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Jeep goes in a new direction with the Compass

May 19, 2006|by MALCOLM GUNN / Wheelbase Communications

Brand expansion is the name of the game at Jeep and the 2007 Compass charts a whole new course.

DaimlerChrysler's off-road experts division will launch the Compass and equally new Patriot by summer, in addition to a restyled Wrangler this fall.

In many ways, the Compass is the most radical of the trio. Radical because, unlike every other model in Jeep's 65-plus-year history, the Compass will come with standard front-wheel drive, not rear-/four-wheel drive. And in another departure from the norm, even four-wheel-drive versions are not rated or necessarily recommended for off-road excursions.

Why the change? Is Jeep growing soft in its old age? The answer is in DaimlerChrysler's own research that suggests the market for small sport-utility vehicles will grow by leaps and bounds over the next few years, driven in large measure by changing public tastes and surging prices at the pumps.

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Whether that means sales of its current models will suffer, Jeep plans to stay ahead of the curve with products such as the Compass to give buyers an off-road image, but in a lighter, more fuel-efficient package with a lower sticker price.

Diehard Jeep fanatics might be rolling their eyes since the Compass takes its cue and its basic platform from the new Dodge's Caliber wagon. The Compass charts its own course when it comes to design, however. Front-end styling is clearly inspired by the Jeep Liberty, which is a strong way to begin. Similarly, the chunky bumper and bulging front and rear fenders present a more rugged image that should entice first-time buyers.

The new Jeep shows off its practical nature inside with loads of cargo space, especially with the rear and front passenger seat folded flat. Then there's the thoughtfulness of a center armrest that slides forward for shorter drivers and an available 60/40 split rear seat that also reclines for increased comfort. One of the neatest convenience features is an optional removable flashlight that's mounted in the headliner above the cargo area (similar in idea to the Caliber), very handy when rooting through various stowables in the dark.

A twist of the key fires up a Caliber-based 172-horsepower 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine that's connected to a five-speed manual transmission or optional continuously variable unit. Jeep claims that the CVT is more fuel efficient than a traditional four-speed automatic by 6 to 8 percent.

Both the base and upmarket Limited versions will be available in full-time four-wheel drive with a "lock" mode that is recommended for deep snow, sand and other "low-traction" conditions.

Even base units carry a fair amount of standard gear, including traction and stability control, side-curtain air bags, anti-lock brakes, fog lamps and a CD-equipped radio. Options, some of which are standard on the Limited, include air conditioning, remote keyless entry, side-impact air bags, cruise control, tonneau cover, all-terrain tires, soil-repellent and anti-microbial seat fabric and a premium sound system with rear speakers that drop down from the liftgate (in the raised position) for outside audio enjoyment.

Limited-only add-ons include a sunroof, 18-inch chrome wheels, tire-pressure monitor, compass (which should be standard given the vehicle's name) and outside thermometer.

While the Compass demonstrates Jeep's softer side, it should prove just as rugged and reliable, so long as California's Rubicon Trail and other tests of off-road competency are avoided. For most other surfaces and situations, simply point the Compass in the right direction and go.

Copyright 2006, Wheelbase Communications

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