Jeep Compass needs some direction
Jeep's new on-roader is better than the Dodge Caliber. But that's not saying much.
By Peter Valdes-Dapena, staff writer

NEW YORK ( -- For some reason, the emotional experience I had with the new Jeep Compass was the opposite of what I'd experienced with its Chrysler Group sibling, the Dodge Caliber.

I loved the Caliber from the moment I saw it. I just loved the swagger of that mean-looking little hatchback with its boxy hood and big, sinister grille.

2007 Jeep Compass
2007 Jeep Compass
Jeep Compass interior
The Compass's interior is nearly identical to its corporate sibling, the Dodge Caliber. Unfortunately, both are made from hard-feeling, cheap-looking plastics.
Jeep Compass cargo area
The Compass's cargo area is smaller than that in some competitive crossover vehicles and the rear seats don't fold flat. But it benefits from a slide-proof plastic floor.

Then I drove one for a few days. With each passing mile, the love faded. The cheap plastic interior just seemed cheaper and uglier. With its 2.4-liter 172-horsepower 4-cylinder engine, all-wheel-drive and continuously-variable transmission, the Caliber was slow. I don't just mean, "My, this isn't terribly exciting" slow. I mean, "Is that guy gonna hit me?" slow.

The Dodge Caliber has been a big hit for DaimlerChrysler (Charts), though.

The Jeep Compass is, in many ways, the same vehicle. Nearly the same interior. Same engine. It also has all-wheel-drive, except that the Jeep has a "lock" feature to allow for some semi-serious off-road effort.

But the Jeep Compass has a few clear advantages over the Caliber. It's a shade bigger in most dimensions. My test version had a five-speed manual transmission. That change, alone, made it feel a lot better to drive. (The shifter has an odd shape, sort of like a small dented can. But I quickly got used to it.)

As days passed, I began to like the Compass in a so-ugly-it's-cute, stranded puppy kind of way. Its flaws even began to seem endearing to me.

I think a lot of the difference had to do with reduced expectations.

The Dodge Caliber looks like fun. It isn't.

The Jeep Compass looks like a Jeep. It isn't.

In truth, most Jeeps never stray from paved suburban roads. The Compass is for those highly self-aware Jeepers who admit as much. You'll find no "Trail Rated" badge on this thing.

Basically, it's the automotive equivalent of a pair of light hiking shoes. OK for a dirt road, not OK for fording a stream. Seems like a perfectly fine concept to me. I like the idea of a vehicle I can take a bit off-road once in a while but that doesn't make me feel like I'm driving a guard tower the rest of the time.

Still, it looks Jeepish and, on the road, you just don't expect much from a Jeep. It doesn't have to thrill you. It doesn't have to make you feel like a rich man. It doesn't even have to be particularly comfortable, although the Compass is.

Around curves and corners, the Compass even feels reasonably nimble. The same sort of four-wheel-independent suspension, in the Dodge Caliber, felt too soft and lacking control. Put it under something with a Jeep badge and a seven-slot grill and, where you're expecting to feel top-heaviness, it feels unexpectedly sure-footed and stable.

Inside, I minded the cheap snap-together interior much less in a Jeep. Jeeps are supposed to be hard-edged and rugged, right?

But let's put emotions aside, take the "Jeep goggles" off, and get real here.

For a total price of about $18,500, the Compass I drove had all-wheel-drive, side airbags and electronic stability control. All good and important things, especially the last two. It also had air conditioning.

What else did it have?

Nothing. No power anything. Not windows, not mirrors, not door locks. Certainly not seats.

Compare that to what you get in cars costing thousands less. Now, those cars might not have all-wheel-drive (some do, though) and they don't look like Jeeps, but at least you don't have to crank down the window and reach outside to adjust the mirror like it's 1977. They also manage far nicer interiors.

If you load the Compass up with the features most car buyers expect these days, it starts to cost somewhere in the low $20,000 range. Now it's up against low-end crossovers like the Toyota Rav4 and the Hyundai Tucson.

As long as you stick with the stick-shift, the Compass's low center of gravity does make it feel more enjoyable on the road. Other than that, those vehicles are better than the Compass in just about every way, including their respective brands' reputations for quality.

The Chrysler Group's Dodge and Jeep brands don't fare well in the estimation of either Consumer Reports or J.D. Power and Associates. That fact alone gives any Chrysler Group product a fairly high hurdle to earn a recommendation. Sometimes, as with the Chrysler 300 and Dodge Magnum, they make it.

It's fine that the Compass can't tackle the Rubicon Trail. Unfortunately, it can't clear that value hurdle, either.

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