2007 Jeep Compass review

After producing only one car on one shift for years, Chrysler Group promised a trio of machines from its Belvidere plant this year to keep the workers and company treasurer happy.

First up was the Dodge Caliber crossover, which has been in showrooms since March.

Now comes a derivative, the Compass, a new entry-level Jeep.

Jeep calls it a sport-utility vehicle. Though graced with the traditional seven-slot Jeep grille and single round headlamps, it definitely looks like a crossover, the marriage of sedan with wagon.

By year-end Caliber and Compass will be joined at Belvidere by the Jeep Patriot, a machine with more the rugged look as well as character of an SUV.

Patriot will supplant Compass as Jeep's entry-level vehicle. No word on Patriot price, but Jeep promises it will be less than the $15,985 base (including freight) on Compass that's now arriving in dealerships.

Caliber has proved so popular that it's in short supply. It generally comes right off the truck and straight out the door.

Have to suspect Compass isn't going to gather any dust, either. While sporting a different look, Compass boasts the same enjoyable ride, handling, comfort, performance and cargo and people-carrying features that have kept the Caliber in short supply.

Chrysler Group won't say how many it will build, noting only that with three models in one plant, it can shift production with demand. The plant can produce about 300,000 units on three shifts.

The goal is to attract 20- to 40-somethings with income around $60,000, folks who never considered a Jeep before because the rugged, small Wrangler wasn't to their liking.

Jeep says market research indicates women will flock to Compass, and men will stampede to Patriot.

Compass is the first Jeep that isn't trail-rated, meaning it's not meant for off-road adventures. It's more carlike for the daily commute and weekend getaways via the interstate. Patriot will be better able to handle rugged trails.

Compass comes in Sport and Limited versions with a choice of front- or four-wheel-drive.

We tested the top-of-the-line 4WD Limited. For the most part it operates in FWD until it senses wheel slippage. Then, it directs more torque to the rear wheels.

A little lever in the center console lifts to engage 4WD full time, and 4WD lettering lights in the dash when you do, though it's so small a magnifying glass should be standard.

Unlike Caliber, which offers three 4-cylinder engine choices--a 1.8-, 2- and 2.4-liter--Compass comes with only a 2.4-liter, 172-horsepower 4. But it boasts plenty of power to keep up with or lead the pack. Even steep inclines didn't give it a case of the droops.

A 5-speed manual is standard, but the test vehicle came with the optional ($1,150) continuously variable transmission, which has an infinite number of gear ratios, and Autostick, the clutchless manual that allows you to move up or down gears by tapping the shift lever.

The 4-cylinder is rated at 23 m.p.g. city/26 m.p.g. highway with the CVT. Because the Limited with 4WD tips the scales at more than 3,400 pounds, fuel economy falls short of the 30 m.p.g. that would make the crossover even more desirable.

With the 5-speed manual the mileage rating is 25/29, thisclose to the magic 30. Chrysler boasts this is the first Jeep to offer fuel economy "near 30 m.p.g. on the highway." If it got more than 30 with manual, near 30 with automatic, the boast would be easier to accept.

Because Compass is targeted at those who travel on- rather than off-road, fully independent suspension provides a well-cushioned ride to minimize road harshness.

Standard 18-inch all-season performance tires contribute to rather agile handling in what basically is an econocrossover.

Kudos to Jeep for making electronic stability control with traction and roll mitigation control standard. These systems keep you moving in the direction pointed without wandering--or, worse, going wheels up--by employing the anti-lock brakes and throttle control when needed. You usually don't find these systems at the entry level, unless it's entry-level luxury.

A nice touch is the host of surprise-and-delight features you also don't expect in an entry-level compact, such as:

- A flip-open cover on the center console armrest that holds and conceals your cell phone or MP3 player, storage space in the dash in front of the passenger, a deep storage hold under the center armrest and a 115-volt outlet for your computer in front of the armrest.

- A center armrest that slides forward 3 inches so shorter drivers can use it, a washable rear cargo-hold floor mat, storage in all four doors, grab handles above all doors with clothes hooks on the rear door handles.

Of special note, there's a pull-out flashlight in the ceiling above the cargo hold. You seldom need a flashlight, but it's invaluable when you do. The flashlight's compartment doubles as a recharger.

And since Compass is more suited for on-road, it sits low to the ground, low enough so you can reach the roof luggage rack without a stepladder. Being low-slung and wide also contributes to stable road manners.

Couple gripes, however. The 60/40 split rear seat backs recline as well as fold flat for added cargo capacity, but the built-in headrests are wide and limit rear visibility.

And it's nice to have a shade to hide items in the cargo hold. But when you fold the seat backs for more space, the shade gets in the way of loading and unloading. You have to remove it, which means it's going to rattle on the floor.

The Compass Sport starts at $15,425; the Limited at $21,180.

Standard equipment includes air conditioning; rear-window washer/wiper/defroster; side-curtain air bags; power door locks/mirrors/windows; a 12-volt power outlet; heated, leather-trimmed seats (heated cloth seats are optional on the Sport); AM/FM stereo with single CD player; cruise control; tilt steering; driver information center; keyless entry; and compact spare.

The test vehicle added a sound system upgrade with nine speakers and AM/FM with six-disc CD player and MP3 player capability for $780, power sunroof for $800 and Sirius satellite radio for $195. If you want a compass for your Compass, the $425 convenience group offers one. Smokers can add an ashtray and lighter for $30 or settle for an empty pop can and a Bic.

Jeep is counting on compact SUV volume swelling as high gas prices force folks out of midsize models. The expectation is that sales should double to more than 600,000 units by 2010 and almost triple to more than 800,000 by 2016.

That's why Compass and Patriot are joining the lineup.

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