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Compass points Jeep in direction of future SUVs
By John Gilbert, special to SNS Interactive

PORTLAND, Ore. (SNS) – When it comes to getting out of the wilderness, the first automotive name that springs to mind is "Jeep."

For current times, when $3.00 per gallon gasoline prices underscore a trend toward less-expensive commuter vehicles, small-family haulers, or active-lifestyle fun SUVs, Jeep has a new answer: the 2007 Compass.


What could be a more appropriate name than Compass to lead buyers who are lost in the auto-buying wilderness?

At the media introduction of the Jeep Compass, it seems some other automotive journalists muttered that the Compass is too cute to be taken seriously as a Jeep. Hmmm…have we reached the level of sophistication that we don’t want out vehicle to look good? I’m not a subscriber to that theory.

I think that if the Compass happens to offer a fresh look that attracts more young, active singles or just-married types, or – careful now – female buyers, that’s not a problem; it’s an asset.

If guys find the attractive looks and smooth lines beneath their macho standards, then that’s a guy problem. More self-assured guys will appreciate getting nearly 30 miles per gallon, having their four-wheel drive come from a front-wheel-drive platform, and being "forced" to spend about half – under $20,000 for most models – for a Compass that is comfortable and enjoyable to drive on the road.

The problem is that the Jeep name is one of the most recognizable in the world, and it has stood for rugged, uncompromising off-road vehicles since Willys-Overland first made the "Quad" vehicle for the U.S. military in 1941 – 65 years ago. Those vehicles became known as Jeeps after 368,000 of them were used during World War II.

The company, now owned by DaimlerChrysler, continues to make the Wrangler, which is the traditional successor to the first Jeeps. A larger and more civilized vehicle called the Cherokee and now the Grand Cherokee was joined by the Lilberty to give Jeep three nameplates in recent years.

But by the time the 2007 rollout is complete, Jeep will be up to seven vehicles.

The new and larger Commander, introduced this year, and a redesigned Wrangler, are joined by a Wrangler Unlimited – lengthened and with four doors -- now being joined by the Compass. A new Patriot will be coming by the end of the year to make it seven.

  In reality, the Patriot may be a more rugged version of the Compass, because Jeep is aiming at two different brackets – traditional and modern. The Patriot will go for the traditional Jeep buyer, and the Compass is aimed modern, at people who may have never considered a Jeep before, but will find it meets their demands for size, style, price, fuel-efficiency, and capability.

While fitting in well in performance and capability with any compact SUV, the Compass also seriously undercuts almost all of them in price. The base two-wheel-drive model starts at $15,995.

The base 4x4 model starts at $17,585. Moving up to the fancier models, with an impressive list of features and options, the Compass Limited starts at $20,140, and the Compass Limited 4x4 starts at $21,740.

The Compass starts out on the same platform, and with the same drivetrains, as the new Dodge Caliber, which has been wildly successful since its introduction.

But the Compass has an entirely different look, and different intentions.

From our preliminary introductory drive, the Compass can easily handle the casual, or active-lifestyle off-roading challenges that most people this side of serious rock-crawlers will find satisfying.

At the introduction, we drove from downtown Portland westward to the Pacific Ocean. We had lunch at Pacific City, where halibut fish and chips could be enjoyed at a neat restaurant called the Pelican Pub at Cape Kiwanda, looking out at an awesome off-shore rock formation.

Haystack Rock is taller than Seattle’s Space Needle, and is actually a mile offshore, even though it appears to be about 100 yards out.

After that, we headed north, entering a carefully protected sand-dune area, where we joined a flock of off-road buggies to challenge some major ridges and hills and terrain that amounts to mountains of soft, sinkable sand.

It was there that I became very impressed with the Compass’s CVT2 – continuously variable transmission.

The Compass uses the new, Michigan-built, corporate 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine, originally designed in a joint venture with Hyundai and Mitsubishi.

Hyundai engineers came up with the most efficient original design adopted as meeting world-class standards for technology and power – 172 horsepower and 165 foot-pounds of torque. A transverse mount allows a shorter hood length and efficiently mounts on a transaxle to make it Jeep’s first front-wheel-drive vehicle.

The engine, with dual overhead camshafts and variable valve timing, adapts well to Freedom Drive I, a new 4x4 system that transmits power back to the rear axle, as conditions demand. It also runs through a base stick shift, or an automatic, which includes the optional continuously variable transmission.

This CVT2 is ingeniously designed to allow hand-shifting the AutoStick, which actually squeezes the continuously shifting belt to put you in a different gear ratio.

That worked well on the highway, where I wanted to pass a slower vehicle. Knowing a CVT might be tardy in building up extra torque, I manually downshifted two gears and our Compass sprinted away on its assigned task. But in those sand dunes, it really came through.

Driving with a specialized instructor in the passenger seat, we easily climbed some normal sized dunes. Then he asked me to try to conquer one that he had never even tried. When scaling the icy slopes of Duluth, I’ve learned that the same instincts work in off-roading. When you get some momentum, you keep it.

At one point, the Compass wheels were churning and throwing sand, and I honestly thought we would go no higher.

With a stick, I would have let off for fear of over-revving the engine, and we’d have been stuck. Instead, I stayed on the power, sawed the steering wheel back and forth, and, let the CVT select its own self-adjusting point of adequate power, and we made it to the top.

The instructor was impressed, and I could only think how well the Compass would work in January, scaling those steep ice and snow covered avenues in Duluth. We had an awesome vista of the Pacific Ocean from atop that dune, then we drove down onto the beach and actually drove through some shallow surf. No problem.

The Compass interior is contemporary and ergonomically efficient. You sit higher than the Caliber, which is less-designed for any off-roading. The Compass roof is 2 inches higher, and you actually sit 4 inches higher than the seat point in the Caliber.

The Compass also has 8.4 inches of ground clearance, a 20.6-degree approach angle, 32-degree departure angle, and 21-degree breakover angle – all better than the Caliber.

There is a switch to lock the four-wheel-drive in place for serious off-roaders, and traction and stability controls all contribute to the Compass’s directional balance and control.

From an appearance standpoint, the Compass has a little reverse pillar at the rear that adds flair, and bulging rear wheelwells add a serious look, but up front, the "cuteness" also has the traditional Jeep grilled and forward look, with a clamshell hood opening.

Standard 17-inch wheels are standard, with 18-inchers on the Limited upgrade models.

A fold-down rear seat that also is recline-able, and spacious footwells, with a sizeable cargo area in the rear, provides a roomy interior.

You can add things like a nine-speaker Boston Acoustics audio upgrade, with large speakers in the rear doors, and 6x9 inch speakers up front. Leather seating comes standard on the Limited.

Jeep is marketing the Compass at younger buyers, maybe single, and both male and female. The primary aim is active-lifestyle types, but on a starting income. Average household income of $60,000, and age targets of 25-35, quite likely buying their first new vehicle, all fit into the demographics.

Of course, those targets mean nothing if you happen to be old, experienced, wealthy, or not wealthy, but you simply like what it will do for a bargain price.

If you wanted the top of the line Compass, loaded with every option possible, you could probably get it up to $23,000. But a budget-minded shopper could get a well-appointed 4x4 version for under $20,000.

For that, you get technology, good power, good mileage, electronic roll mitigation, antilock brakes, and off-road capabilities that seem surprising because of how impressive the Compass is on the road and for normal creature-features.

If the Compass also happens to look good, compared to some of the more rugged-faced Jeeps, well, that’s just something buyers will have to put up with.

Editor's note: John Gilbert writes weekly auto reviews. He can be reached at cars@jwgilbert.com.