Jeep CompassClick to enlarge picture

Round headlights and the classic 7-slot grille hark back to Jeep's World War II origins.

Well, first off, keen observers will know that the all-new 2007 Jeep Compass is a Jeep from 50 yards off: Round headlights and the classic, slotted grille hark back to Jeep's World War II origins.

For many folks, though, the defining mark of a Jeep is not styling, it's when the rubber meets the road—er, off-road. To that end, to earn the Jeep signature and become branded as "Trail Rated" has meant the vehicle can successfully conquer the mother of all unpaved roads, the famed Rubicon Trail in the Sierra Nevada Mountains near Lake Tahoe, California.

This legendary off-road capability, however, is at odds with the vast majority of sport-utility vehicle buyers today who want the look of an SUV but the ride of a sedan. They could care less about fording streams or clearing boulders. Even 85 percent of Jeep owners never venture very far off paved roads.

Enter the 2007 Jeep Compass, a compact sport utility that discards the notion that every Jeep has to traverse the Rubicon.

The Compass shares a unibody platform with the recently introduced Dodge Caliber, and is the first Jeep ever with front-wheel drive and an all-independent suspension. This new direction puts the Compass on a collision course with a host of established competitors such as the Ford Escape, Honda CR-V, Saturn Vue and Toyota RAV4, among others.

Arriving at dealers this month, the addition of the Compass couldn't come soon enough for Jeep, which estimates that the fast-growing compact SUV segment will almost double by 2010 from the 2005 sales volume of 368,000 units. While Jeep sales increased slightly last year, thanks to loyal followers, new customers were scarce.

Pricing will go a long way in attracting entry-level buyers and will give fits to rivals. The two-model lineup starts at $15,985, including $560 destination charge, for the front-wheel-drive Compass Sport. The upscale Limited model is available in front-wheel drive starting at $20,140. All-wheel drive adds $1,600 to both versions.

A New Design Direction

Compass was inspired by the show-car version that was introduced at the 2002 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. The 2007 production model's styling fits into a plan that breaks up Jeep into two design statements said Clyde Ney, design manager of the Jeep studio, during the Compass press introduction in Portland, Oregon.

"First, is the Jeep 'classic' side of the family," Ney said. "Those include the Wrangler, the new Commander and the upcoming Patriot.

"The other side of the family is what we call Jeep 'modern': the Grand Cherokee, the Liberty and the new Compass."

While this new little SUV won't be mistaken for anything other than a Jeep in the rearview mirror, the profile and backside depart from traditionally styled Jeep vehicles. But then the Compass is going after new buyers, not the traditionalists.

The silhouette, with a steeply raked windshield, expressive hood and deep fascia provide the modern look. Sculpted fender forms are a different interpretation of the traditional Jeep trapezoidal wheel flares.

Designers used a little slight-of-hand when styling the Compass. Black graphic appliques on the center door pillars and the flush-mounted rear quarter glass, combined with black belt moldings and black roof-rail moldings, provide the illusion of a single window opening from the A- to D- pillar.

Small Footprint, but Roomy Interior

Sitting in the Compass gives the driver a sense of spaciousness with acres of headroom and general roominess. Front seats offer command-of-the-road views and are quite comfortable.

Switchgear feels substantial and operates with a smooth deliberateness usually missing in entry-level rigs. The gauges are done up in a crisp, readable white-on-black and the controls are easily at hand. Brushed-metallic trim adorns the dash and console.

An innovative touch is the center console's armrest, which moves forward three inches to accommodate shorter drivers. The armrest's lid has a flip pocket for storing an MP3 player or cell phone. The rear seats are also comfy and there's a generous amount of rear head- and legroom, and lots of space for sliding feet under the front seats.

With the 60/40 split rear seat up, the cargo space is not particularly large—22.7 cubic feet. But folded down, there's 53.6 cubic feet of space. Flipping the front folding passenger seat down (optional on the Sport), adds an additional 7 cubic feet of storage and allows hauling long items.

Prepared to Compete

Underneath, the Compass has the requisite hardware to compete successfully. The engine, a 2.4-liter inline four cylinder, is a version of DaimlerChrysler's "World" engine, developed jointly with Mitsubishi and Hyundai. Featuring dual Variable Valve Timing (VVT), the four is near the head of the class, producing 172 horsepower and 165 lb-ft of torque.

Power is directed to the wheels via a standard five-speed manual or a continuously variable transmission (CVT). A CVT uses a drive belt between two variable-diameter pulleys rather than gears in the traditional sense. Think of a ten-speed bicycle with its chain (belt) and large and small size sprockets (pulleys). Instead of ten speeds, however, a CVT offers a stepless, variable range rather than discrete gears.

