2012 Jeep Compass

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Doesn’t this look like a Grand Cherokee? It’s Jeep’s 2012 Compass.

THE RECENT YEARS of turmoil in Detroit have benefited no domestic automaker more than Chrysler, victim of mismanagement under three different regimes: its own, then Daimler and finally Cerberus Capital, the living embodiment of how to make a small fortune (start with a large one). Then an unlikely savior rode in from the East, and his name is Sergio.

Sergio Marchionne, that is, the CEO of Fiat and, since 2009, of Chrysler too. He and his team made Fiat profitable inside two years and then darned if they didn’t do the same for Chrysler, which was able to pay off its government loans in May 2011.

One reason for Fiat’s interest in Chrysler, of which it now owns a good chunk, is its Jeep division. As a brand, Jeep resonates strongly and positively among generations of Europeans.

The first ones to arrive were driven ashore in Sicily in 1943. Today, Jeep’s Grand Cherokee has as much cachet over there as Britain’s vaunted Range Rover.

Chrysler’s new management got to work on selling other, less-expensive Jeeps in Europe too—like this one, the Compass. That meant sharpening up the way it drove and upgrading both its interior and its styling, while keeping an eye on pricing. Then Jeep “exported” those improvements back to the US and applied them to its US-spec Compass for the 2011 model year. The result has been a boom in sales, here and over there. The Compass is no longer an unlovable Jeep wannabe.

The improvements continued for 2012. The Compass got a face-lift from the Grand Cherokee, not to mention illuminated cupholders. Under the hood resides a four-cylinder gas engine that generates 158 horsepower and 141 pounds of torque, or the optional 172-horsepower, 168-ft-lbs World engine, a more sophisticated and efficient inline four. The entry-model Compass Sport has a five-speed manual gearbox.

The mid-level Latitude and top-line Limited models come with a second-gen continuously variable automatic transmission that a) doesn’t feel like it’s from a lawn tractor, and b) makes the most of what each engine has to offer. Even the lesser motor lets the Compass cruise comfortably on the highway.

Every Jeep should have some modicum of off-road chops, and the new-and-improved Compass got an upgrade here too. The Compass can still be had with just front-wheel drive, but virtually everyone chooses among the two levels of four-wheel-drive capability and an array of options.

These top out with the Freedom Drive II Off-Road Package, which rides an inch higher for better ground clearance and has (among other items) a low gear range in its transaxle. Every 4×4 Compass now has a lockable center coupling between the two axles that should let it power through deep snow or mud.

There is even a new All-Weather Capability package that includes all-terrain tires, tow hooks (for rescuing other vehicles, of course) and an engine-block heater.

One result of all this is that the Compass is now “Trail Rated.” Good as this sounds, it is a benchmark that Jeep invented for itself—it isn’t handed out by some independent jury.

However, Jeep won’t play too fast and loose here because it can’t risk the Internet-promulgated scorn of enthusiasts worldwide. Furthermore, the company cautions that even a Compass with the full box of chocolates is meant only for “moderate” off-roading.

It hardly matters. The Compass is now a better-than-decent all-weather commuter and road car. Furthermore, in a segment crowded with excellent mid-size soft-roaders from Japan and Korea, the Compass holds its own in comfort, capability, equipment and price/value. The nicely furnished Latitude shown here, with the smaller engine and a grand’s worth of options, stickers for just $25,350.

Chrysler is rocking and rolling as it has not since Detroit’s glory days of the 1960s, and the media and engineering staffers I know enthuse about Fiat’s input and effect. “These people really care about cars!” one of them told me last year. What a concept!