Monday, March 15, 2010

Color aside, Compass heads in right direction

Sacramento, California – Jeep is a mystery to many.

It used to be simple: Jeep made the most lovable and basic of off-road vehicles, a rugged transporter with deep roots in America’s World War II history. That vehicle lives on in the Jeep Wrangler, a vehicle that Motor Trend magazine calls “a true American Classic.” In its review of 2010 motor vehicles, Motor Trend gave the current Wrangler its max five-star rating.

And the 2010 Jeep Compass? Motor Trend gave it one star, and then offered this diamond-hard assessment: “Compass that sent Jeep in the wrong direction.”

I went into my week in the 2010 Jeep Compass Limited 4X4 – the most expensive of four trim levels, starting at $25,135 – with an open mind, but we got off to a bad start nevertheless. My tester was wearing what Jeep called “Optic Green Metallic Clear Coat” paint. I would have called it chartreuse.

Whatever it was, it should not be a paint choice on a factory-made Jeep. If this color was on a garment, Lady Gaga would not wear it. Ditto Liberace, were he still among the living.

Despite all this, and numerous explanations to my neighbors that this was not a car I bought, the Compass grew on me over time. I think value had something to do with it. Remember that you can get the Compass Sport 4X2 for a starting price of less than $19,000.

My Compass had a generous list of standard equipment inside and out. The interior perks included a six-way power driver’s seat, heated front seats with lumbar adjustments, leather-wrapped steering wheel and steering wheel-mounted audio controls. Leather-trimmed bucket seats were comfortable. Controls were easy to use; gauges were easy to see at a quick glance.

The Compass drove smoothly enough, not letting in too much noise from the surrounding cars. The 2.4-liter, 16-valve, four-cylinder power plant was not a street racer, but the 172-horsepower engine handled most driving situations easily. The active four-wheel-drive system whipped through a nearby off-road course with few grunts and groans.

Fuel mileage came in at 21 miles per gallon in the city and 24 mpg on the highway. So-so, to be sure.

Carrying four passengers prompted praise. They all seemed comfortable enough, with room to spare. Grocery-hauling neighbors liked the cargo-carrying capacity of my Compass.

All in all, not a bad ride.

I think Jeep is paying a too-steep price for daring to offer more than the Wrangler. That’s kind of unfair, considering that Jeep was once criticized for not having enough variety in its lineup. And Jeep was hardly the sole offender in the “more is better” approach that was popular among automakers before the recession.

Remember Saturn taking heat for its thin lineup? Lot of good that did. Remember Mercedes-Benz offering comparatively cheap entry-level cars? Remember Porsche doing the same? Porsche now offers a four-door model, the Panamera, much to the dismay of Porsche purists.

For my money, automakers can offer what they want. It’s their business, after all. I tend to judge the vehicles one at a time.

As for the Compass, it’s pretty much as advertised – a basic compact SUV that won’t take you to the poorhouse.

Still, hold the chartreuse.

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