2009 Jeep Compass Sport 4×4 Review
By Kevin Miller
A compass is defined as an instrument which indicates direction. That being the case, the Jeep Compass shows that the storied off-road brand (and Chrysler as a whole) is headed in the wrong direction. The Compass was introduced in 2007, and is built on the same platform as the Dodge Caliber and the Jeep Patriot. The Patriot and the Compass are mechanical clones and also share most interior components- press photos show the interiors and features of the Compass and Patriot to be identical. The small Jeep twins got a new interior for 2009, with vastly improved dashboard and console materials and layout. Compared to the previous interior (and the existing interior in the Caliber), it is a great leap forward in both design and materials.
While the interior was upgraded, however, it is far from perfect. My tester’s interior was relentlessly black, with charcoal-colored seat upholstery, black plastic door interiors (without any fabric upholstery to break up the monotony), and black plastic dash. The reworked dash and center console have oddly shaped storage compartments, with no place to store cell phones or sunglasses. There is no compartment (other than the trunk) large enough to hold a magazine. Each door has a molded-in door bin, but the bins are not deep enough to hold soda cans or water bottles, and are not large enough even for a folded map.
Less-than-optimal packaging extends far beyond storage cubbies. The Compass didn’t have nearly as much legroom either front or rear as the Suzuki Grand Vitara I recently reviewed. Situating our rear-facing infant car seat on the passenger side in the back seat meant that my wife had very little room (and therefore an uncomfortable seating position) up front. The Compass also has artificially-high sills that must be stepped over when getting in or out. Too, the cheap-feeling, senselessly-pillar-mounted rear door handles were nearly too high for my three-and-a-half year old to reach for opening the door from the outside. She proudly showed me she could do it, but she’d had to extend her arms as high as she could reach, pressing her entire body against the dirty side of the Compass in the process, meaning that her coat and pants got dirty and wet; I was pretty disappointed in the way the rear door handle design worked out.
Moving around back to the luggage compartment, the lack of space continued. While the Compass has a trick cargo floor which is upholstered on the top, but can be turned over to a hard plastic surface which will repel dirt and mud, that is pretty much the only feature that comes close to being innovative. The sloped rear door of the car steals cargo room from the already-shallow trunk. Additional space reduction comes from the articulating speakers mounted in the rear door, and from the seatbelt for the center-rear passenger (when deployed), which bisects the cargo area as it reaches the back seat from its anchor on the D-pillar .
When packing for a weekend trip, similar to the trip our family took a month earlier in the spacious Mazda6 sedan, we ran out of space in the Compass, and had to leave a few items at home, and had to lay the stroller across the footwells of the back seat. When carrying the equipment cases featured in many of my reviews, there wasn’t enough room left over in back for my computer bag. Placing it on top of the equipment cases would have made it high enough to be at risk of sliding over the rear seatback if I had stopped suddenly.
One useful feature of the cargo area is the fact that the front passenger seat folds flat, extending the cargo space to ten feet long from the base of the windshield to the inside of the rear hatch. I took advantage of that feature for hauling some closet doors and molding trim home from the local home improvement center; my Volvo wagon performs the same party trick, so I wasn’t reliant on the Compass’ ability to haul these long items.
Unfortunately, although the dash was treated to a redesign for 2009, the exterior was left unchanged. In my opinion, the Compass is not a good-looking vehicle. The shapes in the front bumper are odd, the round headlamps with their fairings integrated in the hood give it the face of a frog, and the separate front cornering lamps look both cheap and dated. The wheels look too small in the squared-off wheelarches, while the bulging fenders cause odd contours where they blend into the doors. The overall look of the Compass is at once clumsy, cheap and strange.
That being said, spending a week with the Compass mildly changed my opinion of the car from thinking of it as THE ugliest car on the road to being merely ONE OF the least attractive vehicles available for 2009. Truthfully, during my week in the Compass, I saw other motorists pointing at the vehicle with looks of dismay while I drove it, on two separate occasions. Experiencing such behavior was disconcerting, to say the least. It shows that I’m not the only person who find the Compass to be odd-looking, and it begs the question of what the designers at Chrysler were thinking when they penned the Compass.
