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car review

2012 Jeep Compass.

Jeep stands out on the road and is built to tackle the great outdoors. But even if you don't want to go head-to-head against Mother Nature, you should still consider a Jeep. For busy soccer moms on the go, the Compass is an affordable, often-overlooked, compact SUV with space, available 4WD and a great price.

The starting price of a base Sport 4x2 Compass is only $17,245 – it's one of the cheapest SUVs on the market. You can add 4WD on the Compass Sport, bringing the price to $19,545 – it's the model I'd take. Compare it to the competition and the numbers speak volumes. A base model Hyundai Tucson starts at $19,999, a Kia Sportage at $21,995, a Honda CR-V at $25,990, a VW Tiguan at $27,875 and a Toyota RAV4 at $24,865.

My tester is dubbed a Compass North All-Season 4x4. which comes with air conditioning, power windows and locks, remote keyless entry, and power heated and fold-away mirrors. Just be careful with the options – that's when you'll get dinged with a higher price. A Sun and Sound package, for example, with a power sunroof, nine Boston acoustic speakers with a subwoofer, steering-wheel-mounted audio controls and a leather-wrapped steering wheel costs $1,250. Before you know it, the base price of my tester jumps from $21,195 to $32,815.

From the outside, the Compass retains Jeep's classic rugged styling – it's instantly recognizable and looks strikingly similar to its big brother, the Grand Cherokee. The front end features Jeep's signature rounded headlamps and a seven-slotted grille with chrome accents with protective lower accent cladding. My tester rides on 17-inch aluminum wheels – 18-inch aluminum wheels are available. A deep cherry red crystal pearl paint complements my interior's dark slate grey nicely.

The cabin is a bit lacklustre and filled with hard plastics. While not as nice as the competition, the layout is functional. All controls are straightforward and everything is at your fingertips – a 6.5-inch touch screen display is simple to use; the vents adjust easily. The power windows, locks and switches are back lit and the cup holders are illuminated so it's easy to see even in the dark.

Standard safety features include fog lamps, hill start assist, electronic stability program with hill start assist, electronic roll mitigation, ABS with brake assist and active head restraints. While it does come with front and side curtain front and rear airbags, if you want supplemental front seat side airbags you'll have to pay extra. They are part of a security and convenience group package, which costs $800, and adds a tire pressure monitoring display, a soft tonneau cover and a security alarm.

The Compass seats five and provides ample headroom and legroom for passengers in the front and rear. The front bucket seats are comfortable and supportive. The driver's seat has manual adjustments and a height-adjustable driver's seat, which gives you a commanding view of the road ahead.

The step-in is a bit high, especially for seniors – my mother complained getting in and out of it. But the rear seats are suitable; they recline for added comfort. The 60/40 seats also fold flat as does the front passenger seat on my tester to create a long, large cargo area. With the seats down, there's 1,519 litres of room; with the seats upright, there's still a big cargo space with 643 litres.

Powering the compass is a 2.4-litre, inline-four-cylinder engine that delivers 172 horsepower and 165 lb-ft of torque. Mated to the engine is a continuously variable transmission, which is optional for $1,750. Personally, I'd skip it and stick with the standard five-speed manual transmission. I'm not a fan of the CVT – it's noisy and harsh especially under full throttle. It feels underpowered and sluggish.

The guttural engine noise also echoes annoyingly in the cabin. Highway merging and passing is laboured at times, but at highway cruising speeds it feels stable and secure. It's not very agile – around corners there is significant body lean because of its tall, narrow body. But the fuel economy is impressive for a 4WD SUV. My tester is rated at 9.9 litres/100 km in the city and 7.7 on the highway, using regular fuel.

If you want to conquer the occasional trail, you can add the Freedom Drive II Off-Road Group package, which costs $750. It includes an off-road 4WD lock mode, hill descent control with grade-sensing features, skid plates, front and rear tow hooks, a 140-amp alternator, and a heavy-duty engine oil cooler. The full-time active 4x4 system with low range offers true Jeep 4x4 Trail Rated capability. But I'd skip it. Who needs it to take the kids to school or soccer practice? Save the cash, skip the options, and stick with the base model Compass with 4WD – it's an affordable, overlooked SUV that's ideal for transporting kids and cargo.

2012 Jeep Compass North All Season 4x4

Type: Compact SUV

Base Price: $21,195; as tested, $32,815

Engine: 2.4-litres, inline-four, DOHC

Horsepower/torque: 172 hp/165 lb-ft

Transmission: CVT

Drive: Four-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 9.9 city/7.5 highway; regular gas

Alternatives: Mazda CX-5, Hyundai Tucson, Kia Sportage, Subaru Forester, VW Tiguan, Ford Edge, Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4