Improvements keep compact crossover competitive

by: CHRYSLER LLC - The 2013 Jeep Compass compact crossover looks like a smaller version of the company's successful full-size Grand Cherokee.When Fiat bought Chrysler, many automotive writers were surprised the new ownership team decided to keep the Jeep Compass around, even though they promised to give the it a complete makover.

The challenge was daunting. The Compass was essentially a front-wheel-drive car that could be ordered with all-wheel-drive. Although pitched as an economical Jeep, it did not get particularly good mileage and had a cheap plastic interior. And Jeep was selling another economical Jeep — the Patriot — that looked more like a Jeep and had the same strengths and weaknesses.

So it was very surprising to discover how much the 2013 Jeep Compass has improved. Our Latitude model looked and drove like a smaller version of Jeep’s large and much praised Grand Cherokee. The exterior lines have been been smoothed out, the grill has been spiffed up, the interior has been upgraded and the ride had been greatly improved.

And when equipped with the optional Freedom-Drive II Off Road Group that came on our test model, the Compass is actually Trail Rated by Jeep, meaning it can handle some serious trails and worse. The package, available on all trim levels, includes an upgraded four-wheel-drive system, a low-range mode for the transmission, a locking center differential, 17-inch alloy wheels, all-terrain tires, skid plates, tow hooks, an engine oil cooler, hill descent control, and hill start assist.

But best of all, our mid-level Latitude was priced less than $27,000. Although it did not include a navigation system or leather seats, that’s still a pretty good price for a Trail Rated vehicle.

Some of the problems that undermined the original Compass still persist. Accelaration is slow and noisy, even when equipped with the larger 2.4-liter inline four-cylinder engine. Part of the reason is undoubtedly the Continuosuly Variable Transmission that came in our Compass. Manufacturers like the shiftless transmissions because they can be calibrated to increase mileage, but they tend to be a little loud and sluggish. And unfortunately with the Compass, the mileage isn’t all that good with the CVT. Our Trail Rated Latitude was EPA rated at 20 miles per gallon in the city and 23 on the highway. Once upon a time, that would have been pretty good mileage for an AWD-equipped vehicle. But today, several other compact crossovers with AWD do better.

Perhaps because the Compass is actually an older design, interior space and cargo room was also a little limited compared to some of its newer competitors. The cloth seats were comfortable, however, and the redesigned dash was cleanly laid out and included higher quality plastics than the earlier models.

So there’s the dilemma — do you want a genuine Jeep with serious off-road capablities at a reasonable price, even though it’s might not be as economical as some its newer competitors? Even if you’re not a devoted Jeep fan, the improvements make the new Compass at least worth checking out.

Or if want a more traditional looking Jeep, check out the 2013 Patriot. It has received the same improvements as the Compass, and can also be ordered with the Trail Rated package.

Facts and figures (all models)

• Model tested: Compass Latitude.

• Manufacturer: Jeep.

• Class: Compact crossover.

• Layout: Front engine, front and all-wheel-drive (as tested).

• Style: Five-door SUV.

• Engines: 2.0-liter inline 4 (158 hp, 141 lbs-ft); 2.4-liter inline 4 (172 hp, 165 lbs-ft).

• Transmission: Five-speed automatic; Continuously Variable Transmission.

• EPA estimated city/highway/mileage: 23/28/25 (FWD/manual); 20/23/21 (AWD/CVT).

• Price: Beginning at approximately $20,000 ($26,570 as tested).

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