and has good weight and a nice amount of feedback.
The Compass comes in two trim levels: Sport (17 inch wheels and roll-up windows standard) and Limited (18 inch wheels, chrome bumper valances and side trim, and heated leather-trimmed seats). The Jeep has taller front seats than the Caliber it shares platforms with, allowing better rear-seat foot room as well as good headroom. You can buy either trim level with front drive or Freedom Drive 1 all-wheel drive. Transmission choices are a five-speed manual box or a second-generation CVT, which in the Limited comes optional with Chrysler's Autostick manual shifting with six ratios. The five-speed feels precise and positive; in a segment known for vague, spindly gearshifts, it's perhaps the best stick shift in a sport/utility.
While the five-speed makes better use of the 2.4 liter's 172 ponies and 165 pound-feet of twist, the CVT by contrast feels lifeless, but, for the most part, that's the nature of CVT power delivery. Jeep claims best-in-class EPA figures of 25 mpg city, 29 mpg highway for the 4x4 manual, which means the front-drive version could achieve 30 mpg. The 4x4 with CVT drops to 23/26.
In offering only a four-banger in the Compass, Jeep joins the Honda CR V (and turbo Acura RDX) in this segment, which also is populated with the Toyota RAV4, Hyundai Tucson, and Kia Sportage, all available with V 6s. Compass towing capacity is 2000 pounds.
A well-equipped Limited, with sunroof, nine-speaker Boston Acous-tics stereo, and other options, pushes the sticker into the mid-$20s, but the Sport model starts at $15,985, with Freedom Drive 1 an extra $1600. There's a lot of standard equipment, including front and rear curtain airbags. As with the Caliber, the center console has an iPod holder, and the center stack, designed to look like an open laptop, has a jack for that MP3 player. The overhead lamp detaches to work like a flashlight, and the premium sound-system's rear speakers flip down for tailgating music. It's a clever, handy interior.