Jeep Compass Reporting For Combo Car Duty, Sir

by Ur-Turn
jeep compass reporting for combo car duty sir

Editor’s Note: Yes, yes, I know there weren’t many reader submissions posted this week — but fear not! We are working our way through the wave of emails. Thank you all for sharing. Next up: Justin Hughes of wringing every last horsepower possible out of a rental Compass. Enjoy! —Mark

What do you do with a car that wants so badly to be an off-road vehicle, but can’t actually go off-road?

Take it to a rally.

When I was rear-ended a couple of years ago, I ended up driving a Jeep Compass while my car was in the shop being fixed. The Compass is almost entirely unlike my Subaru BRZ. The reviews I read said the Compass was incredibly similar to its mechanical twin, the Dodge Caliber — only not as good. And it’s not like the Caliber has an outstanding reputation to begin with.

I never expected the Compass to offer performance like my BRZ, but man, what a letdown. The 2.4-liter four banger didn’t feel like it was blessed with its rated 172 horsepower; it constantly whined like a wind-up toy. The transmission downshifted if I even thought about increasing speed, which would cause an abrupt lurch before the engine increased its wailing ways. Like a cruel jockey, the transmission was trying to whip horsepower from the engine, which would then give its Scott-ish reply, “I’m givin’ it all she’s got, Captain! If I give ‘er any more, she’s gonna blow!” At least I could shift the Compass’ gears manually to stop this madness, and sometimes I did just to save myself from having to listen to its mechanical sadism. I quickly named this car the Penalty Box, as it felt like my penance for crashing my BRZ.

The Compass is a poseur, plain and simple. It wants so badly to be like its big brother, the Grand Cherokee, but it doesn’t measure up. It wants to be powerful, which is why the transmission is so eager to downshift at the slightest provocation. It wants to have a real four-wheel-drive system like other Jeeps. It wants to be an off-road vehicle. Instead, the power isn’t there no matter what gear the Compass is keen to select, it has a flimsy chrome switch in place of a hefty, 4×4 transfer-case lever, and the best place for it to play is between the ditches. This particular Compass wasn’t even “Trail Rated,” whatever that means. It tries way too hard to be something it’s not — a real Jeep.

My wife and I drove her Jeep Liberty as a sweep vehicle at the Empire State Performance Rally earlier that year. Amazingly, we didn’t kill each other, so we volunteered to drive the Penalty Box as the Combo Car — a car that performs a combination of sweep and course opening duties — at Black River Stages. As potential first responders to a motorcycle mishap, and because the stages were closed to other traffic, we hustled right along at a safe but brisk pace.

This, of all places, is where the Compass actually came alive.

I ran it in 4WD with traction control off and the transmission in manual mode to hold the gears I wanted. I had to shift with prediction in mind as the transmission was slow to effect my requested ratios. The Compass was surprisingly competent at speed. Its car-like handling was an advantage on these gravel roads. It was wider and more stable than the Liberty. I could left-foot brake through the turns, which induced a slight drift as I stayed on the power to maintain speed. The electronic nannies only kicked in once or twice all weekend. It was remarkably tossable. The brakes never faded and the suspension never bottomed out.

Keep in mind that I was not driving flat out. We were volunteers, not competitors. I slowed down approaching every blind crest in case there was a bike down on the other side and we needed to stop. We had no stage notes, only the road book and an odometer app that my wife used to call out instructions to me as we approached intersections, bridges, and jumps. That said, her app did time our run down the first stage to be only 20 seconds behind the slowest competitor to successfully finish. Wisely, she never told me another stage time. This was a deliberate choice on her part to bypass my competitive streak that might try to improve on my previous run. Good co-driver, keeping her driver under control. But the fact that we did have that pace, without notes, in a stupid Jeep Compass, convinced us that we wanted to try competing in a real rally, with a real rally car, someday.

Back to the Penalty Box. I took our first run down the Goose Pond stage, known for its big jumps, pretty easy. Two years ago, when I was co-driving the course opening car, we went flying off a jump that had its mileage marked incorrectly in the road book. We landed hard, denting his skid plate and bending his radiator support slightly. I was wary of similar mistakes, especially as our bone-stock Compass had no skid plate. Fortunately, the book was dead on accurate this time. We approached a big jump with many spectators, and I slowed down so we wouldn’t launch into low-earth orbit. But the jump had such a kick at the crest that it felt just like the scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off where the valet parking guys launch the Ferrari into the air to the theme from Star Wars. John Hughes (no relation to me) must have actually jumped a car himself. He captured the experience of time slowing down while in mid-air perfectly. The planet fell out from under us, and the hang time felt like minutes rather than the second or so it actually was. Amazingly, the Compass took the landing in stride. The suspension had enough travel to soak it up, and we continued down the stage as though nothing had happened. Meanwhile, my wife/co-driver was having difficulty giving me the next instruction because we were both laughing so hard.

Later on, we were waiting to run Goose Pond a second time while the road was open and some spectators drove out of the stage. One of them stopped next to me and insisted on giving me a high five for that jump.

The Compass completed the rally and made it home with no issues whatsoever. It seems that the only place where an off-road-but-not-really-off-road SUV-but-not-really-an-SUV works is on a gravel rally stage. So, if all of your driving consists of bombing down rally stages as a course car, buy a Jeep Compass while you still can. Otherwise, skip it and buy something else.

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3 of 24 comments
  • Sgeffe Sgeffe on Aug 27, 2016

    Had one of these excreable things a week ago when the Accord was in the body shop after an Ohio DUI-plated neanderthal backed into my bumper. (Eyebrow piercings, ferchrissakes -- if I would've REALLY gone off and clocked him, I'd be facing MURDER, not just assault, charges!!!) Perhaps it was my right shoulder that was frigged-up from helping move a week earlier, but the driving position just sucked! And that wheezy 2.4! Only the six-speed slusher, with better-spaced ratios to keep things on the boil, kept me from bestowing my "worst car I've ever driven" title on it! (That was a 2014 Avenger with a four-speed auto!) This was a Nationwide captive-vendor Enterprise rental. (Was advised not to deal with the other driver's insurance.) If there is a next time, since I'm batting 1,000 on getting Fiatsler's worst (aforementioned Avenger was as a result of my bumping a sign stanchion), I'll reserve a guaranteed midsize, then pay the difference out-of-pocket!

  • Ajla Ajla on Aug 27, 2016

    Anyone remember the Jeep Compass Rallye Edition that came out for 2007? The website for it still exists.

    • Corey Lewis Corey Lewis on Aug 29, 2016

      I have had the misfortune of seeing those in traffic. What a mess.

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