The Compass is unavailable with Jeep’s “Trail Rated” badge. Available as either front-wheel drive or “4×4”, the all-wheel drive Compass operates in front-wheel-drive mode until slippage is detected. An oddly-aligned, dainty “T-handle” shaped control is situated between the front seats for locking the system into four-wheel drive mode.
The Compass (just like the Patriot) is available only with a 2.4 liter four-cylinder engine, producing 172 HP. While a five-speed manual transmission is standard, the Compass I tested was equipped with a CVT (continuously variable automatic transmission), which highlighted the droning quality of the engine while taking away any hint of responsiveness you might expect when stepping on the accelerator pedal. Attempting to quickly pull away from a stop resulted in a pause while the CVT prepared to set the Compass in motion, followed by a slipping-clutch sensation while the vehicle gradually picked up speed and generated more noise.
While ride on relatively smooth surfaces in a straight line was just fine, adding any variables degraded the experience. The Compass wasn’t particularly smooth over rough pavement, and steering input that wasn’t gradual resulted in notable body roll. Also detracting from the driving experience was poor visibility caused by thick A- and D-pillars.
The Compass Sport 4×4 (with CVT) has an EPA fuel economy rating of 21/24 MPG with a combined rating 22 MPG (the manual transmission has a 23/28 MPG rating). That said, my first tank of fuel saw a return of 25.5 MPG over 316 miles, almost exclusively on the freeway with the cruise control set at 65 and 75 MPH. Over similar conditions, the next tank of fuel lasted 322 miles, which would mean that tank would have also achieved more than 25 MPG. I’ve never beaten the EPA rating over multiple tanks of fuel in a vehicle I’ve reviewed; this was a first.
Featured in the Compass Sport I tested was a stereo with Sirius satellite radio, a single-disc CD changer, and buttons for controlling the uconnect Bluetooth handsfree system. However, pressing the uconnect button caused the unit to display “NOT EQUIPPED WITH UCONNECT”. The Compass had switches on the backside of the steering wheel for controlling the audio system, which worked quite well once I figured out to operate the unlabeled controls. The system did feature an Auxiliary Input on the face of the stereo but unfortunately there was no good place to put my iPod when it was connected to the system; I had to set the device on the passenger seat, which only worked when I didn’t have a passenger.
The Compass Sport 4×4 I tested has a base price of $19,465. There was a $245 surcharge for the Deep Water Blue Pearl Coat exterior paint, $2125 for Customer Preferred Package 26E (Height adjustable driver’s seat, passenger assist handles, stain repellent premium cloth bucket seats, tinted rear glass, power windows and locks, keyless entry, cruise control, 60/40 split folding rear seat, 115 V power outlet, integrated rechargeable LED flashlight, map lights, and carpeted floor mats), $1295 for Sun and Sound Group (uconnect Satellite head unit, power sunroof with express open/close, Boston Acoustic speakers with subwoofer and MusicGate, articulating liftgate speakers, steering-wheel mounted audio controls, and leather-wrapped steering wheel), $1100 for CVT automatic transaxle, and $580 destination charge, for a total of $24,970.
There are a lot of vehicles competing against the Jeep Compass, most of which offer better looks, better interior packaging, and a better driving experience. The Compass is Jeep’s most car-like crossover vehicle, but that isn’t necessarily a great thing. While trying to make the Jeep brand more appealing to more consumers, the Compass really detracts from Jeep’s image as a manufacturer of capable off-road vehicles, and at the same time it highlights Chrysler’s problem of having too many similar, badge-engineered models, none of which are class-leading, let alone class-competitive. If Chrysler hopes to return to profitability, uninspired vehicles like the Compass need to be taken out of production, and funds spent instead on producing a single vehicle in each segment which has class-leading features. Doing anything less is only hastening Chrysler’s demise.
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