Ah, the Jeep Compass. A small crossover SUV that elicits reactions amongst the driving public such as “Wait, they still make that?” and “I had one as a rental once, and it sucked.”
I’ve been involved in the Jeep business since 2007 and can assure you that yes, Jeep does still make it. The name is suddenly in the spotlight again as Jeep has announced the next-generation Compass which looks like it’s actually going to be pretty damn cool.
Look at it!
But what if I told you the Compass actually was awesome? That is, until Chrysler’s bargain-bin management (the Cerberus group, more on that later) got involved.
In May of last year my girlfriend and I spent a weekend in Cleveland. Among other wonderful attractions such as the thankfully not-on-fire Cuyahoga river and heaps of garbage floating in Lake Erie we visited the Crawford Auto-Aviation Museum. This museum is fantastic by the way, and if you’re a car enthusiast it’s a must-see in Cleveland.
Upon heading down to the museum’s basement I was greeted by this:
Confused yet intrigued, I read the information plaque next to it. “A Jeep Compass? No way,” I thought. “This car looks awesome.” So what is this vehicle, and what happened?
Answer to the first question: It’s the Jeep Compass Concept, first shown in 2002. It’s based on a modified Cherokee platform and features a 210 horsepower V6 engine, all wheel drive, a 4-wheel independent suspension with respectable ground clearance, and brakes that look like they’re taken straight off a WRC car.
The Compass Concept was designed to be run topless. The roof panel was removable (much like the current Renegade) and the interior was designed to shed water as efficiently as possible. The seats featured leatherette-trimmed sides and a meshlike center panel with multiple holes to prevent water from pooling. The floor was lined in rubber and had removable drain plugs (just like a Wrangler) and the interior as a whole was brought together with brushed aluminum and chrome trim, with gauges nestled inside individual chrome binnacles.
And then in 2006 this Jeep became a reality, and the world was treated to the 2007 Jeep Compass.
What the hell happened?!
First, keep this in mind: concept cars almost NEVER become reality. They’re too radical, not practical, often won’t meet crash test standards, and most importantly just too damned expensive to build. But the Compass? The Compass was a travesty.
At the time of the Compass’ launch Chrysler was owned by the Cerberus group, which was known for cutting corners to deplorable levels in an effort to squeeze out and funnel away as much profit as possible from already-struggling Chrysler. Daimler had started this process years before but Cerberus turned it into an art form. By the time Cerberus was done with Chrysler the company was bankrupt.
So, back to the Compass. This badass mashup of a Wrangler and a rally car turned into a boring, poorly-built crossover. It featured a 4-cylinder engine which somehow managed to make 172 horsepower feel like 120, coupled with an optional continuously variable transmission that excelled in turning fuel into noise. Build quality was spotty and the cut corners were obvious. Fit and finish were abysmal, especially in the interior- a coffin made of cheap plastic and finished in a color that designer Ralph Gilles would later refer to as “rat fur gray.”
Seriously, it was bad. Chrysler couldn’t even hide the panel gap in this car used for press photos- look at where the passenger airbag meets the dashboard.
Following Chrysler’s 2009 emergence from bankruptcy protection, Fiat took over the corporation (later to be named FCA) and its design teams undertook a program to conduct emergency redesigns of multiple Chrysler products. Under this plan the Compass and its stablemate Patriot first received a new interior in 2009...
...followed by a facelift in 2011.
For the 2014 model year the much-loathed continuously variable transmission was replaced with a proper six-speed automatic, and now, finally, the Compass was close to the vehicle it should’ve been in 2007.
And it’s still alive! The 2017 Compasses started landing at the dealerships this month. That’s an astounding ELEVEN model years of the same body style. Is it outdated? Oh hell yes. Is it a bad car? I wouldn’t say it’s bad, but it’s definitely not great. Still, it’s an okay car to drive when equipped with a manual transmission, and thanks to its longevity and less-sophisticated equipment it’s a bit more reliable than other vehicles in the FCA lineup (I’m looking at you, Dodge Dart). Amazingly the 2015 model year was the best-selling ever for the Compass, and while 2016 isn’t over yet it looks like the car may end up beating its 2015 numbers.
It’s amazing to look at the Compass Concept and think of what could’ve been. Of course the production model could never have been as crazy as the concept, but had Chrysler been under better management it might have ended up being a nice little SUV.
Could we have had an all wheel drive turbocharged competitor to the WRX or Lancer Evolution?
(Pictured: 2008 Jeep Compass Rallye package, which was nothing more than a body kit)
Or could we have ended up with a lifted, more capable Compass similar to the Surbaru XV Crosstrek?
(Pictured: 2012 Mopar True North Compass concept)
The world will never know.