What do you do with a car that wants so much to be an off road vehicle, but can't actually go off road? Take it to a rally.

When I got rear ended last August, I ended up driving a Jeep Compass while my car got fixed. The Compass is almost, but not quite, entirely unlike my BRZ. The reviews I read said it was like its mechanical twin, the Dodge Caliber, only not as good. And the Caliber doesn't exactly have an outstanding reputation to begin with.

I never expected performance like my car, but man, what a letdown. The 2.4 liter four banger felt like it had a lot less than its rated 172hp, and it constantly whined like a wind-up toy. The transmission downshifted if I even thought about increasing speed, causing an abrupt lurch, and then the engine would whine even more. It was like the transmission was trying to whip the engine like a cruel jockey to a race horse, who would then reply "I'm givin' it all she's got, Captain! If I give 'er any more she's gonna blow!" At least I could shift it manually to stop this madness, and sometimes I did just to save myself from having to listen to it.

I quickly named this car the Penalty Box. I felt like being forced to drive a car this bad was my penance for crashing the BRZ. Also, my girlfriend is Canadian, so she's genetically engineered to like hockey.


The Compass is a poser, plain and simple. It wants to be like its big brother, the Grand Cherokee, so badly, but at 7/8 scale it just doesn't measure up. It wants to be powerful, which is why the transmission is so quick to downshift and give you more power every time you breathe, but it's just not there. It wants to have a real four wheel drive system like other Jeeps, but all it has is a flimsy chrome switch between the seats that you awkwardly pull up to engage its version of 4WD, which I don't know how it differs from normal mode. It wants to be an off road vehicle, but it was made for the street. The particular Compass I had wasn't even "Trail Rated," whatever that means in Jeep speak. It tries way too hard to be something it's not - a real Jeep. It's no wonder Chrysler is discontinuing it.

My girlfriend and I drove her Jeep Liberty - a real Jeep - as a sweep vehicle at the Empire State Performance Rally last spring. Amazingly we didn't kill each other, so we volunteered to drive the Penalty Box as Combo Car at Black River Stages last September.


Our job as Combo Car was not to deliver various flavors of tasty snacks to the spectators, but to sweep behind the RallyMoto entries, and make sure the stage was clear before the cars ran - a combo of sweep and course opening duties. As potential first responders to a motorcycle mishap, and because the stages were closed to other traffic, we hustled right along at a safe but very brisk pace.

This, of all places, is where the Compass actually 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 little early to give the slow transmission time to get into the gear I wanted by the time I wanted it, but I learned the timing and had no problem. The Compass was surprisingly competent at speed. Its car-like handling was an advantage on these gravel roads. It was wider than the Liberty, and more stable. I could left foot brake through the turns, inducing a slight drift and staying on the power to maintain speed, with electronic nannies only kicking in once or twice all weekend. It was remarkably tossable this way. The brakes never faded, and the suspension never bottomed out.


Keep in mind that I was not driving flat out. We were volunteers, not competitors. 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 had no stage notes, only the road book and an odometer app on my girlfriend's phone that she used to call out instructions to me as we approached intersections, bridges, and jumps. That said, her app did time our run down the first stage to be only 20 seconds behind the slowest competitor to successfully finish. Wisely, she never told me another stage time. This was a deliberate choice on her part to bypass my competitive streak that might try to improve on my previous run. Good co-driver, keeping her driver under control. But the fact that we did have that pace, without notes, in a stupid Jeep Compass, has convinced us that we want to try competing in a real rally car someday.

Back to the Penalty Box. Our first run down the Goose Pond stage, known for its big jumps, I took it pretty 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. We landed hard, denting his skidplate and bending his radiator support slightly. I was wary of similar mistakes, especially since this was a bone stock Compass with no skidplate. Fortunately, the book was dead on accurate this time. 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:

John Hughes (no relation to me) must have actually jumped a car himself. He captured the experience of time slowing down while in mid-air perfectly. The planet fell out from under us, and the hang time felt like minutes rather than the second or so it actually was. Amazingly, the Compass took the landing perfectly in stride. The suspension had enough travel to soak 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.


Later on, we were waiting to run Goose Pond a second time while the road was open and some spectators drove out of the stage. One of them stopped next to me and insisted on giving me a high five for that jump.

The Compass completed the rally and made it home with no issues whatsoever. It seems that the only place where an off-road-but-not-really-off-road SUV-but-not-really-an-SUV really works well is on a gravel rally stage. So, if all of your driving consists of bombing down rally stages as a course car, buy a Jeep Compass. Otherwise, skip the Compass and get a real Jeep.


(Photo credits: Justin Hughes, Stryker Rally Media)