Available only on the Limited model, the CVT incorporates an AutoStick manual shifter. It artificially—through computer controls—allows manual shifts through six gears. It may sound Mickey Mouse, but it works without hesitation when changing gears, and will hold the transmission in a selected gear during cornering or braking downhill.

A Jeep Through and Through

In auto industry parlance, compact sport-utility vehicles are "soft roaders"—the all-wheel-drive systems are not intended for hard-core off-road excursions. And while the Compass is not up to the Rubicon Trail, it is, "A Jeep, through and through," according to Jack Dolan, the Compass vehicle development senior manager.

Dolan's rather emphatic statement was in reference to what Jeep calls the Freedom Drive I 4x4 system. In reality, it is all-wheel drive, which means it requires no intervention from the driver and it automatically transfers power between the front and rear axles.

Basically, all the torque goes to the front wheels until the electronically controlled system is called upon to route up to 60 percent to the rear wheels as needed. However, a locking lever can hold the torque split to 50/50 (4x4) when traction becomes paramount.

"Freedom Drive I can handle wet, snowy or icy roads and two lane trails," Dolan said. "Plus, we've paid attention to the ground clearance as well as approach, breakover and departure angles as we do with all Jeeps. Compass can travel where competitors wouldn't dare trying."

Driving Impressions

Jeep chose a dandy test-drive route that began in downtown Portland, Oregon, and stretched out nearly 100 miles to a Pacific Ocean beach south of Tillamook, with a foray over a logging road along the way, and then back to Portland. We drove two Limited editions, one with the AutoStick CVT and the other a standard CVT.

One thing the Compass brings to the small sport-utility party is something drivers can appreciate every time they get behind the wheel: handling poise. Lane changes are swift and sure instead of sloppy heave-ho maneuvers.

Steering, via power assisted rack-and-pinion, seemed crisply responsive when heading changes were required. Corrections when traveling in a straight line are not necessary, just aim and go.

The Compass chassis is nicely balanced and the independent suspension with spring rates and damping tuned towards comfortable, provides smooth riding on a variety of road surfaces. Urged to "let it hang out" on the washboard and sometimes rutted logging road, there were no rattles or squeaks from the pre-production test driver.

There are few four or six cylinder-powered vehicles that don't elicit mourning from most auto writers for more ponies. That wasn't heard much during stops for driver changes and a break for lunch. The Compass' four-banger always seemed to deliver more than adequate power, whether in city traffic, passing on a two lane or pulling an incline.

As for the sand dunes, the 4x4 system in lock mode dug in and never faltered. And the prize for making it over the top was the ride down to the beach and blasting through the waves as they reached shore.

Packaging and Pricing

Impressively, a comprehensive active safety package is standard on both Compass models and as such, all the high-tech acronyms apply here. Four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes, brake assist, traction control, stability control and a roll-over mitigation system all provide peace of mind while drivers deal with the daily risks of urban and suburban driving.

Should an accident occur, multi-stage driver and front passenger airbags and side-curtain airbags are standard. Front-seat side-mounted airbags are optional.

The $15,985 Compass Sport is equipped with a five-speed manual shifter, a tilt steering column, cloth seating, a temperature gauge, intermittent wipers, an AM/FM/CD player and four speakers, fog lights and 17-inch tires and wheels. For amenities such as air conditioning and power mirrors and windows, car shoppers can add them and still keep the price under $17,000.

Stepping up to the Limited, the $20,140 includes: air conditioning; cruise control; leather upholstery; heated front seats; reclining rear seat backs; power windows, door locks and mirrors; keyless entry; a universal garage door opener; and 18-inch alloy wheels.

Fuel economy has become a big factor with the current, and apparently the future, price of gasoline hovering around the $3.00 per gallon mark. The timing of the Compass entry couldn't be better—the all-wheel-drive versions have the best ratings in the segment: 25 mpg city/29 highway with the five-speed manual (est.) and 23 mpg city/26 highway with the CVT (est.).

As good as the Compass is, there are a couple quibbles. The rear liftgate only opens minivan style, unlike the Liberty sibling and Ford Escape, which also offer rear access with a pop-out window. It's a hassle to haul 10- and 12-foot long shelving with this set up.

The other note of discontent: The back seat is relegated to two adults because molded-in-place cupholders take away foot room in the center position. Come on, there're other places for holding drinks.

The entry-level sport-ute category seems to grow by the week, but the Compass is a handsome package that's quiet, well-behaved and priced right. It will serve well as a user-friendly tool that helps tame the challenges of urban life and should be a good box-office draw for Jeep.

Larry E. Hall is editor of Northwest Auto News Service and a freelance automotive journalist based in Olympia, Wash. He has an intense interest in future automotive technology.

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