2008 Jeep Compass review: If Jeep built a car

2008 Jeep Compass

2008 Jeep Compass

If Jeep built a car, this is the car Jeep would build. Since Jeep did build the Compass, this is the car that Jeep built.

Seriously, to evaluate the Jeep Compass as an SUV entirely misses the point. Certainly the Compass has been classified as an SUV, but the Dodge Caliber, to which the Compass is but a grille and body panel away is rightly called an automobile.

Of course the Jeep name gets in the way of all this. Jeep has never made, regardless of owner during its sixty-plus year history, a car. There have been near misses such as the rear-drive Jeepster, which Enzo Ferrari called the American sports car, though we’ll take that as an insult. And there was Jeep’s so-called Station Wagon produced through 1962.

Then came the Compass.

2008 Jeep Compass dash

2008 Jeep Compass dash

Arriving in the 2007 model year, it’s not blindingly fast, and with the optional CVT (continuously variable transmission) it feels even less so, thanks to divorcing the sound of acceleration from the actual experience. And as just mentioned, there isn’t all that much speed with the Jeep Compass. On flat land, perhaps, the sluggardly feel isn’t as bad, particularly when driving on flat roads with a constant throttle. But with the off-and-on of a hilly winding road, the CVT-equipped Compass changes pitch like a yodeling goat.

The CVT’s optional “AutoStick” manual shift—an option on an option—is the cure for the common yodel. In AutoStick mode, it holds the chosen ratio regardless of load or rpm, whether lugging the engine or bouncing it off the rev limiter. Choosing to use AutoStick means choosing to monitor engine revs, because uphills will require downshifts because even the optional 2.4-liter four in out test Jeep Compass Limited (standard also with the Sport 4×4), there’s not enough gumption to pull uphill in a higher gear, er, ratio. But at least there will be no yodeling.

The Compass Sport with front-wheel drive and the base 2.0-liter engine and CVT will spend more time in yodel mode than the bigger, torquier engine. We’d opt for the standard five-speed stick, but that’s just us.

For a car made by Jeep, the ride is good—although less so for the same model if it had a carmaker logo on it—and the highway noise reasonably quiet. Handling, from any standpoint, won’t make E.T. phone home. It’s just sorta beige from behind the wheel.

Not literally beige, of course, but the interior won’t impress. Unlike some other Chrysler products, it won’t depress either. It’s neither car plush nor Jeep rugged. Seating is okay and the rear seat folds for extra cargo capacity as it should with a hatchback.

Jeep has several four-wheel drive systems, but only Freedom Drive I is offered on the Compass. It’s either that or front wheel drive, but we can’t imagine a Jeep that can’t put power to all four wheels. It would be too embarrassing to be stuck in the snow with a Jeep and have to explain that it’s just a wimpy front-drive version. Freedom Drive I is a full-time system but it also has a locking center differential that engages with the push of a button. With the center diff locked, the Compass shouldn’t be operated on dry pavement, but it will give an edge that simple all-wheel drive vehicles won’t have in deep or slippery snow, or on loose road surfaces.

Our test Jeep Compass was optioned up and included “inferno red crystal pearl” paint, which is something more of a deep tangerine, for $225. Other add-ons included an $800 sunroof, a navigation/6-CD changer (with a smallish screen) for $1,295, the “smoker’s group” (a $30 cigar lighter and ash try), premium audio that includes two fold-down speakers in the tailgate sure to annoy everyone else in the campground for $495, and shiny chromed aluminum 18 x 7.0 inch wheels for $425.

And then there’s the “Rallye Group.” It includes chrome rallye wheels (sic), a body-color kit, a spoiler over the rear window, and a chrome exhaust tip. Price? $1,850. Which also includes “Rallye” lettering on the front doors.

Seriously, Jeep, lost in the Seventies. No one has spelled it “Rallye” for, well, decades. It’s not even particularly good nostalgia.

Will all options, including another set of wheels replacing the wheels that came with the Rallye package, our 2009 Jeep Compass Limited 4×4 Rallye the price from $22,255 to $29,570 out the door, or close to double the base price of a Compass.

2008 Jeep Compass

2008 Jeep Compass

It doesn’t take a particularly keen eye to see the Jeep Compass as a modestly warmed over Dodge Caliber, and the customer’s decision between them should come down to styling, the locking center differential available only on the Jeep, the dealer’s deal…and whether a car from Jeep is a good idea, or just a peculiar page of automotive history.

However, the Jeep Compass may be a page of history about to turn, if industry watchers are correct. Word is that as a part of Chrysler’s plan to consolidate standalone dealers into Chrysler/Dodge/Jeep dealership, redundant models will be eliminated. So will the Compass survive the night of the long knives?

Well, the Jeep Compass is one of three small vehicles—also the Jeep Patriot and Dodge Caliber—made at Chrysler’s Belvidere, Illinois, factory. Say the analysts, the Compass is the shakiest. We find it hard to disagree. With the lowest sales of the three and a certain amount of overlap in the Jeep line—plus some confusion about whether Jeep should be selling a non-Trail Rated model—the Compass may be about to go south.

So is you have a particular hankering for a Jeep Compass, or want a Dodge Caliber but with a rugged all-wheel drive system, we suggest taking a heading towards your local Jeep dealership. Time may be short.

Note: Photos not representative of tested vehicle