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Old 8th April 2009, 20:37   #1
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Smile Test drive of the Jeep Compass

Here's something I'd written last year, when I drove up to Vermont with some friends. Forgot to post this back then. Just found it this morning when cleaning up some old files.


Weekend in Vermont - The Jeep Compass Story

Ok. This is my first review of any car, so please keep that in mind as I provide a brief (and possibly un-interesting) background on the whole experience, before I get down to the bits about the car itself.

The Plan

Kind of spur of the moment (couple of days notice), a few of us at work decided to head out of town for the weekend. While the initial plan was to stay overnight somewhere, we figured why not just leave early morning on Saturday, and return early morning on Sunday. That way, we can take it easy on Sunday (i.e. sleep all day, so that we don't land up at work on Monday completely zonked).

We decided to drive up north, towards Route 100 in Vermont. Heard good things about it, and figured we might take a diversion or two along the way.

When I made the reservation at Avis, I chose an Intermediate car. I thought I'd be driving a Pontiac G6 or it's equivalent. But when I landed up at the rental center to pick up the car, the lady at the counter offered me a Hyundai Sonata. Now, don't get me wrong, the Sonata (Embera) is a nice car - I've driven it a couple of times before. But it wouldn't be my first preference when it comes to having an enjoyable driving experience. Perhaps looking at the disinterest on my face, she checked her inventory and offered me the option of taking the Jeep Compass. I figured, "What the heck. At least it'll be more interesting than the Sonata". So I accepted it, and walked up to the parking garage to pick it up.

The Car

The model that was made available to me was a 2008 Jeep Compass Sport, with an interestingly named Freedom Drive 4WD system. The base price of the Sport 4X4 model is a smidgen under $19k, which is about $3k cheaper than the Limited version, and normally doesn't come with power windows or power mirrors. But this one did, so I'm guessing they were optional extras that were added.

The car was decently specced with Power Windows, Power Mirrors (with demisters), a single CD stereo system (which performed fairly well for a factory fitted piece), Rear Wiper/Washer with defroster, and remote keyless entry. Interestingly enough, ABS and Traction & Stability Control are part of standard equipment. A quick stopover at the Jeep website tells me that a model specced such as this would work out to a base price of $21k.

The Interiors

I'd driven a RAV4 quite often, and was keen to try out the Compass as it was in approximately the same price bracket. Upon getting into the Compass (a white one at that), my first impression was "My, this is kind of cramped". There is a fair amount of leg room when compared to the RAV4, but it just feels more cramped. It just felt a lot narrower.

While waiting for the engine to warm up a bit, I took a quick look around the insides of the car. It was a fairly new car (under 1000 miles on the odo), and it still had that new car smell. The interiors were a little bland, to be honest. Plenty of dull grey around, and the plastics on the dashboard and around the car were quite hard. Heck, even the Santro I used to own back home felt better when it comes to plastic quality. In fact, at some places, like where two plastic parts meet, the edges seemed quite rough and can scratch ones hand quite easily. But the quality of plastic on the controls (Air con, stalks, etc) were much better; felt very smooth, and well within reach of the driver.

I'd taken a GPS unit along with the rental, and usually I'd fit it to the dash (above the stereo). But the surface of the dashboard is kind of wierd, and I couldn't get the suction cups of the Garmin to stick to any part of the car. Rather an unusual situation which I'd never seen in another car. Anyways, since I knew the way back home from the rental agency, figured I'd just get there on my own and then try to find a place to fit the GPS.

D for Drive

Slotting the CVT transmission into D, I took off out of the parking lot towards home. Perhaps it's because of the gear ratios (or rather, the lack of pre-defined ones) of the CVT, but it felt a little sluggish off the line. In fact, it felt like it had very little low-end torque. True, it's only a piddly little 4 cyl engine, rated at about 170 bhp. But that should still be enough to get her behind moving, especially with the throttle pedal floored. It was only later I found that changing the gears manually (using the AutoStick to shift manually) offers slightly better acceleration from stand still.

Ride and Handling

But what surprised me was how well she handled, and I don't mean off-road. When we headed out on Saturday morning towards Vermont, it was instantly obvious to me that she handled a lot better than the RAV4. I'd driven a RAV4 along the same route a couple of weeks previously, and while the ride was quite comfortable, the handling definitely wasn't. The RAV4 was a typical SUV, with plenty of body roll. The Jeep Compass, on the other hand, was a lot more stable. Yes, there was some perceptable body roll at higher speeds (above 80 mph), but still not enough to scare you into slowing down. I didn't believe it, but I was actually starting to enjoy the drive. And while I was doing this, I also found that once she'd picked up speed (past 60 mph), she felt more responsive to small taps at the throttle pedal. "This might just be a rather enjoyable drive", I thought to myself.

