Walking up to the Jeep dealership, I nearly bumped into the Compass, idling in the gloom. Before I could assimilate its sheetmetal’s unintentional humor, Mike emerged from the fishbowl. His leather coat and tie were almost as dour as his face. My hand disappeared in his meaty paw as he greeted me with two words: “Take it.” My arched eyebrow worked its usual magic. “No really,” Mike insisted. “It’s got half a tank of gas. Take it for a long drive.” I waited for “and never come back.” No such luck. I mean, it would be lucky wouldn’t it? A free vehicle? I’d never driven a Compass. How bad could it be?
The Compass looks a fright. I have no idea of the designer’s remit. I assume it was something along the lines of “shrink a Cherokee, clad it like a Pontiac (clad it like it’s hot, clad it like its hot) and throw in some Audi Quattro cues. And cover up that rear window with some duct tape until we can call the supplier.” The result puts the patsy in pastiche.
The Compass’ interior is brought to you by ChryCo’s one-size-fits-all parts bin, assembled by workers who couldn’t care less if they were paid not to (as if). That said, I’m a big fan of minimalism– even it owes its existence to the kind of corporate cost-cutting that would fill Santa’s sack with coal. To my mind a Jeep– especially a cheap Jeep– has no business being fussy. Unfortunately, the design’s simplicity is assembled using the latest advances in paper-mâché plastics. The fake rivets on the fake aluminum piece on top of the almost dash-mounted autobox knob tells you all you need to know about that.
Once underway, the Compass’ central locking system emits an almighty KA-CHUNK. Having almost ripped off the graunching door on the way in (29k on the odometer), it was a reassuringly solid sound– that quickly revealed itself as something more sinister. I was trapped inside a cacophony of cheap. Incessant tire roar eliminated any idea that Jeep had traded off-road expertise for refinement. Turning onto a country road, the bouncing and jouncing suspension issued a series of muffled reports that sounded like a distant Civil War reenactment, and felt like a drug store shiatsu pad.
Our William C. Montgomery complained that the Compass’ 2.4-liter 172hp four-cylinder “world engine” didn’t have enough grunt to motivate the porky Jeeplet. My CVT-equipped model seemed fast enough for government work. If you use it to deliver mail in a gated suburb, you’re good to go. Despite the salesman’s implications, I felt no compulsion whatsoever to drive the Compass like I stole it. As the French would say (after a Gallic shrug) ca marche. And driving the Compass slowly brings you closer to optimal comfort (i.e. parked). If the Compass was a fuel-efficient vehicle, I’d cut it some slack. Jeep claims the non-Trail Rated four-seater’s 23/27 EPA numbers make it best in class. What class would that be? Detention?
Buying a Jeep for on-road handling is like downloading porn to savor the cinematography. That said, the Compass doesn’t roll excessively through the corners. If you’re pushing the vehicle beyond its safe, predictable limits, one way or another, you’re headed to the emergency room. On the other hand, the Compass’ four-wheel disc brakes are the exact opposite of my brother’s first wife: aggressive – passive. After a ferocious initial bite, they’re worryingly squidgy and vague. If a car is only as good as its brakes, d-i-v-o-r-c-e.
OK, off-road. Are you kidding? No? Setting aside Mike’s formidable size and the lingering scent of eau de desperation… no problem. Up, down and around. Bit of mud, some rocks. Fine. Obviously, we’re not talking about “real” off-roading. Just messing around in some fields and dirt tracks like you would with an old Toyota Corolla. Flooring it when you’re in danger of bogging down. Laughing like Hell if you are.
And here’s where fans of the Jeep brand get their rock-crawling knickers in a twist. A “real” Jeep is supposed to leap tall boundings in a single build. Goldly Bo where no Derrick has gone before. Brand zealot that I am, I couldn’t agree more. But I can agree less. The real problem with the Compass: it’s a thoroughly miserable car: noisy, slow, uncomfortable, inefficient and cheaply made, with A pillars large enough to support the colossus of roads.
I have no idea why anyone would choose a Compass over any number of similarly-priced new or used cars, SUVs or CUVs. Anyone doesn’t. When faced with a Compass, even Jeep snobs don”t lose their bearings. In fact, you’d have to have lost your marbles to buy one.