Monday, April 22, 2013

The Cheap Jeep

In 1995, I went shopping for a Jeep Wrangler. Came home with an Infiniti. I'm not a great outdoorsman. I get itchy if I walk too close to a planter at the mall. 

The Wrangler is a true American icon. And while the Grand Cherokee is the father of the modern SUV movement, the rest of the lineup has not enjoyed any measure of celebrity. This is especially true for Jeep's twin small offerings, the Compass and Patriot.

Built during the recession on a platform hewn from the old Dodge Caliber, the only practical difference between these two Jeeps are their distinct body styles, which were intended to have gender-specific appeal—"traditional Jeep" Patriot for dudes, curvy Compass for chicks.

Yes, Enterprise. I'd be happy to be your Compass chick for a week.

When FIAT's Sergio Marchionne took the helm at Chrysler, Compass got one of the best mid-cycle facelifts I've ever seen (too late for you, Joan). It went from dowdy, plastic frumpmobile to Grand Cherokee, Jr. And when outfitted in top Limited trim, the saddle leather interior is a thing of beauty.

But Enterprise didn't rent me a Limited. They rent the NoTech™ Black Plastic Edition, in which the apex of technology is an AUX jack on the 2-knob LED radio. The manual driver's seat moves fore/aft and reclines. No lumbar or height adjustment. The latter is bad news, considering the high beltline and giant blind spots on the Compass. The dash and doors are awash in a half dozen textures of hard black plastic, punctuated with occasional bright chrome. The plastic hand grab on the hatch is scandalously cheap, like a dollar-store recycling bin. Yet everything is tight. Nary a rattle or squeak from all that petroleum product.

The ride impressed. Chrysler got something right when it comes to smooth, compliant cruising, as the ride in the Compass reminded me immediately of the Chrysler 200. Unexpectedly refined for a CUV. The 2.4 liter fourbanger isn't in a rush to do anything, but power wasn't significantly compromised when 4WD was locked. And 30mpg highway ain't bad.

Dev1 and Dev2 got pretty comfortable in the Compass. It's certainly not as commodious as the Chevy Equinox. Adults might bump elbows in the front seat, but back seat passengers (at least up to 6'1") don't have to assume a fetal position.

Nimble, solid, and smooth, Compass makes a darn good basic 4WD daily driver for about $20k. Especially for those, like me, who exist in the snow belt. Start clicking the options and a decked-out Limited can rise above $30k. At that price point, it's best to shop and compare.

Kudos to Colleen at Enterprise, by the way. She had keys to the Compass and an Impala. She already knew which ones to hand me.

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