With the recent passing of FCA boss Sergio Marchionne, it is likely many of us have been giving some thought to his contributions to Chrysler (FCA). Some professional automotive journalists have named him Chrysler’s “Savior.” Is such a designation fair, accurate?
As luck would have it, Budget car rental at Philadelphia International airport recently handed me the key to an important product in Sergio’s lineup; a 2018 Jeep Compass, with the top 4WD Trail Hawk trim package. My family was on vacation, and my wife reserved a “midsize suv” for travel to visit family in Pennington, NJ, a wedding at Wildwood Crest on the Jersey Shore, and a multi-day excursion up to Quebec City…then back to Philly. It would be 1500 miles over 10 days. When I got into the driver seat, the odometer read 3006. This Compass was nearly new.
Compass occupies a “sweet spot” in the US automotive marketplace. It is a 5 passenger unibody SUV. Whether it is officially a “compact suv” or “midsize suv” is open to interpretation–industry mavens have differing ideas about this. Well optioned, it can be purchased for around $35,000. These attributes exactly describe what the “average” US shopper is seeking today. Compass slots between the cute, smaller Italian-built Renegade, and the larger Cherokee.
What would 10 days and 1500 miles with the Compass tell me about FCA, about Sergio? Will we be oogling a Compass as a desirable classic when parked alongside a Eugene, OR curb in 30 years?
It is a true fact that Jeep is one of the most storied and valuable brands in the automotive space. Say “Jeep” and even the most ignorant human being alive will know exactly what you are talking about.
Clearly the designers of this Jeep branded FCA product wanted to imbue its exterior with the same sense of rugged sturdiness that we all associate with the Jeep brand. I think they succeeded. While the nose is rounded and the windshield raked for reduced drag, Compass retains a certain upright butch boxiness, very much in keeping with the Jeep heritage. Perhaps “boxiness” is the essence of Jeep design language. Compass also has a 7-slot grille, the other essential element of Jeep-iness. The body cladding along the rockers and around the wheel arches perfectly captures the rugged Jeep aesthetic.
As the top trim level, the exterior was adorned with two tone paint, matte black hood treatment, and some red contrasting elements—like the tow hooks and highlights on the front door “Compass” emblems. The hood is made of plastic, but the side doors have a good solid steely heft about them. The doors shut with a solid thunk. Not quite as satisfying as the Teutonic door thunk from my old Mercedes W124, but still plenty good.
The tires/wheels are sized just right to compliment the overall rugged, Jeep look. That said, I found the only slightly chunky Falken WildPeak H/T tires to make enough noise and vibration to be a bit annoying at highway speeds. More than once I wondered if the Compass had a bad wheel bearing. Maybe it was a bad bearing…?
All in all, I consider the exterior appearance of this Compass Trail Hawk to be a Grand Slam. It very much “Looks like a Jeep” while also appearing contemporary and stylish. Great Job, team Sergio!
The Trail Hawk trimmed interior looks great.
The manually adjusting front seats have contrasting red stitching and Trail Hawk script. While most of the seat is black leatherette, the center of the cushions are high-quality cloth. I like this feature—it reduces perspiration and improves comfort. With regard to seat ergonomics however, I must assign a grade of C-. While I am no bantam weight (I am 6ft and 220lbs), I am not a fat-ass either. My butt, and especially my thighs, were NOT comfortable in these good looking seats. The flat portion of the seat is too narrow, the side bolsters too tall. The bolsters cut into my upper thigh, and after as few as 50 miles, I found the need to shift position to take pressure off my thighs. Not good!
I found the back seat to be remarkably spacious and comfortable. Great head, leg, and shoulder room, and the flat bottom seat cushions did not dig into my thighs like the front seats. Entry/egress was great through the large door openings. I consider the back seat spaciousness to be one of the best attributes of Compass.
The rear storage area is decently tall, and deep. Vacation luggage for four fit well. Even a tall “rollerboard” (the size larger than what is acceptable for carry-on luggage) fit in its upright orientation. This is a great feature for an airport rental! Curiously, Compass does NOT have power tailgate closing, even on this top trim version.
This Compass has FCA’s well respected infotainment system with both iPhone and Android interfaces…all the good stuff. That system has been well reviewed elsewhere, so I won’t get into that here.
A few Niggles regarding the Interior
The tiny cubby directly in front of the gear lever console appears designed to hold a smart phone. The cubby is very shallow and means the phone will not stand up properly, so it tends to flop around in motion and contacts the gear stick when it is shifted into Park. A bumpy road would likely throw the phone to the floor. The cubby is especially inadequate for larger phones like the iPhone Plus series. This is a MAJOR oversight as contemporary drivers will ALWAYS want a place to stash a phone, and this Jeep does not provide such a place.
