The first big business story of 2014 was that Fiat finished buying Chrysler, paying $4.35 billion for whatever remaining stock it didn’t already own. The takeover had begun in 2009, when Fiat boss Sergio Marchionne flew into Detroit like a Marvel superhero and rescued Chrysler from its latest inept owner, a New York hedge fund called Cerberus Capital. Two years later, Chrysler was able to pay off its government loans.
One reason for Marchionne’s interest in Chrysler was its Jeep division.
As a brand, Jeep means as much to Europeans as it does to us. Jeeps made their public debut in Europe, in fact; the first ones were driven ashore in Sicily, in 1943, by American GIs.
That Jeep inspired the Brits to create the Land Rover, and today a Jeep Grand Cherokee has as much star power over there as a Range Rover does here.
Back to 2009: New Chrysler immediately got to work selling the compact Jeep Compass in Europe. That meant sharpening up how the Compass drove and improving its interior, its styling and its trim; and then Jeep “exported” those improvements back to the US. By 2011, the Compass was no longer just a Jeep badge meant for the rental-car fleets.
In 2012, among other upgrades, the Compass got a Grand Cherokee grille, for that important family resemblance. The improvements have continued, inside and out, and range from more airbags to better noise-proofing and an ever-growing menu of extra-cost options. For 2014, Jeep offers the same two gas engines as before (a 2.0-liter four-cylinder that makes 158 horsepower and 141 pounds of torque, and a 172HP, 168-lb-ft 2.4-liter Four) with a new 6-speed all-electronic automatic transmission that’s rated for up to 27 highway miles per gallon, at least with front-wheel-drive. It’s standard equipment in the mid-range Compass Latitude and top-line Limited models, replacing the previous continuously variable transmission.
In addition to FWD-only, Jeep offers two levels of four-wheel-drive capability. Freedom Drive I is full-time, “active” four-wheel-drive, which shifts automatically from FW to AW drive as needed. A Compass equipped with Freedom Drive II rides an inch higher and has a low gear range in its transaxle, along with all-terrain tires on aluminum wheels, a full-size spare tire, skid plates, tow hooks and fog lamps. (Weirdly, it still comes with the CVT transmission.) A Compass with FDII is “Trail Rated”—a yardstick that Jeep invented for itself—but even so, the company cautions that the Compass is suitable only for “moderate” off-roading.
With either 4WD system, gas mileage drops into the low 20s. And every 4WD Compass has a lockable center coupling between the two axles to help it power through deep snow or mud. A separate All-Weather Capability package, with all-terrain tires, tow hooks and an engine-block heater, is also available.
Never meant for boonie-bashing, the Compass has become a better-than-ordinary all-weather commuter, one with a solid feel to it. In the overcrowded soft-roader market, the Compass now more than holds its own in comfort, capability, equipment, style and price/value—and, for those who bow before the badge, it’s a Jeep. The Compass is still inexpensive, but no longer cheap.
A basic Compass Sport, with its standard 5-speed manual gearbox, the smaller engine and FWD, lists for less than $19,000 and is rated for up to 30 highway MPG. Our Latitude 4X4, with the more powerful engine and Freedom Drive II ($550) plus Customer Package 28B (tire-pressure monitors, garage door opener, self-dimming rearview mirror; $595), Bluetooth and Sirius ($495), a touch screen and a back-up camera ($895), stickered for $27,825, including delivery. Many more options are available.
Surveys show that about two-thirds of the cars on our highways today cost less than $25,000; and almost three-quarters of us want to spend no more than that on our next new car. This puts the Compass right in the fattest part of the statistical sales bulge.
Pricing and product are working together nicely. In 2013, Jeep reached a high-water mark for the second year in a row, selling 731,565 vehicles around the world and breaking its previous record (set in 2012) by 29,939. This is the sort of success that patience and sweating the details can lead to.