We got some seat time in Jeep's latest foray into the asphalt jungle. Jeep isn't just about that "Trail Rated" badge that appears on the Grand Cherokee, Wrangler, and Commander anymore. The Compass touches Jeep lovers with only the whispered suggestion of off-road adventure. This is a vehicle bred for the streets, with a little bit of four-wheel drive (more akin to all-wheel drive) thrown in.

The Compass comes in two trim levels, Sport and Limited, and offers a 2.4L I-4 engine coupled to either a continuously variable transmission (CVT2) or a five-speed manual. We spent most of our time in the CVT2-equipped, 4x4 Limited driving through Oregon dairy country, from sunny Portland to the rainy coast. The Compass handled fine in a compact city center and on the roads that wind through rural pastures. It felt solidly built, emitting no rattles or creaks, and the cabin is pretty well insulated from exterior noises except for the commotion that came from the rear tire wells. It didn't help that our journey took us over roughly textured roadways that buzzed like bees in a megaphone. Seating was remarkably roomy for a small car, even in back, as was cargo capacity. Interior styling looked very Jeepy in its angularity. The iPod holder in the center console was a nice touch, as was the 115-volt auxiliary power outlet. A flashlight stands ready in the cargo area, and speakers in the rear hatch can fold down to entertain tailgaters (a feature the Compass shares with its platform mate, the Dodge Caliber).

Apparently, traffic flow on Oregon's freeways is sensibly moderated by aggressive policing - which was fine, because the four-banger is supposed to be a sensible powerplant that's oriented toward fuel economy, lower price, and utility, and not tearing up asphalt. Neither the manual nor the CVT2 do anything to change that, other than to create entirely different driving experiences. Everyone knows what a stick is like, so we won't go into that much except to say that the little hook at the tires you expect from putting a manual in gear and lifting the clutch just didn't exist. There's no torque to be had, really, so shifting up and down felt just as sedately functional as a traditional automatic. The CVT2, on the other hand, operated smoothly and efficiently, as any tranny of its type should, but it was a bit manic. Pushing the accelerator from a stop sent the motor straight to a hair's width from redline, where it stayed until we eased on the accelerator once we reached our desired speed. This isn't necessarily a bad thing...just different, and it may be one of those paradigm-shifting realities introduced by a new technology, as is the attempt to simulate the existence of five gears by shifting the CVT2's Auto Stick from 2nd, 3rd, and so on. It kind of works (mainly when driveline braking while downshifting) but it seems quaintly anachronistic.

We tested the Freedom Drive 1 four-wheel drive on a huge, sandy expanse of coastal dunes, where the vehicle handled just fine. The sand was never deep enough to bog down the Compass, but the Freedom Drive did manage to help the Compass maintain handling and control. This isn't a true four-wheel drive in that there is no two-speed transfer case. Folks at Jeep said it was almost all-wheel drive. In its default mode the system's brain tries to put almost 100% of the torque to the front wheels, but it will transfer up to 60% of the torque to the rear as needed. Pushing the locking switch distributes the torque 50/50.

The basic Compass Sport 2WD model runs $15,985, or $17,585 for the 4WD version. The Limited package starts at $20,140 for 2WD or $21,740 for 4WD. Options that were installed on the Limited 4WD include the nine-speaker Premium Sound Group, the CVT2 transmission, and the Auto Stick. These bumped the price up $1,610.

The Compass's target customer skews female. It retains Jeep legacy styling in the front end but exhibits the genteel teardrop aeros that city dwellers have become accustomed to seeing from crossovers. Not that manly men need to feel left out. Jeep wasn't going to make two versions of this vehicle, but market research showed that there was money to be made by offering a more assertive design. That would be the bulgier, more traditionally styled Patriot, which has yet to hit the streets.

Price (as tested)
$23,350 with destination

Engine
2.4L I-4

Horsepower
172@6,000 rpm SAE

Torque (lb-ft)
165@4,400 rpm SAE

Transmission
CVT2 (continuously variable transmission) with manual mode that simulates five speed shifting

Drivetrain
Full-time 4WD

Axle Ratio
6.12:1

SuspensionIndependent MacPherson struts with coilovers and stabilizer bar (f); multi-link independent with coils, link-type stabilizer bar (r)

Brakes
11.5-inch rotor, 1-piston caliper (f); 10.4-inch rotor, 1-piston caliper (r); 4-wheel ABS, traction control, stability control