Compass has no dedicated cubby/holder for sunglasses. Both the Mazdas I own have a nice drop down sunglass holder in the overhead center map/dome light console. That this Compass does not have such a thing is silly. I ended up placing my sunglasses on a little flat area on the bottom of the speedometer binnacle. Long term usage of this sort would likely end up scratching the plastic instrument panel lens and my glasses.
The door and center console cup holders are too small in diameter to accommodate what I call my “Swigger”—a de-labelled Powerade bottle I refill with water and carry with me all the time. Another unforced error by the Interior design crew at headquarters in Auburn Hills, MI!
The center armrest has a nice little storage compartment under the cushion. This would be a good place to store charger cords, some Taco Bell El Scorcho! salsa packets, bullets (Texas only) or whatever. The actual arm/elbow rest cushion however, is TOO EFFING SMALL. My wife and I were continually bumping elbows on that damn thing. It’s a small issue, granted, but I have driven many cars with my wife riding shotgun, and we seldom experience this problem—except in B class subcompact cars.
The plastic housing on the steering column was very cheap looking. Where the top and bottom halves of the cover come together around the ignition switch tells the whole story.
All Compass trims have a single engine option—a 180 horsepower 2.4 liter inline 4 cylinder. A six speed manual gearbox is standard for the lower trim level, but my experience tells me you will never find one. The 9-speed automatic is what mine had. Mine was also equipped with 4 wheel drive, but I never engaged that system, so cannot offer any impressions.
My grade for the powertrain? D. Seriously. The first few miles with Compass found me stuck in bumper to bumper Philly traffic. I saw an opening to my right, with an F150 closing fast, so I put my foot down and steered into the gap. Bog…bog…bog…this engine was not able to produce enough power/torque off the line to move Compass with very much authority at all. It reminded me of my old Pinto. The F150 driver honked in anger!
Once underway, the underpowered nature of Compass never disappeared. When I had cruise control set at around 70 mph on Interstate 87, it was a bit too slow for traffic. When I pressed the “Set +” button on the steering wheel to accelerate, the engine bogged…bogged, then downshifted…bogged…downshifted again…roared! In short, to pick up a bit of speed, roll-on from 70 mph to about 75 mph using cruise control, the transmission shifted from 9th to 8th and to 7th. The engine, of course, made noticeable racket and vibes in 7th as most 4 bangers do when revved.
The onboard computer showed Compass was returning 26.1 mpg on my highway cruising, but when I did the math upon fill up, my calculations revealed a solid 29 mpg, pretty darn close to the EPA highway rating of 30mpg. Fitment of the weakish 2.4 liter engine yielded exactly zero driving pleasure, but it did return very decent fuel economy on the highway.
Regarding contemporary 8, 9, and 10 speed automatics, I understand they are a response to modern CVT’s….trying to keep engines in the sweet spot, efficiency wise, as much as possible. These automatics use real shift points to eliminate the “rubber band” effect many drivers complain about with CVT’s. In the case of this Compass however, the effort failed. Gear hunting and multiple downshifts to accomplish even modest speed increases is just as frustrating as a rubber-band-y CVT.
I pity the drivetrain calibration engineers in Auburn Hills who must weigh the benefits of a satisfying driving experience with the demands of fuel economy and emissions compliance. That would suck! Clearly, market and regulatory reality necessitates calibration for low emissions and economy, so throttle responsiveness and aggressive shift points got left behind….far, far behind. The manual gearbox would likely bring a VERY different personality to this vehicle, but we all know about as many people want manuals as want a colonoscopy. Pity.
Also pitiful is the stop/start feature at stop lights. I cycled through the dash driving computer screens a few times, and the infotainment settings, but could not easily find the menu option to disable the annoying stop/ start feature. I lived with it, reluctantly.
On the Road
I am not the kind of person who corners with gusto. I am not even a particularly fast driver on the straights, so I cannot comment on the outer limits of dynamic performance potential for Compass. What I can say however, is that my family found the ride to be comfortable, not Lexus soft, but not trucky-rough either. A good compromise.
The brakes were grabby, with too much initial bite. They are powerful, and engage at the very top of pedal travel. The steering is electrically assisted, and while turning is easy, there is a distinct lack of feel—the numbness that electric assist is well known for. Once I had about 100 miles of experience driving Compass, I became accustomed to the steering, but developing a lighter touch for the brake pedal took much, much longer. The shoulder restraint belts all got a workout as I was adapting….
