Pros: Reasonable price; good fuel economy; off-road capable; robust options list

Cons: Crude engine; slow acceleration; loud interior; awkward CVT transmission; average resale value

Fresh from a badly needed make-over last year, the 2012 Jeep Compass carries on as Jeep's entry-level model, tapping into consumer demand for smaller and more fuel efficient SUVs. The Compass's new front end bears a striking similarity to that of the Grand Cherokee, giving the vehicle a very upscale look that belies its $20,000 starting price. Better yet, unlike so many other small SUVs, the Compass offers a genuine 4x4 setup complete with a low-range gear set that is ideal for off-road adventuring.

Slightly smaller than the Honda CR-V, the Compass can comfortably fit four adults with room left over for their bags. Its handsome interior is appealing and well constructed. Numerous trims and options help make this humble model feel more like a small luxury car, including heated leather seats, navigation and a nine-speaker Boston Acoustics sound system.

Along with its three trim levels (Sport, Latitude and Limited), the Compass offers a choice between two fuel-efficient 4-cylinder engines, manual or CVT automatic transmission and front or four-wheel drive.

Comfort & Utility

Roughly the same size as the Nissan Rogue and Subaru Forester, the Compass is a tidy package. It can seat five or accommodate up to 61 cubic feet of cargo when the rear seat and the flat-folding front passenger's seat are folded down. Storage areas abound inside the Compass, with a large bin above the oversize glove box and a deep center console storage spot that's perfect for hiding cell phones and tablets, water bottles and assorted odds and ends. The carpeted cargo floor panel is reversible, providing an easy cleaning plastic surface for wet or muddy items.

As for comfort, the 2012 Jeep Compass can be equipped with all manner of unique options, including a flip-down speaker bar attached to the rear tailgate. With the gate open, the speakers can be aimed outward so everyone can enjoy their favorite tunes. There's also a removable rear cargo light that doubles as a rechargeable flashlight, as well as an available 115-volt, two-prong outlet.

Cloth seats are standard. The Latitude and Limited get heated front seats. The Limited includes leather seating surfaces, automatic climate control and 18-inch bright aluminum wheels.

Technology

The Compass may be one of Jeep's most affordable models, but you can equip it like a mid-grade Grand Cherokee. The UConnect suite of electronic goodies includes Bluetooth hands-free phone connectivity and voice commands to operate the audio and iPod controls. Opt for the Limited trim's navigation radio, and you'll get maps by Garmin as well as the SiriusXM Travel Link, which provides gas prices, traffic, weather, sports and even movie schedules.

Standard equipment for the Compass includes foglamps, heated power side mirrors, a tilt steering wheel and cruise control. The Limited trim adds a six-way power driver's seat and a vehicle information center. Available on Latitude and Limited models is the 368-watt Boston Acoustics nine-speaker sound system complete with liftgate articulating speakers and a 90-watt subwoofer.

Performance & Fuel Economy

The 2012 Jeep Compass offers a choice of two fuel-efficient 4-cylinder engines. The Sport and Latitude 4x2 model have a 2.0-liter engine producing 158 horsepower and 141 lb-ft of torque; the Sport can be equipped with a five-speed manual transmission, while the Latitude has Jeep's CVT2 automatic variable-ratio transmission.

Standard on all 4x4 and Limited models and available on 4x2 Latitude and Sport is a more powerful 2.4-liter engine good for 172 horsepower and 161 lb-ft of torque. This engine can be teamed with a manual transmission, but only on the Sport. Fuel economy for the 2.0-liter engine is rated at 23 mpg city/29 mpg highway for the manual and 23/27 mpg with the CVT. The 2.4-liter is rated at 23/28 mpg with the manual transmission and 21/27 mpg with the CVT. The 4x4s lose about 1 mpg from each figure.

The Compass offers two 4x4 systems. One is pretty much a part-time setup that comes online only when the front wheels begin to slip. This is pretty much the same setup used by most of the Compass's competition, with the exception of Subaru. The second system, called Freedom Drive II, uses a specially adapted CVT automatic transmission that includes a low-range gear set and a 19:1 crawl ratio for slow crawling over rocks or down steep grades.

Safety

Standard safety equipment includes anti-lock disc brakes, electronic traction and stability control, front and rear side curtain airbags and front-seat active head restraints. Available on all trims are front seat mounted side-impact airbags.

Driving Impressions

The Compass may look great on paper, but it quickly loses its luster once you experience the way it works in the real world. Neither engine choice offers much in the way of quick acceleration or smooth operation. The engines idle rough, have a coarse sound and generally feel crude. The CVT transmission, which holds the throttle wide open for prolonged periods and fills the cabin with raucous engine noise, doesn't help matters.

In ride and handling , things are bit better. The Compass delivers a fairly stable and smooth ride, but its steering is vague with lots of play in the wheel and a slow response time. At highway speed, there is a lot of road noise in the cabin, mostly in the form of tire noise.

Other Cars to Consider

Kia Sportage - The Sportage presents a sleeker package with a more modern interior, better handling and fuel economy and a lower price. But the Sportage's ride can be harsh, and it doesn't offer an off-road 4x4 system like the Compass's Freedom Drive II.

Ford Escape - The Escape offers V6 and hybrid models and cool features like SYNC and Parallel Park Assist. But the boxy Escape looks dated, and it costs a bit more than the Compass.

Nissan Rogue - The Rogue offers road manners, a more powerful engine and better fuel economy than the Compass, but its styling is somewhat bland, and it cannot be taken off-road.

AutoTrader Recommends

If you have your heart set on a Compass, we think your best bet is the Latitude with the 2.4-liter engine and the Freedom Drive II drivetrain. This model is nicely equipped and has access to the most desirable options such as the articulating sound bar and Boston Acoustics audio. With the ability to rock crawl and venture off-road, the Compass has a leg up over vehicles like the Honda CR-V and Nissan Rogue, and the Latitude's price won't pinch your wallet too badly, a good fact to keep in mind considering how the Compass's value should diminish over time.

author photo

Joe Tralongo started in the industry writing competitive comparison books for a number of manufacturers, before moving on in 2000 to become a freelance automotive journalist. He's well regarded for his keen eye for detail, as well as his ability to communicate complex mechanical terminology into user-friendly explanations.

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