boston.com   your connection to The Boston Globe

(Daimlerchrysler Photo)

A different direction for Jeep

Despite heritage, Compass is meant to stay on the road

THE BASICS
Base price/as tested: $21,180/$25,115
Fuel economy: 27.3 miles per gallon in Globe testing
Annual fuel cost: $1,343 (at $2.82 per gallon, regular, 13,000 miles per year)

THE EARLY LINE
Jeep's trademark off-road capabilities have earned a loyal following, but there's a much bigger population of drivers who never leave paved roads. Folks, this Jeep is for you.

THE SPECIFICS
Drivetrain: 2.4-liter, 16-valve, 4-cylinder
Seating: Five
Horsepower: 172
Torque: 165 lb.-ft.
Length: 173.4 inches
Wheelbase: 103.7 inches
Height: 65.2 inches
Width: 69.3 inches
Curb weight: 3,329 pounds

THE SKINNY
Nice touch: The height of an average four-wheel-drive vehicle means a big step up . Not so in the Compass.
Annoyance: The sliding center console/armrest. It's designed to slide back and forth to accommodate shorter and taller drivers. You can imagine that once the mechanism wears it will slide back and forth under acceleration and braking.
Watch for: The Jeep Patriot. This will be the off-road-capable small SUV sibling of the Compass.

...

Jeep has put itself in somewhat of a compromising position with its 2007 Compass, a compact SUV that, styling wise, shows all the lines of being a full-fledged member of the family . But there's one thing missing from this new model: the Jeep brand's off-roading gene.

And that's by design. Jeep wants to sell product to the big market of drivers who never go off road unless they happen to be playing with a cellphone, iPod, or radio when they should be concentrating on braking on an exit ramp.

Meanwhile, real off-roaders already know all about Jeep's Wrangler, Cherokee, Commander, and Patriot models.

So Jeep pointed this Compass in a different direction, and we also approached it in that vein -- accepting it as a car-based vehicle intended for highway driving, albeit with its Jeep styling .

We were left with two overriding driving impressions:

1. The Compass handles surprisingly well on the road.

2. The four-cylinder (2.4 liter, 172 horsepower) ``world engine" delivered surprisingly good mileage (27.3 miles per gallon in our mostly highway testing) but labored in acceleration when mated to the test car's continuously variable transaxle .

A few years ago, the CVT would have been a hard sell in this corner because it was a new take on the transmission, an expensive-to-replace component. Many mini van owners had troubles with past Chrysler transmissions.

A second reason to hesitate: The CVT is different. It doesn't feel like what we're accustomed to driving.

Outside of one early shift (first to second), the six-speed unit is seamless. You simply don't feel or hear it shift, either via the seat of your pants or by a change in engine speed. On various starts, we applied steady pressure to the gas pedal, keeping the revs first at 2,200 revolutions per minute then trying it at 1,500, 2,000, and 2,500 revolutions per minute. The tachometer would make one drop of about 300 rpm on that first shift, then return quickly to the chosen number and remain steady as the Compass accelerated gradually.

DaimlerChrysler says the combination of the world engine and continuously variable transaxle should offer a 6- to 8-percent improvement in fuel economy. Our test vehicle -- the Limited model with four-wheel drive -- is the line's heaviest, but still delivered 27.3 miles per gallon on a drive to New Hampshire that included a full loop around Lake Winnipesaukee.

While the transmission seems to change infinitely, you can find six distinct gears by going into manual mode.

To get there, move the gear selector to the left or right -- assuming your Compass has the optional Autostick transaxle -- and it immediately goes into a manual mode. Flick it left and you downshift; right and you upshift. And the tachometer, so steady in drive mode, jumps up and down as the engine revs change accordingly. Manual shifts are instant and clearly noticeable. Electronic rev limiters prevent you from over-revving the engine if you get too ambitious on downshifts or forget to upshift.

To switch back to normal drive operation, hold the shifter to the right for several seconds.

The Compass is faithful to Jeep's styling and its mix of Spartan and luxury interior. There's a big plastic dashboard in front and straightforward gauges and dials. It's all intuitive, including a simple cruise control button that might have come off a Subaru or Toyota.

There's a full array of the features we look for in today's market: antilock brake system, traction control, stability control, and a roll mitigation system. The all-wheel-drive system couldn't be easier to activate. Pull the lever on the center console and it's engaged; pull it again to disengage.

We liked the styling, with unmistakable Jeep boxiness, grille, and roofline. In addition, the designers also hid the back door latch up by the window and put a very short back door line between the window and wheel well. At first glance you don't notice any rear doors.

Autoweek magazine, in one of its weekly polls, asked readers how they thought this ``soft-roader" would do. The results: Full-blown hit (8.7 percent); OK (38.7 percent); Not too well (22.7 percent), Flop (29.8 percent). By not trying to please all of the people, Jeep may have found just enough of a new market niche.

This looks like a keeper.

HONDA ELEMENT Offers the ``funky factor" as its trademarks with hose-it-out ability to get down and dirty. Lacks stability and traction control unlike its refined sibling the CR-V. Priced at between $18,000 and $23,000.

KIA SPORTAGE Totally redesigned for 2006, it has an available V6 and offers traction and stability control along with its 10-year, 100,000-mile drivetrain warranty. Priced at between $15,900 and $22,500.

FORD ESCAPE An established design. Available in V6 or hybrid configurations that are a better pick than the base four-cylinder engine. Priced at between $19.200 and $26,400.


(Daimlerchrysler Photo)
SEARCH THE ARCHIVES