February 21, 2019

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Let us praise the virtues of simplicity. There’s nothing tricky, complex, or leading edge about the Jeep Compass in its bargain-priced Sport trim. It is straightforward engineering in a bare box, unpretentious at a time when pretense is the only thing some crossovers have going for them. It’s not luxurious and won’t readily scramble across Moab’s rocks. The level of refinement is, well, modest. It’s also not full of technology that will age rapidly and fail suddenly. This one didn’t even have an automatic transmission.

But it’s surprisingly not that unpleasant, even in—no, make that particularly in—this low-end, no-frills, DIY-shifting Sport form. It’s not quick, either. But hey, it costs only about a quarter of what a Grand Cherokee Trackhawk does.

The original Compass wore out its welcome within minutes of its debut as a 2007 model. It was crude, nasty handling, dog slow, and awkward looking. “The name says Jeep,” we summarized after our first encounter with the Compass, “but the vibe says cheap.” It was easy to hate on both the continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) and the tire noise. “At times the booming tire roar made the Compass no quieter than the cargo hold of a 747,” we wrote, as if we regularly flew in a 747’s cargo hold. The Compass’s fraternal twin, the boxier Patriot, was no better.

Under the skin, the new Compass is a slightly larger version of the subcompact Renegade. Which means there’s also plenty of Fiat 500X in this vehicle’s soul and not much in the way of innovation. It’s a conventional unibody, albeit with struts at every corner. In 4×4 versions, like this test vehicle, the rear suspension and differential are carried on a rubber-isolated steel subframe.

The Compass’s 103.8-inch wheelbase is 2.6 inches longer than the Renegade’s, and at 173.0 inches, the Compass is 6.4 inches longer overall but no wider. The longer wheelbase helps the Compass ride better than the Renegade but not by a wide margin.

The previous Compass used an utterly annoying CVT in most versions. But the new Compass has stepped up to a six-speed automatic in front-drive models and FCA’s sometimes frustrating nine-speed automatic in 4x4s. But our test example had the standard six-speed manual, and it is by far the best choice of the three.

The C635 six-speed manual’s lower four gears are relatively closely spaced, with fifth a 0.85:1 overdrive and sixth an off-the-cliff 0.67:1 overdrive. What’s good about this Italy-made transmission is that the manual operation allows the driver to hold any gear as long as they would like. That’s an enormous advantage with an engine that peaks at only 175 lb-ft of torque and needs to spin at 3900 rpm to achieve that figure. In low-traction situations, it makes maintaining forward progress far more straightforward than with an automatic.

And the shift action is pretty good. The stick moves with little effort, always finds the gears it’s supposed to find, and the clutch pedal’s action is light. No, it doesn’t operate with Glock-like certainty, nor does it have the playful character of the six-speed manual in a Mazda Miata. But up against the competition in its segment, the Compass is an engaging driving companion.

The Compass’s ace in the hole—okay, maybe it’s more like a jack or a queen—is the Active Drive all-wheel-drive system. In the Compass, Jeep reserves a more sophisticated system for the off-road-oriented Trailhawk, but the single-range system in the Sport is enough to keep the vehicle out of trouble in most sloppy situations. And when things get truly goofy, various programs optimized for driving in snow, sand, or mud can be selected.

Around town, the Compass usually operates as a front-wheel-drive vehicle, with some torque transferred to the rear wheels only when the lack of traction up front gets dire. It’s enough for most snowy conditions or when a dirt road turns to mud or when sand blows across the pavement but not much beyond that.

Our test vehicle was further equipped with the $595 Sport Appearance Group (aluminum wheels, tinted glass, and roof rails), the $695 Cold Weather Group (heated front seats, a heated leather-wrapped steering wheel, floor mats, and a windshield-wiper de-icer), and the $495 Technology Group (satellite radio and rear parking sensors). A $245 compact spare tire brought the total to $25,620. That’s very affordable for a useful, roomy vehicle with all-wheel drive. (We tested a 2017 Compass for this review; for the 2018 model year, prices have increased slightly, and the Technology Group adds a bunch more features than before.)

But the compromises are apparent. The 5.0-inch center-touchscreen display is so small as to restrict the backup camera’s usefulness, there’s not much in the way of support in the seats, and this is not a quiet cruiser. It never does anything untoward on the road, but it never does anything particularly entertaining or impressive, either. Roadholding is modest, with the Compass orbiting our skidpad at 0.80 g.

This Compass reached 60 mph from a stop in 8.4 seconds, confirming that the laws of physics still apply to 3416-pound Jeeps with 180 horsepower aboard. Don’t expect this engine to pull well in sixth gear—and it’s also not thrilled about fifth. Those two gears are overdrives, and they’re somewhat useful when cruising in them on an interstate, freeway, or down the eastern slope of the Rockies. But up the slightest grade, it feels as if a drag chute has just deployed. For many situations, fourth is the best cruising gear, and sometimes passing will mean dropping down to third.

In daily driving, there’s something fundamentally appealing about such an unpretentious machine. It’s the sort that will wear its parking-lot dings, shopping-cart scrapes, and scratched bumper covers with noble pride. It’s nothing special, and that makes it kind of special.

If you want driver engagement in this category of vehicle, you should buy a Mazda CX-5. And the Honda CR-V has it all over the Compass in terms of utility and refinement. But the least expensive all-wheel-drive CX-5 Sport and CR-V LX are almost $3000 more than the Compass Sport 4×4—with the difference likely even greater once dealer discounting comes into play. At this price-sensitive end of the market, that matters. In places like Montana, Vermont, or Colorado, where all-wheel drive is a virtual necessity and commutes are rarely stop and go, the Compass Sport 4×4 is an attractive alternative to yet another Subaru. And it looks more or less like a Jeep.

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