Wheelbase
103.7 in

Turning (curb-to-curb)
37.2 ft (with 18-inch wheels)

Height65.2 in

Width69.3 in

Approach Angle
20.1 deg (with P215/60R17 tires)

Departure Angle
31.4 deg (with P215/60R17 tires)

Ramp-Over Angle
21 deg (with P215/60R17 tires)

Minimum Ground Clearance
8.4 in (with P215/60R17 tires)

Curb Weight
3,329 lbs

Max Trailer Weight
2,000 lbs

Interior Cargo
53.6 cu ft (behind 1st row, 2nd row folded, no 3rd row);
22.7 cu ft (behind 2nd row, no 3rd row)

Seating
2/3

MPG
23/26 EPA

2007 Suzuki XL7
The 2007 Suzuki XL7 is taller, wider, and longer than the 2006 model it replaces, and it has almost 70 more horsepower and 60 lb-ft of torque, but its EPA mileage ratings actually improve over last year's 2WD model. It is powered by a 3.6L DOHC V-6 designed by General Motors and built under license by Suzuki in Japan. It's essentially a slightly modified version of the engine you'd find under the hood of a Cadillac SRX or the upcoming Saturn Outlook. The 252hp V-6 is mated to a five-speed automatic that offers smooth shifting and proved to be a perfect match to both the engine and the vehicle. During normal part-throttle cruising, engine rpm were usually below 2,000 and the engine was remarkably quiet. Once the throttle was mashed to the floor, the stainless steel dual exhaust woke up a bit, and while it didn't have the rumble of a V-8, the exhaust note was a nice surprise.

The driving circuit Suzuki had planned took us through the winding hills of Rancho Santa Fe, California, and into the narrow dirt roads of the Barona Indian Reservation. A good portion of the dirt road was imprinted with the tracks of crawler tractors, so we got a good feel of one of the worst-case scenarios as far as vibration is concerned. After a few miles of bumping along, we were sure that anything that wasn't securely bolted on would have shaken loose, but there weren't any discernable interior rattles. Torque-steer popped up a few times when accelerating out of parking lots, but the remainder of the time the suspension left the XL7 feeling sure-footed.

The interior of the XL7 puts most of the controls at easy reaching distance in the dash and center console, including the power window switches. We didn't have time to get used to their location on either side of the gearshift knob, but that was the only quirk we found. The optional navigation system uses a touch screen and the software is intuitive (even if it takes a few minutes to get acquainted). Expect highly optioned XL7s to reach just past $30,000.

2007 Suzuki SX4
We took a break from driving the XL7 to try the Suzuki SX4. This model is aimed at a niche in the compact utility segment, slightly larger and more powerful than the Honda Fit and the Scion Xa, and smaller than the Toyota Matrix and Dodge Caliber (while still offering 95% of their interior volume). Both standard and sport trim levels feature a three-mode all-wheel drive: 2WD for economy, four-wheel lock for low-speed (up to 35 mph) slippery conditions like icy roads, and automatic AWD that senses wheel slip and applies power to the rear wheels when needed. Suzuki hopes to make it the most affordable AWD vehicle in North America.

On the winding roads around Rancho Santa Fe, the SX4's 143hp 2.0L engine was fun to drive when backed with the five-speed manual thanks in part to a low final drive ratio that made for quick acceleration. The disadvantage is that the automatic, with its taller gears, yields better mileage. We expected a significant amount of body roll just by looking at the relatively high roofline of the SX4, but cornering is definitely one of its strong suits, possibly because we're used to driving trucks and possibly because the Suzuki designers really sorted out the suspension.

Engine
3.6L DOHC V-6

Horsepower
252@6,500 rpm SAE

Torque (lb-ft)243@2,300 rpm SAE

Transmission5-speed automatic w/manual mode

Drivetrain
FWD (AWD optional)

Axle Ratio
2.48:1

Suspension
Independent MacPherson strut suspension with coil springs (f); four-link with coil springs (r)

Brakes
Four-wheel ABS, traction control, and electronic stability program are standard

Wheelbase
112.4 in

Turning (curb-to-curb)
41.8 ft

Height
68.9 in

Width
72.2 in

Approach Angle17.5 deg

Departure Angle20 deg

Curb Weight
3,886 lbs (2WD); 4,049 lbs (AWD)

Max Trailer Weight
3,500 lbs

Seating2/3/2

MPG (EPA estimate)
18/24 (FWD)
17/23 (AWD)

