Disclaimer: This is a harsh review. Lest anyone think this is some kind of a blanket indictment of Jeep or Chrysler, it’s not. I’ve seen Chrysler build a truly fine new Charger, Grand Cherokee, Durango, 200 and 300 already, so I’m excited to see what’s in store in the coming years. The Compass/Patriot is mercifully at the end of the line, to be replaced in 2012 with something new from Fiat/Chrysler.
“Compass” is one of those words that you can make less and less sense of the more you read it. Try it: compass compass compass compass… It starts to look like it isn’t really a word after all.
I had much the same reaction to the 2011 Jeep Compass. It makes less and less sense the more time you spend with it.
To figure out how the Compass and the even more confusing Patriot came into being, we need to rewind a few years to when Jeep still had a Cherokee. The XJ had outlived its usable life by at least a generation, but it was still one of a few vehicles that slotted into that space. Most compact SUVs were growing bigger by the year. Take a look at where the Explorer was going as an example.
Nevertheless, people really, really liked the Cherokee. It was inexpensive, tough as an old boot, and even in the leather-clad Limited trims, had still resisted all the finery that had been bestowed on most SUVs of the era. Jeep was making money hand over fist with the Cherokee, but it wasn’t enough. So they killed it, and “replaced” it with the Commander.
Now let me say that I was one of the three people that actually liked the Commander. I used it to tow a U-Haul trailer with a motorcycle in it out to Syracuse, NY, and I don’t think the Commander ever noticed it had a trailer attached, which certainly wasn’t the case with the Cherokee. But it was a big, V8-powered behemoth and not a suitable replacement for the Cherokee at all.
On the lower end, Jeep had the Liberty. Jeep pitched the Liberty as another pseudo-replacement for the Cherokee years before, but the fact was, the Liberty wasn’t particularly useful off-road, had pretty limited appeal to Jeep folks thanks to its front-drive bias, and was sort of the red-headed stepchild of the Jeep line when it was introduced. I witnessed this firsthand when I went on a Jeep Jamboree with a Liberty, and was met with almost universal disdain by the hard-core Jeepers in attendance. The Liberty had a few issues on the off-road course, but ended up making it through to the surprise of those I traveled with, but I don’t think it won any converts.
Fast forward to 2008 and suddenly, the Jeep Liberty IS finally a suitable replacement for the XJ Cherokee, to the point that it’s called the Cherokee outside North America. Completely revamped and sporting V6 power from the get-go, the Liberty even sort of looks like a modern interpretation of the XJ, dispensing with the rounded corners of the older Liberty.
Now that the Liberty is the middleweight SUV with towing capacity and rugged good looks, Jeep would’ve been left without a contender in the small, “cheap” SUV market. Enter the Compass in 2007, with a redesign in 2011, in keeping with Chrysler’s attempt to make everybody forget about the generally awful vehicles it was producing in the last few years.
The Compass is one of those seemingly hundred or so vehicles that are underpinned by the DaimlerChrysler/Mitsubishi GS platform. It provides the platform for the Dodge Caliber, the current Chrysler 200, the Mitsubishi Outlander, the Mitsubishi Lancer, a couple of Mitsubishis we don’t see in America, plus a Citroen and the Malaysian Proton Inspira.
Now, unlike the guy from the Detroit News, I like the new 200, but stretching and twisting a platform to build everything from a compact sedan to an ice-cream truck makes less and less sense the further you get away from the original design. Sedans. Fine. Small SUVs, not so much, especially when there are sooooo many good ones on the market now.
For 2011, the Compass was redesigned to have more of the look of the Grand Cherokee, which is honestly one of the nicest SUVs I’ve ever had the privilege of driving. Anybody interested in that class of vehicles should drive the Grand Cherokee or they’re doing themselves a disservice.
Unfortunately, none of that greatness filters down to the Compass. The driving dynamics are just lousy, from start to finish. The Compass is powered by a singularly unimpressive 2.4-liter, 16-valve, transverse mounted four that churns out 172 noisy, not particularly useful horsepower. In this application, the 2.4-liter is a gas engine that has all of the clattery sound and flaccid acceleration of a diesel, with none of the benefits. It certainly felt better in the 200, but in the Compass, it’s gutless and slow.
Maybe that’s because if you choose an automatic transmission, you have no choice but to select one of two versions of an awful continuously variable transmission. I’ll give Chrysler the benefit of the doubt here, because CVTs almost universally stink. So far, I’ve driven exactly one CVT that didn’t feel like a conventional automatic on its last legs. They’re all bad. Trust me here. For the love of Christ, learn to drive a stick.
This version was the CVT2L, which features a low range for “crawling.” Word to the wise: despite the Trail Rated badge, and the assurance that the Compass can ford streams and climb obstacles, I’d no sooner take a Compass off-road than I would a Mercury Topaz. I’m sure you can do it, but there are dozens of vehicles better suited to the task.
The engine and transmission combo gets an EPA estimate of 28 highway miles per gallon, which is nonsense. You’ll never get close to that in the real world. In mixed driving, I saw 21 mpg, and I don’t think I ever put the pedal to the floor, and I certainly never pushed it past 75 mph. The 12-ish gallon tank means that fillups are never too far away.
Inside, the cabin is just ok, but nowhere near where it needs to be in this class, with fast comers like the Kia Sportage delivering impressive interiors for the same money. The best thing I can say is that I like the material the seats are upholstered in. The rear seats are small and cramped, especially for two kids in car seats. The door openings are small and make loading toddlers inside a chore. In fairness, I thought the cargo area was fairly generous, but in a small vehicle like this, the room has to come from somewhere.
At highway speed, the Compass felt ok as long as the road was arrow straight. An evasive maneuver to avoid a chunk of sheetmetal in the road was met with a wallowing suspension that never quite got me around the obstacle without making me feel like I was going to end up on the roof. The wind we’ve been experiencing in New England the last few weeks had a decidedly disconcerting effect on the Compass when it hit the vehicle broadside.
In conclusion, I would continue driving a 100,000 mile Escape before I invested a breathtaking $22,760 (before $1500 in local incentives) for a well-equipped 4×4 Compass Latitude. They say they don’t build bad cars anymore. I say, drive a Compass first before registering that opinion.