Like I said above, the RAV4 was definitely more comfortable in the ride department. The softer suspension of the RAV4 (in my opinion) seemed to take uneven surfaces to task and very little noise or vibes ever crept into the cabin. The Jeep Compass on the other hand had a firmer suspension, and some noise did filter into the cabin. However, the solid build of the Compass impressed me. On many an occasion, I took her through some average size craters in NYC (average by US standards, minor irritants by Indian standards) and she took them on quite well.

Fuel Stops

Perhaps it was the fact that we were heading towards higher altitude and the engine had to work harder. Or it could just be that I liked giving the engine some stick, especially with the faux manual. But throughouht the trip, the fuel warning lamp came on around the 240 mile mark, without fail. And filling her up to full tank again (which I did twice on the trip), took about 11.5 gallons. That works out to about 21 miles per gallon. Not too bad, but definitely less than the EPA rated 23/27 for City/Highway. Compare that with the 22 mpg I got in a similarly equipped RAV4, that's pretty good. With a more sedate driver, one who stays under 80 mph, I think the Compass could easily stretch a gallon to 22+ miles.

Offroading Time

Ok, before you off-roading maniacs get excited, I didn't do any serious offroading. No clambering up boulders and sides of hills n such. No, my offroading was more like slush and snow and muddy waters (umm, any Blues fans here?). One of the places we were trying to get to was a winery in some remote part of Vermont. Silly people that we are, we assumed that there would be decent roads right up to the winery. But noooo. About 2 miles before the winery, we turned into a non-existant road. Just a beaten down mud path, which was nice and squelchy on account of the solid snowfall the previous night. So, twas' a ferpect time to test the AWD capabilities of this Jeep wannabe (many hardcore Jeep lovers seem to think this is not a true Jeep as it's built on a car-like chassis or something). Engaging the 4WD lock, the Compass tootled along comfortably at about 20 mph. Till we got to a point where it was so slippery, it felt like all 4 wheels had minds of their own, and were trying to break free and go in 4 different directions. But, while I started getting nervous and wondered if I should continue, she soldiered along and soon enough, WE HAD TRACTION!!.

Once we'd reached the top of the hill, we found that the winery was closed/deserted. So after a brief intermission when we mentally kicked our own backsides for not calling first, we headed back down the hill. But this time, with less trepidation as we had a better feel of what the Jeep could do.

The Drive back home

As I've mentioned previously, the plan was to return home (Jersey City) by Sunday morning. Which meant driving all night.

So on the way back, after a diversion towards New Hampshire and familiar surroundings for dinner, we left New Hampshire at around 9:30 pm. The voice with a cold (the GPS unit - the voice commands came from what sounded like a lady with a cold/cough) estimated the journey was about 250 miles, which was supposed to take around 4.5 hours. However, even though it was at night, and with heavy traffic, I enjoyed throwing the Jeep around the long sweeping curves (through Merrit Pkwy) and reached Jersey at around 1:00 am, including a 15 minute diversion for gas.

Comfort of driving position

One thing that really surprised me in the entire trip was the driving position. I've driven several other cars, of various sizes and shapes (including a delectable 650i Coupe a few weeks ago ), and this was near perfect. The pedals, steering, controls, were all placed perfectly; at least for me they were. And the drivers seat was firm, but comfortable. Which was why I drove the entire day (about 750 miles in total) and still didn't feel all that tired. In comparison, the RAV4 felt ok, but nothing great.

Would I buy one?

Now comes the important question. Would I buy one (assuming I was in the market for a new car)? Probably, yes.

I like compact SUVs for the additional space they offer, but usually shy away on account of the fact that they're usually kind of boring to drive. This one has some good points going for it, namely the ride and handling along with the solid build quality. Yes, the dashboard plastic does have it's rough edges, and it's seats are a little on the firm side, and so is the ride. But I don't mind, as it wasn't exactly uncomfortable.

However, at it's price point, it's got some serious competition from the (albeit slightly more expensive) Toyota RAV4, the Honda CRV, and even the Subaru Forester.
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