What A Difference A New Face Makes

2011 Jeep Compass
2011 Jeep Compass Limited – Click above for high-res image gallery

The needle is finally pointed in the right direction.

The original 2007 Jeep Compass was the first production Jeep that wasn't. Beyond its "Jeep" badge and trademark seven-bar grille, the Compass was a compact crossover derived from the front-wheel-drive Dodge Caliber, a product that lacked the hardware and personality to provide the foundation for a genuine Jeep.

Hampered by ungainly styling, modest power and no transfer case, the Compass never achieved much success on trails or in showrooms. Compass sales always lagged behind the Caliber and its closer platform relative, the Jeep Patriot. In short, the Compass didn't accomplish its mission of being an attractive entry-level Jeep for shoppers who aspired to own a Grand Cherokee but couldn't afford a real Jeep.

Chrysler improved the Compass's interior for 2009, but given the national economic climate and the company's bankruptcy, it's likely that even more substantial product changes wouldn't have moved the sales needle. Things should be a bit different for the 2011 model year.

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Photos copyright ©2010 Rex Roy / AOL, Jeep

Who knew a facelift could be so effective? The external transformation of the 2010 to 2011 Compass is nearly a Joy Behar to Scarlett Johansson metamorphosis. Gone is the look Jeep design chief Mark Allen described as "cartoonish," and grafted in its place is a three-quarter scale Grand Cherokee front clip. Everything forward of the A-pillar is cosmetically new.

The front end looks so good you want to ignore the mostly carryover profile and rear end. With limited time and money, designers were unable to do more than add some lower cladding (for durability) and swap out the old incandescent-bulb taillamps for new LED units.

2011 Jeep Compass Limited side view2011 Jeep Compass Limited front view2011 Jeep Compass Limited rear view

To satisfy most shoppers, Jeep could have stopped with changing the exterior. They didn't. Additional changes were made to improve comfort and driving dynamics.

"This body has always had an issue with road noise," explained Chief Engineer Brian Nathan. "We've added panel pads and insulation in a number of places to mitigate the noise and quiet things down." The efforts were generally successful. The Compass' cabin is fairly quiet for a compact crossover, but you'd never mistake it for a Lexus or a Lincoln.

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Designers have also changed some interior bits and pieces to make the Compass' cabin more livable. The door panels and center armrest now feature soft-touch surfaces in place of hard plastic. These limited changes significantly improve one's initial impression of the interior and facilitate long-distance comfort. The slightly elevated view forward is also good, helping make the Compass feel easy to drive.

Another contributing factor to overall comfort are the changes in springs and dampers. Nathan explained that spring rates are up 20 percent and the dampers at each corner are similar in design to those used on the Grand Cherokee; they employ built-in rebound springs to better control ride motion. The front and rear stabilizer bars are also stiffer by about 10 percent. The result is a more buttoned down ride and (the perception of) improved on-road handling.

The power steering unit remains a traditional hydraulic unit. Feedback and on-center feel are good, but no better than the best electrically powered units that have become the new standard. We asked whether EPAS might come to the Compass to help improve fuel mileage. Manufacturers don't often talk about future products, but they did respond to this question with a question, "Would it be financially wise to embark on a new power steering development program for a vehicle that is nearing the end of its lifecycle?" Probably not if you figure the Compass' final model year is likely to be 2013 or thereabouts.

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Regarding on-road performance, our experience was limited to a Compass Limited 4x4 ($25,995) equipped with the 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine and CVT. As equipped ($29,380), this baby GC comfortably traversed the meandering two-lanes that followed Wyoming's Snake River.

The 2.4-liter's 172-horsepower provided adequate acceleration, but these days, zero-to-60 times in the nine-second range feel slow. "CVTs like torque, and unfortunately, the Compass' two engines don't produce huge torque numbers. For 2011, we modified engine and CVT mapping to deliver better response and we shaved about half a second to 60," said Nathan. The 2.4-liter puts out 165 pound-feet once the tach swings past 4,400 rpm. Throttle response, though, has improved over past Compass models we've driven.

We did not sample a Compass with the standard 2.0-liter engine that makes just 158 hp and 141 lb-ft of torque. With more than 1.5 tons to haul around, we're okay with that.

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All of the above mattered little when we pointed the Compass off-road. Any Compass can now be equipped with the proper kit to be "Trail Rated," a Jeep-calculated metric that factors in many characteristics such as approach angle, departure angle, break-over angle and ground clearance. Trail Rated Compasses ride one inch higher than standard editions. While being Trail Rated doesn't guarantee Rubicon or Moab trail-conquering capabilities, this little Jeep will tackle tougher off-road adventures than most of its potential buyers would ever dare attempt.

The driveline for Trail Rated Compass models includes a dedicated CVT unit that has a lower off-road-only "gear" that offers a 19:1 crawl ratio. When this ratio is engaged along with the 4WD Lock switch (that engages the rear Electronically Controlled Coupling for the rear differential for a fixed 50:50 torque split), the Compass can pull itself through some tough stuff. The front and rear differentials are open, so torque is shifted side-to-side using brake intervention. While not the choice for serious off-road machines, the Compass isn't, so the existing technology suffices.

Priced in line with the Honda CR-V, the MSRP indicates some hubris given Chrysler's history and current status. The Compass doesn't represent the same value as a CR-V or Toyota RAV4, and more closely aligns with vehicles like the Nissan Rogue and Hyundai Tucson in size and shape. Other U.S. automakers have been aggressive with their pricing to provide shoppers another reason to consider "Buying American" beyond just improved hardware. According to David Cole of the Center for Automotive Research, Chrysler has lowered it's cost per vehicle by upwards of $5,000 because of the debt and liabilities shed through bankruptcy. A fraction of that savings applied to the Compass' MSRP would go a long way towards wooing more shoppers into Jeep showrooms to rediscover the nameplate.

Regardless of price, now that it has the much improved looks and added off-road capabilities, finally, the Compass is the vehicle Jeep intended it to be.

Related Gallery2011 Jeep Compass Limited: First Drive
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Photos copyright ©2010 Rex Roy / AOL, Jeep