If you’re short on torches and pitchforks, I know a guy.

That’s a disingenuous offer, really, because the 2011 Jeep Compass is actually pretty decent. As has been the trend recently, Jeep spent what little money it had on fixing the bits that needed it most.

The first thing to go was the old mug. Where the styling of the original Compass was something of a caricature of Jeeps of old that exacerbated its lacking off-road credibility, the 2011 looks pretty good with its mini-Grand Cherokee face. Unfortunately, Jeep didn’t make it much past the A-pillars and the rest looks about the same, save new LED taillights and some new wheels.

Jeep didn’t get far inside, either, where most of the Rubbermaid interior remains. It’s been augmented by new seat cloth and some soft-touch materials on armrests and such, and nav-equipped models get updated software with easy-to-use Garmin-based navigation. The interior otherwise is the same, with good outward visibility, decent cargo space, and cramped rear seats.

We can forgive that, though, since the real money was spent where you can’t see it. The 2011 Compass is now available with Freedom Drive II, the second and more-capable generation of the Compass’ all-wheel-drive system. When so equipped, the now-Trail Rated Compass gets a 1-inch lift in ride height to an impressive 8.4 inches (0.3 inches more than the rear axle of a Jeep Liberty), 17-inch wheels with all-terrain tires, skidplates, tow hooks, a full-size spare, and, most importantly, a second-generation continuously variable transmission with low range. For that, you give up manual shifting ability on the CVT, but it’s a worthy trade.

Drop the Compass into Low and pull the 4WD Lock handle, which locks the center differential at a 50/50 front/rear power split, and the pulleys in the CVT will be locked into a 19:1 ratio for maximum crawling power. It will also automatically engage Hill Descent Control and Brake Traction Control and disengage traction control.

The result is a surprisingly capable Compass. On a test drive outside Jackson, Wyoming, the Compass was able to keep up with the rest of the Jeep lineup on moderately difficult snow-covered trails that saw steep descents, rocky riverbeds, and muddy hill climbs, even if it had to make a few runs at some obstacles.

Dropping into a waterless but snow-covered riverbed, the Hill Descent Control managed the plunge nicely and the Compass’ 20.6-degree approach and 32.2-degree departure angles (on Off-Road models) kept the nose and tail out of the dirt. Crawling through the mud and snow and over watermelon-sized rocks, the locked-up CVT did an impressive cog transmission impression, never letting go of that 19:1 ratio. The larger 17-inch wheels and all-terrain tire package handled obstacles with surprising ease, and the skidplates took care of whatever the suspension (or driver) missed. Deep snow, steep, muddy hillsides, and larger obstacles occasionally halted forward progress, but the proper application of speed and/or maneuvering got the Compass through.

On pavement, the Compass was a pleasant piece of transportation. It feels about as quick as the average compact sedan and handles like a tall car. Improvements to the suspension and steering mean reasonably flat cornering and a pleasant ride. The CVT is smooth, reacts quickly to throttle inputs, and moves the Compass around nicely, though using manual mode typically resulted in rather abrupt shifts. The 2.4-liter engine is rather coarse, but it gets the job done, and we’d rather take the small fuel-economy hit and keep the Off-Road ability than switch to the 2.0. Besides the engine, noise in the passenger compartment is well dampened.

Taken together, both the on- and off-road updates to the Compass make it a reasonable improvement over the old model. There’s still some work to be done inside, and to be fair, the trails we traversed didn’t require winching or giant tires. At the same time, they were considerably more challenging than anything the average Compass owner is likely to attempt, leaving a nice buffer for more adventurous owners. No, it’s no luxurious Grand Cherokee or unstoppable Wrangler, but the Compass isn’t a joke anymore, either.


2011 JEEP COMPASS
Base price $19,995
Vehicle layout Front-engine, FWD/AWD, 5-pass, 4-door, SUV
Engines 2.0L/158-hp/141 lb-ft DOHC 16-valve I-4; 2.4L/172-hp/165 lb-ft/DOHC 16-valve I-4
Transmissions continuously variable auto, continuously variable auto with low range
Curb weight 3100-3150 lb (mfr)
Wheelbase 103.7 in
Length x width x height 173.4 x 69.3 x 65.2 in
0-60 mph 9.5 sec (MT est)
EPA city/hwy fuel econ 20-23 / 23-28 mpg
CO2 emissions 0.78-0.91 lb/mile
On sale in U.S. Currently
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