Let's take a look at this so-called Jeep. Okay, I recognize the famous six-bar grille and the big round headlights. That's a Jeep trademark. After that, I don't see much Jeep at all. Oh, sure, it says "Jeep" in chrome letters on the hood and on the tailgate, but this is a re-badged Dodge Caliber. No one can accuse the Compass of mildness. In fact, assertive lines and sharp angles abound all over the vehicle, giving it a bigger look and feel in photographs than it has in real life. A rising beltline makes for tiny windows on the rear sides and a rear-heavy appearance, with a bigger rear countenance than the front. Compass's tailgate is plain relatively unadorned, with the "Compass" name and logo embossed on the bumper cover, "Jeep," "Limited" and "4x4" displayed in tasteful chrome.
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In the Driver's Seat
The Omni, I mean, Compass dash is pretty straightforward. It's got analog rotary gauges gathered under an eyebrow above the steering wheel, and a center stack that houses audio and climate controls. There's a blank cubby in the center stack if you choose to forgo the navigation package, amplifying the cheapness quotient.
The gearshift hangs off of the middle of the center stack, not a position that you'll find in many sports cars, and for good reason. My test vehicle was equipped with a manual transmission (more on that later), controlled via a short lever with a chromed top. I'm glad that the weather was mild during my test drives -- experience has shown that a hot car can turn a chromed shift knob into a real Raiders of the Lost Ark kind of moment -- remember when that Peter Lorre-looking Nazi guy grabs the amulet out of the fire at the Siberian bar?
On the Road
Compass's handling is okay, with four-wheel independent suspension smoothing the road. MacPherson struts up front and a multi-link rear are proven, low-tech approaches, very durable and easy to upgrade for better performance. I don't know if there's a sway bar set for the Compass yet, but I'd get one to control body roll better -- Compass's high center of gravity works against it on the curves. Standard traction control and four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes are great features, as are the supplemental side curtain front and rear air bags and multi-stage front air bags.
There are plenty of other compact, car-based SUVs on the market worth looking at. Check out the Dodge Caliber, Compass's cousin in the DaimlerChrysler family. Mechanically identical, the two SUVs are cosmetically differentiated by their trim and options. Mitsubishi's Outlander shares some corporate parts as well, but in a very different package.
The big boys on the compact SUV block are the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V. They have grown in size and refinement over the years, but still dominate the category. Hyundai's Tucson and Kia Sportage are zippy little utes, both very nicely equipped and worth consideration. The Ford Escape/Mazda Tribute/Mercury Mariner SUVs are more conservative-looking, and are available with hybrid powerplants, a feature not offered on the Compass. Suzuki's Grand Vitara is the sleeper in the segment, a very refined vehicle that's better than you expect it to be.
If you've always wanted a Jeep, keep looking. Wrangler is the icon, and it's a completely different animal with only a name and some insignificant parts in common with Compass. I guess Liberty is a "real" Jeep, though many would argue. Even though it boasts 8.4" of ground clearance, Compass is a branding exercise, not a real expansion of the lineup.