2012 Jeep Compass full of charisma, utility

If you’ve spent any time in Alaska in winter, you’ve seen the local drivers tooling around effortlessly on compact snow and ice, many of them in old pickups built before the advent of the cassette player, with empty beds and tires that, if not completely bald, have seriously receding hairlines.

In contrast, a modest snowfall in the Puget Sound region constitutes a Category 5 emergency for most drivers. Many people won’t even leave home. And for that, many other people are grateful. Those who are out on the road can be divided into three distinct groups. Group One drivers are terrified, quaking, riding the brakes and traveling at speeds that could be outpaced by a basset hound. Group Two drivers are overconfident because they have four-wheel drive or an unrealistic ego-inflated opinion of their driving skills, or perhaps both. Their vehicles can often be seen in ditches next to the road, and not always right-side up. Group Three consists of drivers who hate the people in Group One and laugh at the people in Group Two.

Driving expertise can compensate for a lack of stability equipment on a vehicle, and stability equipment can compensate for a lack of driving expertise, but only up to a certain point in both cases. When that certain point is passed, trouble is not far behind.

The ideal combination is a skillful driver behind the wheel of a snow-worthy vehicle, and a snow-worthy vehicle doesn’t have to look like a Zamboni. For the mostly moderate snowfalls we get in the Pacific Northwest, just about any car with all-wheel drive (or if a two-wheel driver, with its engine located above its driving wheels, which provides better traction) and a set of good all-season tires will do fine. But sport utility vehicles, which ride higher off the ground, also provide the clearance necessary for maneuvering in deeper snow, and they’re the darlings of drivers who live in remote rural areas of Snohomish County, especially those near the Cascades.

For the past five weeks, my test vehicles have all been SUVs or all-wheel-drive crossovers, and of course there’s been no snow. That’s a pretty good indicator that a hellacious storm with record low temperatures and snow accumulation will hit us this winter, arriving when my test vehicle is a front-engine, rear-wheel-drive exotic supercar with summer tires and 2 inches of ground clearance.

In the meantime, let’s take a look at the first SUV in my recently driven lineup: the 2012 Jeep Compass.

For 2013, the Jeep Compass is a carryover of the 2012 model, with the exception that fuel economy has been boosted for the 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, when equipped with a five-speed manual transmission and two-wheel drive. Model-year 2013 Compasses with that configuration have an EPA highway fuel economy rating of 30 mpg, a one-mile improvement over 2012. Two new exterior colors are also added for 2013: Winter Chill Pearl Coat and Black Forest Green Pearl Coat.

The Jeep Compass is a compact but roomy SUV with two rows of seats and seating for five people. For 2012, there are three trim levels: Sport, Latitude and Limited, all available with standard front-wheel drive or optional full-time active four-wheel drive, with or without low-range capability.

The 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, which generates 158 horsepower and 141 lb-ft of torque, is standard on Sport and Latitude models. A 2.4-liter 172-horsepower four-cylinder with 165 lb-ft of torque is standard on the Limited model and optional on the other two. On the Sport, a five-speed manual transmission is standard and a continuously variable (CVT) automatic transmission is optional. The CVT is standard on Latitude and Limited models, and it has manual shift ability.

My tester was a Latitude model with the 2.4-liter engine, automatic transmission and four-wheel drive. Its EPA fuel economy rating is 21 mpg city and 26 mpg highway.

In addition to a reassuring list of safety features standard on the Compass Latitude — including front and rear side-curtain airbags, anti-lock brakes with brake assist, electronic stability control and electronic rollover mitigation — its interior is standardly appointed with such niceties as heated front seats, a media center, audio jack, two power outlets, a steering wheel with auxiliary audio controls and tiltable column, outside temperature gauge, and a height-adjustable driver’s seat.

That last item is more important than it might seem. The lack of driver’s seat height adjustability can be a deal breaker for people whose stature falls somewhere near the outer reaches for short or tall, rather than near the average middle. With a height-stationary driver’s seat, exceptionally short drivers can’t see over the steering wheel or dash, and the exceptionally tall have no headroom.

However, it was also the Compass Latitude driver’s seat that provoked the only demerit I gave the test vehicle. The seats are completely comfortable and their premium cloth fabric feels and looks good, but they have manual adjustment. Usually that’s not much of a problem, but I found myself wishing for power adjustment of the Latitude’s driver seat when I was struggling to get it just right with the manual levers. Fine-tuning was elusive. A power driver’s seat is not available on the Latitude or Sport, but it’s standard on the Limited model and has six-way adjustability.

A Security and Convenience option package on the tester added $650 to the bottom line, and I could easily live without everything in it except the soft tonneau cover for the rear cargo area. The downside of an SUV is not having a trunk for stowing valuables out of sight, so at least there should be a cargo cover, and it ought to be standard equipment on all of them.

The other two options on the tester, Uconnect voice command with Bluetooth ($475 and it includes satellite radio) and P215/65R17 OWL all-terrain tires ($140) are keepers.

Some of the many Compass qualities that accumulated in the plus column during the test week were its perfect-for-me size and utility, the way it sort of resembles the old Jeep Cherokee (one of my favorite-looking vehicles ever) but has a civilized car-like ride and quiet interior on the highway, the simple three-knob climate control system and its infinitely variable vents, satisfying acceleration, seamless shifting, excellent handling, and the sporty go-anywhere charisma inherent in the Jeep brand.

2012 Jeep Compass Latitude 4X4

Base price, including destination charge: $24,225

Price as driven: $25,490

Mary Lowry is a free-lance automotive writer who has been reviewing cars for more than 20 years. The cars are provided by the manufacturers as a one-week loan for review purposes only. In no way do the manufacturers control the content of the reviews.

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