PORTLAND, Oregon - DaimlerChrysler's Jeep division is in a busy state these days, with a series of new and redesigned products in the works. First up for the 2007 model year is the Compass, a brand-new SUV that's built on a passenger-car chassis but is capable of at least mild off-road adventures.
Don Renkert, senior manager of Jeep Design, considers the Compass a "stylish, sculptured, more refined alternative" not only to competitors, but to other Jeep models. Led by a clamshell hood, the Compass gets a "deeper version of the signature seven-slot grille" and displays "crisply executed character lines." A "distinctive" chamfer at the A-pillars is intended to minimize wind noise.
Full-length roof rails are standard, and a high rear spoiler above large taillamps brings up the rear. Rigid vinyl flooring for the cargo area is removable and easily washable. Each Compass contains a 60/40-split rear seatback, which reclines in the Limited model, which features leather upholstery. Sport models get fabric seats.
Beneath the hood, a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine develops a relatively modest 179 horsepower and 165 pound-feet of torque. A five-speed manual gearbox is available, but Jeep is promoting the Compass's continuously variable transmission (CVT), which is similar to the one used for the Dodge Caliber.
Actually, the Compass is closely related to Dodge's Caliber, despite its considerably taller stance. In the Limited model, the CVT has an AutoStick feature that provides nearly instantaneous manual selection of virtual "gears." Unlke the Caliber, the Compact has a 4WD-Lock button on low console, to enhance its capability on slightly rougher terrain.
Inside, the seats' H-point is 2 inches higher than in a Caliber, which stands substantially lower. A handy open storage area lies ahead of the front passenger. The high-mounted radio has well-marked controls. Rotary climate controls are low but simple.
Antilock braking is standard, with rough road detection that alters braking effect. Three-mode Electronic Stability Control, also standard, includes electronic roll mitigation. Side airbags protect occupants in both seating rows.
"One of the attributes of Jeep is command of the road," said chief engineer Matt Liddaine. While the Compass isn't as "commanding" as some, it delivers a laudable overall experience, as demonstrated by an urban and rural run in a Limited 4x4 with the Autostick CVT.
Manual mode works almost like a gearbox with real gears, but is quicker to "upshift." Downhill, it does help keep speed down, though not like a serious off-road vehicle would. Along dirt and gravel roads, as well as paved highway surfaces, the Compass behaved capably.
If you go into manual mode and get to 6th "gear" by moving the lever repeatedly, it's reluctant to downshift until you reach very low road speeds. A little trick is needed to get back to fully automatic Drive mode, tapping the lever an extra time.
Acceleration from start-off is on the leisurely side. Passing response is nothing to get excited about, but you feel a nice and steady speed increase. Engine noise is loud but not horrific as you approach the desired speed. Even at start-off, with a light throttle foot, a light growly sound occurs. Worse yet are the annoying road noises on certain surfaces, which almost - but not quite - disappear when the pavement changes.
On glassy-smooth surfaces, the ride is quite lovely. Moderate bumps do start to interfere with comfort. Rather light steering is accompanied by easy maneuverability. A Compass can take curves without excess body lean, though it's by no means absent.
Semicircular gauges with red pointers are not huge, but easy enough to read at a glance. Seats are quite comfortably cushioned, with good support. Elbow room is a little constricted, but front occupants get plenty of headroom and abundant leg space. Rear headroom is good, but legroom scant, and the back compartment feels generally cramped - beyond cozy.
Overall, this is an enjoyable small SUV, but the manual gearbox in a Sport model was on the vague side, not inviting to use. The clutch didn't engage so adroitly either, and the engine sounded noisy in each lower gear, without delivering much more energy than the CVT manages. All told, the CVT may be a wiser choice for most buyers.
Compass sales begin in late June or early July. Prices start at $15,985 (including destination charge) for the two-wheel-drive Sport model. A 4WD Sport stickers for $17,585. In the Limited series, $20,140 buys a 2WD version and the 4WD goes for $21,740. A navigation system will be available later.
With 4WD and the CVT, Jeep's Compass earns an EPA fuel-economy estimate of 23-mpg in city driving and 26 mpg on the highway. Manual shift raises the estimates to 25/29 mpg, which Jeep calls "best in class."
Likely buyers are in the 25-30 age range with a $60,000 household income, who have never owned a new car before. According to marketer Michael Berube, they have "very active lifestyles" and know Jeep, but never had one - or even wanted one. Berube expects the Compass to "steal sales from" the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, Kia Sportage, Hyundai Tucson, and Saturn Vue.
"They know Compass will bring new people to the Jeep brand," Berube said, as well as strengthen current fans. Later in 2006, the new Patriot will debut. This year is the 65th anniversary of the Jeep brand.
Berube predicts that sales of compact SUVs, like the Compass, "will double" in the next five years and triple over the coming decade. If so, expansion of its product line should put Jeep in a strong position to take advantage of near-future trends.