Another good idea poorly executed by Jeep – did the Compass simply start out with bad directions?
By the mid-2000’s it was becoming clear that the market for SUV-type vehicles was changing. The vast majority of buyers liked the looks and versatility of such vehicles, but never put their off-road abilities to the test on anything more challenging than a high kerb in the supermarket car park. Good ground clearance and steep approach and departure angles were largely irrelevant to such customers. What buyers really wanted was to have the image of an SUV coupled with comfortable, well equipped interiors refined on-road driving dynamics.
Jeep, which had always majored on its vehicles’ off-road prowess, realised that it needed to adapt and broaden its market share to include these urban-based (and biased) customers. According to Michael Berube, Jeep’s Senior Marketing Manager, the company was forecasting the market for compact SUVs to double in five years and thought it could triple in a decade.
This expectation led to the development of a closely related pair of new models, the 2006 Patriot and 2007 Compass. Both were what would now be termed compact crossovers. The Patriot, which looked like a scaled-down Jeep Commander, was only offered in 4WD form and was aimed at customers who were looking for traditional Jeep virtues in a more compact and affordable package. The name chosen for the new model, as well as the one chosen for its 4WD system, Freedom Drive II, were clearly designed to appeal to the sensibilities of its anticipated largely rural customer base.
The Compass, however, was aimed at a new market for Jeep, urban customers who liked the idea of an SUV but did not need or want the compromises that traditionally came with such vehicles. Like the Patriot, the Compass was based on a platform developed jointly by Daimler-Chrysler and Mitsubishi, one which also underpinned the closely related Dodge Caliber hatchback. Unlike the Patriot, the entry-level Compass was offered with front-wheel-drive, the first Jeep to do so. The Compass was pitched directly at customers who were not currently Jeep owners but might be considering a Toyota Rav4, Honda CR-V or Land-Rover Freelander(1) soft-roader.
The Compass’s transversely installed engines were all inline-fours, petrol units in 2.0 and 2.4-litre capacities and turbo-diesel units in 2.0 and 2.2-litre capacities. The smaller diesel was sourced from Volkswagen, the larger was a Mercedes-Benz unit. Transmissions were five and six-speed manual gearboxes, a six-speed automatic and a CVT unit.
The US Car and Driver magazine tested the Compass in 2.4-litre petrol form with CVT in September 2006. Despite the badging, it was, according to the reviewer, “a station wagon pumped up to SUV dimensions, and not a Jeep”. Steering, handling, body control and ride quality were good on suburban roads, although coarse-surfaced highways caused “booming tire roar [that] made the Compass no quieter than the cargo hold of a 747”. This was attributed to optional 18” alloy wheels with low-profile tyres and “a shortage of sound insulation”.
Performance was acceptable, with a 0 to 60mph (97km/h) time of 9.5 seconds, although the CVT gearbox made the constant 6,000rpm drone from the engine under hard acceleration not particularly pleasant to hear. Average fuel economy on test was 24mpg US (28.8mpg imperial, 8.17 L/100km).
Interior accommodation was satisfactory with good head and legroom, although the boot space was limited to 23 cubic feet (651 litres) by the internal spare wheel stowage. The quality of the interior trim came in for heavy criticism, however. “Injection-molded out of flinty plastic with all the passion of a rubbish-bin lid, the dash has barely a whiff of the polish of the CR-V and RAV4 and none of the design spirit of the PT Cruiser. Jagged mold-part seams are easy to find. Some gaps are huge, others are wavy.”
When the Compass arrived in the UK in early 2007, Autocar magazine was similarly underwhelmed. The test car was a 2-litre diesel model with a six-speed manual transmission and 4WD. The engine was “much less refined than in its VW applications and gutless below 2000rpm” but the “slick” gearchange was some compensation. The interior was described bluntly, like that of the Dodge Caliber, as “sub-standard”. The magazine’s verdict was that “the Rav4, CR-V and Freelander are all better cars, albeit more expensive than the Compass”, but its keenest competition came from the similarly priced Nissan Qashqai, which was “much better engineered and finished”.
Styling is, of course, subjective, but the Compass always looked awkward and over-bodied to these eyes, with its boxy wheel arches, ‘hidden’ rear door handles, wide triangular C-pillars and frog-eye circular headlamps positioned unusually far inboard. A facelift in 2011 resolved the latter issue successfully with a wider and shallower grille flanked by properly integrated rectangular headlamps, but could do nothing about the other issues. Even so, the more conventionally attractive front end caused a noticeable jump in sales.
US and European sales data for the Compass are tabled below:
Total US and European sales over a decade were 427,766(2) units. By comparison, the Jeep Patriot sold 590,842 units over a nine-year period from 2007 to 2016. These numbers do not look embarrassing until they are compared to sales of the Toyota Rav4 in the US and Europe over the same decade, a total of just under 2.5 million units. This gives an indication of the scale of the market for compact crossovers and, in particular, by how much the Compass fell short, despite the resonance of the Jeep marque name.
(1) The 2006 second-generation Freelander was sold as the LR2 in the US, to disassociate it from the reliability issues associated with the first-generation model.
(2) All sales data from www.carsalesbase.com.