What: An entry-level Jeep at an entry-level price
How Much: Base price, $16,475; as tested, $21,245
What's Hot: Distinctive styling, ample power, direct steering
What's Not: Cheap-looking/feeling interior, harsh ride over the rough stuff
On the Road: Introduced in 2006, the Jeep Compass (along with its Patriot sidekick) has replaced the Wrangler as Jeep's entry-level model and has added everyday practicality to the mix, making this a full-fledged compact utility vehicle. Our tester was a Sport 4x2 version in Sunburst Orange Pearl, a new color for 2008, and was equipped with the $2125 Customer Preferred Package that added such features as cruise control, folding/reclining rear seats, keyless entry, premium cloth seats, a height-adjustable driver's seat, and an auto-dimming rearview mirror.
While some have panned the Compass's exterior, to us it's fairly pleasant looking, with stylish rear-wheel arches, neatly incorporated rear door handles, sporty-looking 17-in. aluminum wheels, and Jeep's trademark seven-slot front grille and round headlamps; the interior styling is the polar opposite. It looks as if kiddie-toy outlets teamed up to build a My First Jeep version of the Compass's cabin. The gauges are overtly plain and simple, as are the uninspired black-and-silver center stack and cutout-looking dashboard storage compartment on the passenger side. Even the chrome-tipped shift lever can't keep the Jeep's interior from looking plain, but one could make an argument that a Jeep cabin needn't be flashy. In fact, the hard plastic materials likely make for easier cleaning after a weekend's camping or fishing trip. Function above form is always a good policy, but in this case the Compass could use a dash more flash.
One excellent feature is the electronic device storage arm that can be pulled out from the center armrest. When extended, it offers a perfect place for stashing a cell-phone or iPod within easy access of the driver and front passenger. It fits both an iPod and Palm Treo cell-phone perfectly, but might have trouble accommodating larger devices -- some Blackberries included.
The Compass's 2.4L Dual VVT four-banger has enough power (172 hp, 165 lb-ft) to keep up with others in its segment and feels strong enough on the freeway that overtaking isn't an issue with a small amount of prior planning. The CVT transmission (an $1100 option on the 4x2 configuration alone) offers Chrysler's AutoStick manual mode, which allows for driver-controlled gear changes, but left in automatic mode it can get real buzzy, real fast -- the nature of the CVT beast. With 3177 lb of curb weight to haul around, the Compass is hundreds of pounds lighter than many in the competition, and that shows on the road. Official fuel-economy ratings pitch the Compass at 21/25 mpg city/highway. Over roughly 900 miles of mostly freeway driving, we got an average rating of 21.5 -- near the bottom end of that range.