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Jeep's Compass compact crossover is closely related to the boxy Jeep Patriot. But until last year it was almost unanimously panned for its homely styling and chintzy interior, but things took an about face last year with a cosmetic refresh that changed its sheetmetal throughout and gave the model a 'mini-Grand Cherokee' look.
The nips and tucks worked wonders; even though it's still a little awkward from some angles, the 2012 Jeep Compass is now somewhat attractive, if a bit conservative. Inside, Jeep hasn't quite given it the revolutionary interior makeover that Chrysler gave to the Dodge Journey last year; it's been modestly spruced up but definitely feels done on a budget.
While the makeover made the Compass better-looking, it's not any better-performing, or really much more refined than before, unfortunately. A 158-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine is standard, but we still recommend the step-up 172-hp, 2.4-liter four, as it makes 24 pound-feet more torque—a difference you can feel in the Compass, especially off the line. The five-speed manual transmission that's standard is quite agreeable, but this model's Achilles Heel continues to be its continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT), which is slow to ramp up revs and respond to passing demands or merely confident acceleration out of tight corners. The CVT also brings out these engines' tendency to be loud, coarse, and vibration-prone.
Base 2012 Jeep Compass Sport models come with front-wheel drive. While the Freedom Drive I option is essentially for those who want all-wheel-drive ability for snow or mud, the Freedom Drive II system gives this vehicle a level of off-road ability that's unusual in small crossovers. As such, the Compass gains Jeep's Trail Rated badge, bringing a continuously-variable transaxle that engages in off-road mode, a one-inch higher ride height, skid plates, and a full-size spare. It includes appearance upgrades, too, but it's beyond that--actually making the Compass good enough for mud and some situations with logs and boulders.
For four adults, the Compass's interior does the job; seats tend to be quite short and lacking in support, so it's no long-haul highway cruiser, but the driving position is upright yet quite carlike. In back there's enough headroom for most adults (although legroom is a bit tight), and the bench is among the hardest, flattest ones we've tested. Cargo space remains limited, as there's not a lot of space behind the back seats and the cargo floor is somewhat high. And the Compass cabin isn't all that refined in other ways; the ride tends to be a bit too soft in corners, yet too pitchy over rough pavement. And while Jeep has added more noise insulation, these models still have a surprising amount of engine noise when accelerating. But the interior is well laid-out and comes with a number of innovative features, like a rechargeable flashlight and outward-facing tailgate speakers.
The Compass hasn't been rated for safety since its refresh, by either of the major safety agencies, but its features are pretty strong, albeit typical for the class. Side curtain airbags, Brake Traction Control, a driver-controlled three-mode Electronic Stability Program (ESP), Brake Assist, Electronic Roll Mitigation, and Anti-lock Brake System (ABS) with rough-road detection are all included, along with front-seat side airbags and active head restraints.
Equipment is far from what you'll find in the flagship Jeep Grand Cherokee, but the Compass comes pretty well-equipped for a model with an entry price of $20k. Power accessories, fog lamps, and alloy wheels are included in all models, while Latitude and Limited models get extras like remote start, Bluetooth, tailgate speakers, a universal remote, and a media center with 30 gigabytes of storage. Limited models are distinguished by their big 18-inch alloys and come with automatic climate control.