With last year's refresh, Jeep made the Compass somewhat better-looking, but it didn't make it any better-performing. A 158-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine remains standard, and we 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—without real-world gas mileage being much lower.
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' overwhelming tendency to be loud, coarse, and vibration-prone.
For the most part, the 2012 Compass drives like a high-riding small passenger car. And that's really what it is; with car-based underpinnings at least partly shared with the Dodge Caliber, the Compass handles and maneuvers very well—especially at city speeds.
The strength of the Compass remains the surprisingly good trail capability afforded by the available Freedom Drive II Off-Road Package. Base Compass models come with front-wheel drive, and there's a Freedom Drive I 4x4 package that brings carlike all-wheel drive ability good for getting out of a snowy driveway. But the Freedom Drive II package gains Jeep's Trail Rated badge (assuring that it meets a rigorous checklist for trail driving) and includes 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, in the way of 17-inch alloy wheels and fog lamps. We've been impressed with its ability to negotiate mud and sand and, in some situations, logs and boulders.