2006 Dodge Ram 2500 SLT Mega Cab 4X4Long Term UpdateWhen I got my turn behind the wheel of our Cummins-powered 4x4 Mega Cab 2500, it still smelled new...sort of. I've put enough miles on both the diesel- and gas-powered Mega Cabs to build an allegiance, and right now I'm leaning towards the diesel. Besides the obvious powertrain differences, our 2500 Mega Cab differs from our 1500 mostly in terms of the interior, with the 2500's Lariat package upping the ante with leather seating and dual-zone climate controls. The leather seats are the highlight, and despite the lack of obvious bolsters, they still provide enough lateral support for the kind of lateral G's you're likely to see in a truck this size. As for the climate control, I experimented with how much contrast I could get from the dual-zone climate control. The difference in output was enough so that the A/C on the driver side was obliterated by the heat from the passenger side. Advantage: heater.

Power from the diesel was surprising. Turbo lag is evident, which is probably a good thing, because if all of the power came in much earlier, there wouldn't be much tread left on the rear tires. From a stop, the Mega Cab rumbles off the line at a steady pace until the engine hits around 2,500 rpm, after which it seems like an exponential increase in power causes it to surge up to speed. At highway speed, the truck pulls strongly, but it does take a second for the transmission to ick down a gear to get up to passing speed.

Ride quality is still that of a truck (and a sturdy, heavy-duty one at that), with uneven pavement and potholes jarring their way right into the cabin, which is where those firm leather seats are really appreciated. Granted, on freeways that aren't almost demolished the long wheelbase and wide track do a decent job of evening things out. At slow speeds on rutted dirt roads the long wheelbase really shines. The height of the truck and its bulging hood and fenders narrow visibility at close quarters, making tight maneuvering a tricky series of judgement calls, which convinced my amazed (or frightened) passengers that parallel parking was going to result in me leaving a note on someone's windshield. After a few days of practice using the convex portion of the side mirrors, parking was less of a problem. And now that I've got the seat moved just the way I like it and the navigation system settings just right, it's time to swap into the Hemi-powered Mega Cab again.

This is the second installment of our long-term coverage of the Dodge Ram Mega Cab 2500. Miles to date are 8,941. The overall MPG for this period was 12.47.

Make no qualms about it: I love the Jeep Commander. That being said, handing over the keys to Mark for the remainder of our long-term test comes with an air of joy - joy because during my six weeks of driving the Hemi-powered Jeep, I handed over $1,030 to the money-hungry gas companies filling up the seven-passenger SUV. Logging over 4,450 miles on the odometer, the Commander and I have a bond created by mile after mile of driving.

This love/hate relationship started with a trend that Jeep is quickly establishing as a trademark: superior build quality, above-average materials, and a long list of options. Gorgeous Yuma leather seats in saddle brown really add elegance and adventure to the interior, while the Quadra-Drive II 4x4 system is top-notch and able to get me off the beaten path if necessary.

All that is fine and dandy until the Commander's other shoulder reveals the little devil firmly resting on top of it. Shortcomings such as unidentified engine vibration that happens at highway speeds when the A/C is turned on caught my attention. Speaking of the A/C, it did take a while for the Freon to actually cool the cabin, and once the blower motor was engaged, a prominent mildew smell filled the air. Everyone knows the name Hemi, but it appears that the heavily advertised Multi Displacement System (MDS) may not take into account a heavy right foot, brick-shaped design, and a very thirsty 330hp V-8. MDS deactivates four cylinders when the Commander is cruising along on the highway, for example, and is supposed to save you up to 20% on mileage. I averaged 13.75 mpg (not the 15.5 EPA estimate) at nearly $53 a fill-up.

Other shortcomings included an odd fuel/timing surge while coming off idle, weird sputtering after a cold start, and an incident when the brake pedal pulsated as if the ABS was suffering from a seizure. All of these issues were given a thumbs-up from the service department at our dealer and could be the quirks inevitable to a loaner vehicle that is often ridden hard and put away wet. Complaints aside, the Commander is one heck of a good-riding SUV, and the long list of features, along with the intuitive storage compartments throughout, makes the oddness of the drivetrain forgivable.

With Anaheim as my departure city, I made several trips to Las Vegas, Santa Barbara, and San Francisco (where the freeway was easily tamed by the well-mannered Commander).

This is the fifth installment of our long-term coverage of the Jeep Commander. Miles to date are 23,879 and miles clocked during this update were 4,450. The overall MPG for this period was 13.75.

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