The name Jeep has historically signified class-leading off-road capability, ruggedness, and a no-frills honest package that 'wheelers have cherished. But the brand is no longer content to limit itself strictly to traditional SUVs (i.e. two-speed transfer case, solid axles, and body-on-frame construction.) They could see the so-called "crossover" market growing right before their very eyes, and yearned for a competitor in the segment.

With the introduction of the new Compass and Patriot, it has positioned itself to serve that niche. The Patriot looks like a Liberty left in the dryer too long, and the Compass has the curious look of a compact wagon with a Jeep nose grafted onto the front.

Although we got our fair share of thumbs-up signs driving down the road, and a few who commented on it being "cute," it has neither the in-your face aggressive proportions and styling of the Dodge Caliber (to which it's closely related) nor the iconic lovability of the Mini Cooper, New Beetle, or PT Cruiser. Whether by intent or happenstance, the wheels on the Compass seem to cower within the wheelwells, completely missing the Caliber's squat, hunkered-down look. We haven't done any scientific measurements of the differences between the Caliber and Compass' wheel wells, but the visual effect is unmistakable. Pushing out the front and rear track would definitely give the Compass more visual presence.

The interior fares somewhat better than the unusually-proportioned exterior. Rather than trying to win you over with elegant shapes and textures, the Compass' interior impresses with its utilitarian practicality. So what if it's all hard plastic and straight lines? At least you can plug your iPod into the radio, put it in the built-in docking station that flips out from the center console, and even plug in the AC charger into the two-prong outlet below. Pretty cool. There's also a cavity in front of the passenger-side dash that we found holds a large 1.5 liter bottled water perfectly. We drove the Compass up to Northern California from Orange County for a holiday weekend, and found it to be a near-ideal road-trip vehicle.

All seating positions are upright and relatively comfortable, and rear seat room is surprisingly generous. We've already covered the practical aspects, so what's it like to drive? Competent but unremarkable probably sums it up best. The 2.4L "World" engine runs smoothly and quietly thanks to the help of balance shafts. On paper, its 172 horsepower and 165 lbs./ft. of torque promised spirited performance. In addition, Jeep offers this engine with a standard 5-speed manual transmission, a combination not (yet) available on the Caliber R/T. However, the Limited 4x4 waddles onto the scales at a porcine 3,329 lbs, at least compared to the Toyota Matrix or Mazda3 5-door. So whatever verve offered by the engine is effectively blunted by the Compass' weight.

The best we can say about the Compass' acceleration is that it's reasonably peppy, if not exactly swift. To compound the situation, the engine has a lazy electronic throttle that responds to inputs leisurely, often leaving the engine hanging onto revs between shifts, and even after slowed down to a stop, gradually coming down from 2,000 to its 800 rpm idle. The upside is the Compass returned a respectable 22.9 miles per gallon in a combined average that included in-town driving with long freeway cruising. The five-speed manual sticking out of the middle of the dash likewise has a nonchalant, disinterested demeanor. The action is rubbery and vague, with longish throws. Effective launches that don't result in bogging or stalling require about 2,000 rpm as well as deftly coordinated right and left feet. Sloppy or indecisive launches will cause some bucking in the driveline.

Steering and handling are a little better. The Compass is quite maneuverable, and the steering is responsive, if not razor-sharp. Because of its somewhat tall-boy packaging, there is a fair amount of body lean when pressed, but very little by SUV standards.

If Jeep is indeed interested in courting enthusiasts with the Compass, the perfect way to do it would be with an SRT version. We could envision an all-wheel drive Compass SRT with the Caliber SRT's 300-horsepower turbocharged engine mated to a reponsive six-speed manual. In terms of styling, the aggressive styling cues showcased on the pre-production Compass concept vehicle would perfectly complement its more purposeful mission. Voila! An American alternative to the WRX wagon!

As it currently stands, however, the Compass merely represents a "brand extension" for Jeep. It's a competent, practical entry into the compact crossover segment. But it's not going to revolutionize the market, or burst onto the scene with great fanfare. Urban dwellers with a propensity for purchasing, or that have pets, will likely find the Compass an attractive option for their lifestyle. But until the responses are tightened up, the styling accentuated with slightly more aggressive cues, and a little more firepower stuffed under the hood, the Compass is not likely to register on many enthusiasts' radar screens.