Review and photos by
Jil McIntosh, Autos.ca
When Jeep first introduced the Compass for the 2007 model year, many people didn’t know what to think: a front-wheel drive Jeep? What on earth was the legendary off-road company thinking?
And yet, while Wrangler fans undoubtedly continue to look down their noses at the Compass – one of a trio of platform siblings along with the Dodge Caliber and Jeep Patriot – this little hatchback seems to do okay for itself with buyers, if the number I see on the road is any indication.
It’s gently redesigned for 2011, with handsome new exterior styling that echoes the front of the updated Grand Cherokee, and an interior that retains the same general layout as before but with some better-quality materials, an improvement in fit-and-finish and some new controls. Also new, and added to my CVT-equipped tester, is the availability of Jeep’s Freedom Drive II system, one of nine all-wheel systems available across the company’s line-up. The system runs primarily in front-wheel drive, but when needed, it will send torque to the rear wheels. It can also be locked into 50/50 via a handle on the centre console. When the shifter is put into Low, the Compass includes a 19:1 crawl ratio and hill descent control.
My tester was the Compass North, a Canada-only trim line that slots between the Sport and Limited. The North name is used specifically on a package of heated front seats and leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls, although I wonder if the overall trim level name might also refer to John North Willys, the man behind the Willys brand that brought the Jeep to military prominence during the Second World War. The Compass’ standard engine is a 2.4-litre four-cylinder, but if you order a front-wheel Sport or North, you can opt for a 2.0-litre four-cylinder. Chrysler’s pricing structure tends to be confusing, with trim levels often indicated as options on base models, but the Munroney sticker on my vehicle indicated a base price of $21,195 and a final price, after numerous options, of $28,765 before taxes and freight. These included $1,750 for a continuously variable transmission (CVT) in place of the stock five-speed manual, $750 for adding the Freedom Drive II in place of the model’s standard Freedom Drive I, and an upgraded stereo with satellite radio. The Compass has its good points, but I have to admit that it didn’t feel like almost $29,000 worth of car. Especially since, ironically enough, it didn’t contain a compass.This extra low-gear ability allows the Compass, for the first time, to wear the coveted Jeep “Trail-Rated” badge. The badge indicates off-road worthiness in traction, ground clearance, manoeuvrability, articulation and water fording. There is a caveat, however: the Trail-Rated designation is Jeep’s own, not an industry standard, and the company doesn’t divulge exactly what minimum requirements a vehicle must meet in order to earn the badge. That said, having driven a Patriot with the Freedom Drive II system on a challenging snow-covered course through woods and fields, it performed much better than I expected for an “off-road lite” system. Equipped with good winter tires, it made its way around the trail in snow that came up almost to the bumper and then took a deep gully in stride. While it certainly wouldn’t have the rock-climbing cred of the Jeep Wrangler that was also part of the event, it performed just as well as the Wrangler on a trail that would pretty much be the roughest that most drivers would ever ask it to cross. Whatever the Trail Rated badge entails, the Drive II Compass definitely appears to earn the right to wear it.
Still, in the grand scheme of things, the Compass is sized to be an urban commuter, and for most people going about their daily driving chores, this little Jeep may well be a contender among their choices. I really like that all the seats fold down flat, including the front passenger chair, part of the North package. With all seats up, the cargo hold is 75 cm long. Fold the second-row seats and it lengthens to 150 cm, while dropping the front seat opens it up to a length of 245 cm, enough to bring home an eight-foot piece of lumber. On its own, the Compass will tow 450 kg (1,000 lbs), and with the $225 trailer tow prep package added to mine, it increases to 907 kg (2,000 lbs).Part of the problem lies in the CVT. These transmissions are all over the map when it comes to noise and performance: some are very pleasant to drive and some considerably less so, and I’ve sometimes found both types in different vehicles from the same manufacturer. The Compass’ engine, producing 172 horsepower and 165 lb-ft of torque, is a little rough and growly, and the CVT emphasizes that, so the entire package is noisy as it drones up and down the tachometer. It’s not helped by the road noise that comes up from the asphalt, either. Don’t expect to be drag racing too many competitors off the lights, as acceleration is leisurely, and the low gear on the Freedom Drive II supersedes the manual mode that you get on the CVT without Drive II. As my husband wrote down in my notebook, “When accelerating to pass, the Compass has the sound of desperation.” For those who dinghy-tow behind an RV, only the 4×4 with manual transmission can be flat-towed; the CVT model cannot be hooked up this way. The brakes are good, though, with nice pedal feel and solid bite. My fuel consumption was less than stellar, which may have been due to the bitterly cold weather: against published figures of 9.9 L/100 km (29 mpg Imp) in the city and 7.5 (38) on the highway, the best I could get was 13.1 (22) in combined driving.
I really like the ultra-simple controls, which consist of three big dials for the climate system, big buttons for the stereo, air vents that pop open or closed with a quick touch, a centre console box lid that slides forward as an armrest, and clear, easy-to-read instruments in the cluster. The centre console box and an open dash cubby over the glove-box provide quick storage.
The first-row seats are relatively comfortable, although I’d question their ability to remain so on long trips; the second-row seats have okay legroom and they recline slightly, but the Bonneville salt flats have more contours than these cushions. Put the children back there while you can still quiet their complaints with promises of ice cream, and if you’re the driver on carpool duty, remember who fails to make another pot when the office coffeemaker goes dry.Still, there are a couple of sour notes. Should you use a tall travel mug, you’ll probably end up knocking it against the shifter when you take it out of the front cupholder, and if you’ve slid the armrest forward, you’ll hit that when accessing your drink from the rear cupholder. That pales beside a cubby in the centre console that’s covered by the parking brake lever any time the brake isn’t on, rendering it completely inaccessible when you’re driving. Didn’t any of the designers stop and give this a second look?
Pricing: 2011 Jeep Compass North 4×4
Base price: $21,195
Options: $7,570 (Customer Preferred Package of 60/40 reclining and folding rear seats, height-adjustable driver’s seat, fold-flat passenger seat, deep-tint glass, heated mirrors, keyless entry, air conditioning, 115-volt outlet, power windows, power locks, illuminated entry, body-colour door handles and liftgate appliqué and North badge, $3,300; Sirius satellite radio group including auto-dimming mirror with microphone, one-year subscription, Bluetooth and Uconnect voice control, $625; trailer tow prep group, $225; North All-Season Group of heated front seats and leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls, $495; Freedom Drive II off-road group, $750; CVT, $1,750; six-CD/DVD/MP3 media centre, $225; full-size spare tire, $200)
A/C tax: $100
Price as tested: $30,265
Crash test results
The Compass has its feet on both the positive and negative sides of the equation. On the good side, it’s better-looking both inside and out than before, its flat-folding seats make it very practical for carrying goods (at eight feet in total length, it can carry longer items than some pickup trucks), its controls are simple to operate, and its optional Freedom Drive II system works great in rougher terrain without moving to the Wrangler’s bouncy ride. On the down side, its growly engine and transmission don’t measure up to many competitors, some ergonomics could be much better, and it tends to get pricey when you add options. Each buyer must test-drive and decide individually, and there are enough of these vehicles out there that they definitely have appeal to many drivers. It’s up to you whether it’s a Jeep thing that you understand.