It's crunch time. To many consumers' way of thinking, complacent automakers have had it their way far too long. So today, the big rigs that the automakers believed were the only vehicles consumers wanted are coagulating on dealer lots faster than dinosaurs sinking into tarpits. "We told you we wanted smart choices of smaller vehicles," a growing consumer chorus chants. But the automakers always countered, "No-o-o. They won't sell." Now the "furrins" are eating their shorts.
And, behold: new, smaller models from the big-rig makers are wafting tentatively towards the showrooms. In what may well portend a renaissance of trans-Atlantic cooperation, the DaimlerChrysler divisions of Jeep and Dodge are introducing short-body vehicles that are long on common sense. The Jeep Compass and Dodge Caliber are kissin' cousins in at least two regards.
On the one hand, they share identical platforms and similar powertrains. On the other, they represent a heartening, if belated, expression of the engineering and manufacturing collaborations that were supposed to make the DaimlerChrysler merger such a revolutionary feat almost 10 years ago.
Along this peculiarly German and American automotive trajectory, in other words, it looks like someone's finally heading in the right direction.
The Compass is a Jeep first. It combines a front-wheel-drive platform with all-independent suspension in a way no Jeep ever has before. And it manages to do so without betraying Jeep's legendary mud-'n'-guts reputation.
There's an all-new "Freedom Drive I" four-wheel-drive system available as an option; and judiciously designed suspension height, and departure, take-off and breakover angles (i.e., the relevant geometries for gully-jumping) favor the Compass in all but the most unforgiving terrain.
But even while Compass intends to leave the Jeep legacy intact, it's clear that it blazes a new trail as well. At its Portland, Ore., media introduction, Jeep officials made no bones about the fact that Compass has been designed with a significant, if not majority, proportion of female buyers in mind.
That's right: a girl's Jeep. (Yet lest the retro-unmetrosexual male shudder with goose-bumps, an edgier version of virtually the same vehicle will debut in the fall as the Patriot.) Make no mistake, however; there's a lot more going for the Compass than its clever iPod holder that can double as a lip-gloss tray.
In the first place, Compass may be off-road worthy, but an even more important trait is its city savvy. Dimensions are perfect for negotiating crowded downtowns, parking in scraps of curbside and accomplishing a variety of stow-and-go errands.
The cargo hold is spacious and boxy. It ranges from 23 cubic feet with all seats in use to 54 cubes when rear seatbacks are folded. Hard vinyl flooring in the back can take a pounding and a splattering with no harm done; tie-down links help manage annoying package-shift.
With an entirely new inline-four-cylinder engine displacing 2.4 liters, Compass yields 172 horsepower and 165 all-important foot-pounds of torque. Double-variable valve-timing helps achieve mid-20s mile-per-gallon performance in the city and almost 30 mpg on the highway.
Ironically, an available continuously-variable transmission (CVT) rates slightly poorer fuel economy than an alternative five-speed manual. The CVT's "step-less" gear-shifting feels at first like a slipping transmission, and enthusiasts will stay away from it in droves; but it's an elegant engineering feat, and its clutchless up- and down-shifts in AutoStick mode are the snappiest, most instantaneous of their kind.
Compass' interior is uncomplicated and efficient, and seating is comfortable and supportive. Two audio gadgets bear scrutiny. The one is an auxiliary input jack for portable music players. This combines with the aforementioned lip-gloss-and-iPod holder to allow important customization of musical playback.
The other is the pseudo-boombox that folds down from the rear hatch when it's fully open. It's just the thing for keeping tunage always at the ready-or for ruining a neighbor's camp outing far from civilization. (Just remember: playlists don't annoy people; people annoy people.)
To reach that favorite getaway lake, it's probably best to have four-wheel-drive capability; and Freedom Drive I is particularly clever in this regard. On pavement, it acts as an all-time 4WD system integrating both anti-lock braking and stability control.
On the trail, a lockable center coupling tackles loose traction. Stability control, too, can be manipulated to provide greater driver control by allowing moderate, intentional wheelspin. With the CVT powertrain in particular, Freedom Drive is a no-brainer to operate in a variety of road conditions: just pull a small T-handle to lock the coupling, and Freedom Drive does the rest.
It may well be that the marketing gurus want to designate female buyers as a large part of Compass' target audience, but it is assuredly no girlie-car. Compass is, instead, a thoroughly intelligent alternative-SUV that is veering Jeep onto a proper bearing.
The catty (and quite accurate) thing to do with respect to describing the new Dodge Caliber would be to say, "Compass: ditto." To a large extent, they are very similar vehicles. The Caliber boasts a bit lower stance; features a bit less cargo space (18.5-48 cubic feet); and weighs slightly less overall.
It's sportier to drive; and its personality with the "shiftless" CV transmission verges on the exciting-again, thanks to those instant gear-changes in AutoStick mode.
Caliber's principle distinction from Compass is its availability with of one of two engines: the 2.4-liter it shares with Compass and another four-banger displacing 1.8 liters (148 hp and 125 foot-pounds). The smaller the motor, of course, the less the pizzazz, but affordability improves to the extent that a base-model Caliber costs just $13,425.
Even with the larger motor and all-wheel-drive, a Caliber R/T remains under the $20,000 threshold before options. Caliber, as it should be, is a well proportioned, attractively priced city-wagon that happens to be right on target.
2007 Jeep Compass, 4-door SUV, 5-pass.; 2.4-liter DOHC inline-4 w/ vvt; FWD & 4WD, 5-sp. manual & CVT; 172 hp/265 ft.-lbs.; 23-25 mpg/city, 26-29 mpg/highway w/ regular; cargo: 22.7-53.6 cu. ft.; std. equip.: 4-wheel ABS disk brakes & ind. suspension, 17-in. wheels, front/head airbags; base price range: $15,985-$21,740; on-sale: August 2006
2007 Dodge Caliber, 4-door sportwagon, 5-pass.; 1.8 & 2.4-liter DOHC inline-4 w/ vvt; FWD & AWD, 5-sp. manual & CVT; 148 & 172 hp/125 & 265 ft.-lbs.; 23 mpg/city, 26 mpg/highway (for AWD/CVT) w/ regular; cargo: 18.5-48 cu. ft.; std. equip.: disk/drum brakes & ind. suspension, 15-in. wheels, front/head airbags; base price range: $13,425-$19,425