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Jeep decides to try smaller with the Compass

August 25, 2006|by DAN LYONS / Motor Matters

Smaller is better - or at least it's a better seller. It's estimated that the compact sport-utility vehicle segment will double from its current level by 2010 and triple by 2016.

Jeep is perhaps the best-known maker of SUVs in the world. Jeep's biggest news last year was the introduction of its biggest model - the Commander. For the 2007 model year, no less than four new models will roll into Jeep showrooms, and with all, the focus is on small. The parade of new product starts with the Jeep Compass.

Compass is a hybrid SUV, built on a car-based, front-wheel-drive chassis. It's the first FWD SUV for the company and it's also available with full-time, all-wheel drive. Compass is offered in two models - Limited and Sport. Prices start at $15,985 for a front-wheel-drive Sport, and range to $21,740, for a 4x4 Limited.

Two models, one engine: All versions of Compass are powered by a 2.4-liter, four-cylinder engine, producing 172 horsepower and 165 lbs.-ft. of torque. One engine, two transmissions: Compass can be had with either a standard five-speed manual transmission or available continuously variable transmission.

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The 2.4-liter engine is well-suited to the Compass and able to tackle all daily driving tasks with ease. As with any small-displacement engine, passing takes some planning, and steep grades require downshifting to maintain speed. Gas mileage is unusually good for an SUV. EPA rates the standard transmission 4x4 Compass at 25 mpg city/29 highway.

Choose an automatic and you get the CVT, which is also accompanied by AutoStick on Limited models. AutoStick allows the driver to shift gears without a clutch by tapping the floor mounted shifter. Automatic equipped models fare well at the gas pumps too, with estimates of 23/26 for 4x4s.

Compass is not designed with the type of hard-core, off-road capability that Jeeps are usually known for. All-wheel-drive hybrids like this new model are often bought with all-weather driving in mind, rather than all-terrain. On dry pavement, the AWD Freedom Drive I system puts as much as 100 percent of its power through the front wheels. But it is continuously variable in response to driving conditions, and can channel as much as 60 percent of engine torque through the rear wheels when needed.

Drivers can also lock the front/rear torque balance at 50/50 by flicking a switch on the center console. I've driven the Compass on logging trails, city streets, interstate highways and through deep sand. Compass is not Trail Rated, but it can confidently handle bad-weather driving. And it's supported by a full range of grip-enhancing electronics that are standard equipment, including traction control, anti-lock brakes and an electronic stability program with roll mitigation. Regardless of driving conditions, the advantages of a car-based chassis show through in the areas of handling and ride quality. With its fully independent suspension, Compass feels more car-like than truck-like.

Compass will comfortably fit most any size passengers up front. The back seat will (snugly) fit a pair of 6-footers, when like-size people are up front. All controls and switch gear are straightforward and easy to reach. A nice collection of storage spots are sprinkled around the cabin, including a novel one - a cradle that swings up from the center console/armrest, sized to hold an MP3 player. The spot is wired for a connector to the sound system.

Compass shares some other cool cabin features with the Dodge Caliber, its corporate cousin. The optional, 458-watt Boston Acoustics sound system includes some components that do double duty. The rearmost of the nine speakers are mounted to the inside of the rear lift gate. When you open the hatch, they swing down to provide the tunes for your tailgate party. An available cargo bay ceiling light doubles as a detachable, rechargeable flashlight. And speaking of the way-back area, cargo capacity measures a generous 22.7 cubic feet. Fold down the split, rear seat (standard on Limited, optional on Sport), and that number increases to a maximum of 53.6 cubic feet. A GPS-based navigation system will be added to the option sheet later in the model year.

The debut of the 2007 Compass seems nicely timed. The compact, car-like SUV appears just as the market is showing a growing appetite for compact, car-like SUVs. Those buyers would do well to cast an eye in the direction of Compass.

Copyright, Motor Matters, 2006

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