Understandably, most of the attention at Jeep these days is focused on the impressive all-new 2011 Grand Cherokee.
The rest of the lineup, though, hasn't been ignored, as each model has
refined and changed for 2011. None of these U.S.-built Jeeps, however,
is as dramatically upgraded as the 2011 Compass,
which sports handsome new styling (good riddance to that clownish old
front fascia!) and is now available for the first time as Trail Rated
4x4 model that's at home on snow-covered roads or crawling along a rocky
creek bed in low range.
I hadn't driven a Jeep Compass in a couple of years, and back then I wasn't impressed -- it looked goofy and was loud inside, plus it had interior plastics and a continuously variable transmission that left much to be desired. What's more, it was a Jeep with no serious off-road credentials.
Now, though, after a day spent driving a new 2011 Compass with the 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine and the optional Freedom Drive II Off-Road Group, I'm pleased to report that the bulk of these issues have been addressed.In styling, the new 2011 Compass represents a huge improvement, now looking much like the Grand Cherokee's little brother; in fact, the quad-reflector headlights are the same parts in both vehicles. A new hood, front fenders and front fascia, plus a seven-slot Jeep grille, give the compact five-seat 2011 Compass a more serious and refined look, and black lower body cladding does its part to make the vehicle look not nearly as tall as its predecessor.
And it drives like a different vehicle as well. On the icy and snowy roads near Jackson Hole, Wyoming, the 2011 Jeep Compass impressed. It's very quiet inside, thanks to added sound-absorption materials in the rear wheel wells, the rear quarter panels and the C-pillars. The 172-hp four-cylinder engine is hard to hear at idle, making its presence known only during acceleration and passing maneuvers, where the mileage-enhancing CVT still exhibits a motorboat sensation in which engine rpm is seemingly unrelated to vehicle speed. On a positive note, the tuning of the Compass suspension (struts in front, multilink in back) is excellent, a bit firmer than before for added nimbleness and generally better control of ride motions, aided in part by a larger rear anti-roll bar.
2011 Jeep Compass
Perhaps most important, the Compass I drove was fitted with the new Freedom Drive II Off-Road Package, a $1,600 option that features a full-time active 4WD system with a special CVT2L that offers 19:1 low-range gearing. Also included as part of the package are a 1-inch-higher ride height, a new front fascia that allows for a 29.6-degree approach angle (stock is 20), skidplates, tow hooks, fog lamps, a full-size spare tire, a manual seat-height adjuster and 17-inch aluminum wheels shod with all-terrain tires.
It's a serious package, enough to make this the first Compass to earn Jeep's Trail Rated badge. Jeep says this package is recommended for "moderate off-road situations that include steep grades, occasional wheel lift and rock or log climbing." And that's exactly what we tackled on a technical course set up for us on the 7,000-acre Snake River Ranch. Going at a slow pace with low-range engaged and the center coupling locked, the Compass impressed with its abilities, its CVT2L even helping to smooth throttle response at critical times. And when more gas was needed and wheels began to spin, automatic brake actuation on the offending wheel (or wheels) would send power to the wheels getting better traction, thereby keeping the Compass moving down a rugged path that I suspect few owners would ever dare to tackle.Yes, the Compass rubbed its skidplates more than the Wranglers did on the same course, but you'd expect it to. I hung forward in my seatbelt as the Compass nosed into a slushy and muddy gully, with back wheels sliding to the left as I modulated brake pressure and I wondered just how many other manufactures would be willing to do this with their compact little $23,000 crossover. Not many, I suspect.
Beneath the skin, the more macho-looking Jeep Patriot is basically the same vehicle as the Compass, built at the same factory in Belvidere, Illinois. Of note, Jeep currently sells roughly four Patriots for every Compass. Chalk it up to the formerís more traditional Jeep looks, a cheaper price of entry and the fact that it has been available as a Trail Rated off-roader all along. Now, with the stylish new 2011 Compass being the equal of the Patriot in off-roading skills -- but with new styling and sophistication to make people think of it more as a junior Grand Cherokee -- Jeep is confident that they'll sell at a more balanced rate.