Cabin noise was on par with other contemporary mass-market vehicles I have driven. I did notice some wind buffeting sounds around the B pillar, but it wasn’t terrible. The air conditioning system was just okay—there were times I wanted more direct airflow to my upper body and to my legs; the vents just didn’t shoot the cool air where I wanted it.
I was expecting this FCA product to suffer from what has ailed many Chrysler products over the decades; sub-par build and materials quality. Compass, in keeping with FCA reputation, did provide some points to ponder regarding product quality. Sergio, it appears, was a traditionalist!
When loading luggage into the rear storage area at the airport, I found two such telltale signs of “good enough” build quality. I noticed a cylindrically shaped rubber bumper thingy sitting on top of another rubber bumper thingy in the lower left jamb of the hatch. Some looking around indicated that the cylindrical thingy was supposed to be mounted on the hatch door itself. A simple “insert and twist” motion had it installed.
Also in the rear cargo area, I found a black plastic cargo net clip in the cubby on the floor on the right side. It had fallen out of its mounting hole immediately above. That too was an “insert and twist” installation. Why had both fallen out within 3000 miles? Were they ever installed? Some other interior pieces were clearly built to a price, such as the plastic A and B pillar trim. The hard plastic kick panels at the bottom of the doors were already showing scuffing. The black plastic sill covers were VERY thin and flimsy looking.
I do nearly all my own vehicle maintenance and repair, so ease of service is a buying consideration for me. Under the hood I found lots of space, and it seemed all fluid reservoirs were easily inspected and accessible. The serpentine belt was accessible too. The airbox location was wide open, but screws were fitted instead of clips, as on most other vehicles, to hold the two halves together. The top engine cover required a screwdriver to remove as well. Why require a tool to access a common service component when tool-free access is easily achievable?
Lastly, this engine has an internally lubricated timing chain, NOT a rubber timing belt, so that is one service item a Compass owner need not worry about. All told, underhood serviceability appears quite good. 0W-20 synthetic engine oil is specified, so no, you will not be doing $20 oil changes.
Jeep Compass is a uniquely Jeep-y looking 5 passenger SUV. It is priced at the precise average transaction price of US new vehicle purchases, around $35k. It has a roomy back seat and luggage area, and gets good fuel economy on the highway.
The engine and transmission performance are severely hampered by the priority for fuel economy.
The interior has some issues—the front seats are uncomfortable and too close together. The cell phone cubby, cup (bottle) holders, and center arm rest are all too small.
After my 1500 miles with Compass, I had fond feelings for it. My family and I had a great vacation in it. I really like the appearance of it—in and out. This of course, all makes sense, Compass is the contemporary family station wagon—it was made to do precisely what I just used it for!
Trouble is, once we got back to LAX, and got into our 2011 Mazda CX-9, the Compass’ faults were starkly illustrated. While not directly comparable vehicles, the Mazda’s front seats are soooo much more comfortable, and the drivetrain with the Ford sourced 3.7L V6 and 6-speed automatic are infinitely more satisfying to drive, even with a 7 mpg or so fuel economy disadvantage. In the Mazda, I have great places to put my phone and sunglasses. The overall materials quality and fit and finish of my Mazda is head and shoulders above Compass.
The Final Word
Did Sergio “save” Chrysler? It appears in the short term, he did. For that, his memory deserves deep respect. As for longer term, time will tell. Will I gasp when I see one of these parked on the street in 2048? I doubt it.
Clearly, Sergio Marchionne effectively worked to capitalize on one of FCA’s greatest assets, the Jeep brand. He cultivated a full line of competitive SUV’s—Renegade, Compass, Cherokee, Grand Cherokee, and crucially, the wildly popular Wrangler. Sergio recognized that the path to profitability was right up Jeep’s dirt road. Jeeps are selling strongly, and from what I understand, keeping the whole FCA enterprise afloat, along with RAM trucks of course.
Was Sergio able to slay the Chrysler dragon; did he fix quality? No, FCA problems with build and materials quality clearly persist to some extent. Perhaps Mike Manley, the guy who has run point on the Jeep brand since 2009 and Sergio’s successor, will be able to take FCA quality to that next level.
When Sergio took over the reins in Auburn Hills in 2009, the situation was desperate, and from what I understand, the troops were demoralized. At the moment of Sergio’s death this past month, FCA was making good profits on its Jeep brand, and FCA is healthy enough to fight another day…