BEND, Ore. -- Snow, sliced by a plow into a wall three feet high, rims a narrow road wrapping around Mt. Bachelor in the Cascade Range of Oregon, with the three Sisters, white-capped spires thrust into a cobalt sky, filling the three rearview mirrors on a 2011 edition of Compass, Jeep's compact-class wagon which happens to be a CUV (crossover utility vehicle) with the unified structure of a front-wheel-drive (FWD) car.
No need to sweat slipping and sliding, since the icy stuff remains in banks lining the road and the asphalt seems as dry as the high desert air. Besides, the particular version of Compass that we're driving carries Jeep's optional Freedom Drive I package which adds a full-time four-wheel-drive (4WD) traction device with lock mode.
It normally runs in FWD mode, yet an electrically controlled coupling (ECC) can divert as much as 60 percent of the engine's torque to the rear wheels when additional tire grip is required. You can rack a lever to lock the center coupling so the system splits the powertrain's muscle 50-50 between front and rear tires for tricky traction situations like wet pavement, slick snow or sand.
Thus, all four tires bite the blacktop with steady and predictable traction applied as we take one curve after the next on Oregon 46 (Century Drive) weaving through foothills of the Cascades.
Jeep has reworked the Compass for 2011 editions with fresh exterior styling patterned after the redesigned 2011 Grand Cherokee, upgraded the passenger compartment with fancy upholstery material and soft-touch trim panels, then retuned steering and suspension systems to improve the wagon's ride and handling characteristics.
Compass also offers a new off-road package dubbed Freedom Drive II which installs a fuel tank skid plate shield, tow hooks and all-terrain tires (Goodyear Wrangler GTA 215/65R17 OWL) to make this CUV a capable trail runner.
Styling of the sheetmetal incorporates familiar hallmarks of Jeep such as the seven-slot grille and large round headlamps in clusters which become focal points on front corners flanking the chrome-clad grille.
Compass stands tall in the traditional two-box format of a wagon but with all corners contoured and the horizontal lines chiseled and planed in streamline fashion. Wheel openings are shaped in a trapezoidal design with wheels pinned at corners of the platform and front and rear overhangs crimped to make transitions easy on steep slopes.
A new set of slim rails crowns the roof, while below on flanks there's a band of protective cladding added to fend off debris.
At the tail Compass wears a new body-color spoiler above the liftgate window, which tips forward while the lower metal section falls vertically for a squared rump.
A pair of doors on each side provides a separate entry for every seat, and the tall structure carves out ample room for heads of all passengers. Despite its classification as a compact-class vehicle, Compass has a passenger compartment of generous scale with seats for five and space in the tail section for stowing gear.
Layout of the cabin consists of a pair of contoured buckets up front and followed by a bench broad enough for three but with indents for two. Seatbacks on the second row split in 60/40 sections and fold down to extend the floor of the rear cargo bay, which has 53.6 cubic feet of room with rear seats flat or 22.7 cubic feet with seatbacks raised.
Measures for passenger safety in the cabin extend from the sturdy safety-cage construction to front seatbelts with load-limited and pretensioning apparatus, backseat restraints with upper and lower anchors to mount a child's seat, smart multi-stage air bags up front with seat-mounted side air bags plus curtain-style air bags concealed in headliners above side windows for outboard seats in front and back.
Compass also has lots of active safety systems designed to avoid accidents, including a quick-response rack and pinion steering system and anti-lock brake system (ABS) plus anti-skid devices via electronic stability control (ESC) coupled to all-speed traction control (ASTC), even electronic roll mitigation (ERM) to block a roll-over.
Jeep provides a four-cylinder engine in two sizes to motivate the 2011 Compass through three trim levels tagged as Compass, Latitude and Limited.
The smallest powerplant -- a 2.0-liter four-in-line with twin cams on top and dual variable valve timing (DVVT) -- serves as the stock engine for Compass FWD and Compass Latitude FWD.
It produces 158 hp at 6400 rpm plus torque of 141 lb-ft at 5000 rpm and earns EPA fuel economy figures as high as 23 mpg city and 29 mpg highway.
Available shifters include a five-speed manual (Magna T355) or an automatic continuously variable transaxle (Jatco CVT2) with the AutoStick for manual shift control.
A larger four-cylinder engine -- displacing 2.4 liters and also stocking dual cams and DVVT -- motivates Compass 4WD, Latitude 4WD and Limited for both FWD and 4WD.
Its muscle numbers tally to 172 hp at 6000 rpm with 165 lb-ft of torque at 4400 rpm.
The 2.4-liter plant also links to the T355 manual five-speed or Jatco CVT2/AutoStick.
That new optional Freedom Drive II off-road package brings a full-time 4WD system tied to a CUV (Jatco CVT2L) with low-range gear ratio of 19.11:1 and a final-drive ratio of 3.21:1. It engages when the off-road mode is activated and enables Compass to crawl over rough terrain.
Other electronic controls also apply with the Freedom Drive II package:
* Brake Traction Control System (BTCS) keeps the vehicle rolling even on split-friction surfaces like gravel where one wheel loses traction.
* Hill Start Assist (HSA) holds the CUV on a slope.
* Hill Descent Control (HDC) keeps the wagon's wheels firmly planted when trekking down a steep grade.
Compass for 2011 comes with a long list of standard equipment including air conditioning, power controls for windows and door locks and the heated exterior mirrors, a keyless entry system, cruise control, new high-output projector foglamps and 17-inch aluminum wheels capped by 215/60R17 BSW all-season touring tires.
A new All-weather Capability Group package brings Goodyear all-terrain tires, all-season floor mats, daytime running lamps, engine block heater and tow hooks.
And the Sun and Sound Group kit adds a sun roof, Sirius satellite radio service and Boston Acoustics audio speakers including two speakers on the tailgate which swing down to face rearward for a tailgate party.
Jeep sets MSRP numbers for the 2011 Compass from $19,295 for a base model in FWD format to $25,995 for the Compass Limited with 4WD traction.