I've heard it said that sometimes the car you drive doesn't matter as much as where you drive it. This past fall, I finally learned what that actually means.
In late August, I got rear ended in my BRZ, not even six months after I bought it. I live in the suburbs of Boston, Massachusetts, which pretty much explains everything. My insurance and body shop took good care of me, and now the car is as good as new. In the meantime, my insurance company hooked me up with a rental car - a Jeep Compass.
The Compass is almost, but not quite, entirely unlike a BRZ. The reviews I read said it was like its mechanical twin, the Dodge Caliber, but not as good. The Caliber hardly has a reputation as an astounding vehicle to begin with. I never expected performance like a BRZ, but still, what a let down. The engine constantly whined like a cranky small child. The transmission didn't shift when I wanted it to, even in manual mode, which was quite an accomplishment of utter suckitude. The interior, while comfortable enough, was cheap. It drove like a car, not an off road vehicle. It wasn't even "Trail Rated," whatever that means. It tried way too hard to be something it's not - a real Jeep.
Still, it was paid for, and did an adequate job of getting me to work. I did take advantage of its significantly larger cargo capacity than my BRZ a few times to carry stuff around. But I couldn't wait to get out of this cheap rental fake Jeep and back into my own car.
My girlfriend and I drove her Jeep Liberty (a real Jeep) as sweep at the Empire State Performance Rally this past spring. Not only did we not kill each other, we actually worked quite well together as driver and co-driver, and had volunteered to drive the Combo Car at Black River Stages. Unfortunately, her Liberty had been suffering from a series of cascading electrical failures, and we were concerned about its reliability for the rally. The BRZ was taking longer than expected to repair, so I still had the Compass. We decided to take it instead.
Our job, as Combo Car, was to sweep behind the RallyMoto entries, and make sure the stage was clear before starting the cars - a combo of sweep for the bikes and course opening for the cars. As potential first responders to a bike mishap, and because the stages were closed, we hustled right along at a safe but very brisk pace.
This, of all places, is where the Compass came alive.
I ran it in 4WD, with traction control off, and the transmission in manual mode to hold it in the gear I wanted. I had to shift a bit early to give the slow transmission time to get into the gear I wanted by the time I actually wanted it, but I learned the timing quickly and had no problem.
The Compass was surprisingly competent at speed. Its car-like handling was an advantage on these gravel roads. It allowed me to left foot brake through the turns, inducing a slight drift and staying on the power to maintain speed (thank you, Team O'Neil). It was remarkably tossable. The brakes never faded once, and the suspension had enough travel to never bottom out. The Compass was prone to understeer, as could be expected, but left foot braking to unload the rear and power to get the front wheels to pull out of it worked quite well to balance it.
Keep in mind that I was not driving flat out. I slowed down approaching every blind crest, just in case there was a bike down on the other side and we needed to stop. We weren't there to compete. We had no stage notes, only the road book and an odometer app on my girlfriend's phone that she used to call out directions to me at the appropriate mileage. Her app also timed our run down the first stage to be just 20 seconds behind the slowest competitor to finish without a mishap. Wisely, she never told me another stage time to bypass my competitive streak that would try to improve on my last run. (But the fact that we had that pace, without notes, and in a stupid Jeep Compass, of all things, has convinced us that we want to try competing someday, in a real rally car.)
Our first run down the Goose Pond stage, known for its jumps, I took it a little easy. Two years ago, when I was co-driving car 0, we went flying off a jump whose mileage was marked incorrectly in the road book and landed hard, so I was wary of similar mistakes this year. Fortunately, there were none - the book was spot on. We approached a big jump with many spectators, and I slowed down so we wouldn't launch into low earth orbit. But the jump had such a kick at the crest that it felt very much like this...
This scene from Ferris Bueller's Day Off captures perfectly the sensation of taking an unexpected flight. The planet fell out from under us, and the hang time felt like minutes rather than the second or so it actually was. John Hughes (to whom I am not related) must have actually jumped a car himself. He captured the experience of time slowing down while in mid-air perfectly.
Amazingly, the Compass took the landing perfectly in stride. The suspension soaked it right up, and we continued down the stage as though nothing exciting had happened. Meanwhile, my girlfriend/co-driver was having difficulty giving me the next instruction because we were both laughing so hard for the next mile.
The Compass completed the rally with no issues whatsoever. Since I had to work the next day, we quickly removed our rally stickers and hit the road for home. After two days of rallying, we made the five hour drive home in comfort. The next day, I took it to a car wash, gave it the most thorough wash available, and dropped it off at the rental place.
I had a lot more respect for the Compass after putting it through its paces, possibly in ways no one ever had before. I would never own one myself. But because I got to drive it at speed on gravel rally stages, and because a rental car is the fastest car in the world, I have to declare the Jeep Compass to be the best car I drove in 2014.
(Photo credits: Stryker Rally Media, Justin Hughes)