PORTLAND, OR – Jeep is traversing terrain trickier than the fabled Rubicon Trail by crossing into “car” country with the all-new ’07 Compass.

Yes, the new entry-level Jeep Compass is a cross/utility vehicle, derived from Chrysler Group’s C-segment car platform that launched with the Dodge Caliber hatchback.

Zealots cringe at the thought of the Jeep badge on a front-wheel-drive CUV, with a continuously variable transmission and urban-friendly styling that eschews the approach, break-over and departure angles necessary to achieve Trail-Rated off-road status.

The Compass provides ample fodder for brand loyalists who slammed the auto maker for going soft when the ’02 Jeep Liberty (with a scandalous independent front suspension) replaced the bona fide Cherokee SUV in the lineup in mid-2001.

But Chrysler was OK with it. The 171,212 Libertys sold in its first full year (2002) exceeded the 141,457 Cherokees sold in 2000, its last full year of sales after 18 years as an icon, according to Ward’s data.

The Liberty never has come close to fulfilling expectations it would double Cherokee sales, but consumer acceptance of a softer side of Jeep provides the courage to take the concept a step further.

Which brings us to the Compass, a modern Jeep for non-traditional Jeep buyers and a player in the compact utility segment Chrysler forecasts will double to 600,000 units by 2010 and triple to more than 814,000 by 2016.

The Compass is worth a look because it offers the interior packaging of a utility vehicle with the road manners, fuel economy and price of a compact car.

It has the audacity to ride on a fully independent suspension and achieves best-in-class 25 mpg (9.4L/100 km) in city driving and 29 mpg (8.1L/100 km) on the highway with a 4-wheel drive model powered by a 2.4L 4-cyl. engine mated to a 5-speed manual transmission. The numbers are expected to be even better with 2-wheel drive.

For those who want automatic shifting, this Jeep uses a CVT that Chrysler says improves fuel efficiency 6%-8% compared with a traditional 4-speed automatic.

Chrysler’s 2.4L World Engine in the Compass produces 172 hp and 165 lb.-ft. (223 Nm) of torque, slightly better than the new Toyota RAV4 (with 4-cyl.) and easily beating pricier newcomers such as the Acura RDX with a turbocharged 2.3L 4-cyl. or the Mazda CX-7.

Styling of the new Compass is engaging. There are enough cues to be recognized as a Jeep, with the trademark 7-slot grille, bug-eyed headlamps and trapezoidal wheel openings reminiscent of the original Jeeps of World War II.

The curvaceous rally-car look makes the Compass a member of the modern Jeep family, alongside the Liberty and Grand Cherokee, as opposed to the classic angular lines of the old Cherokee, new Commander and forthcoming Patriot, which will share the Compass platform when it goes on sale later in the year.

But the Compass casts its own unique shadow with a sweeping roofline, raked windshield, clamshell hood, sculpted fenders and a functional spoiler.

Both the Sport and Limited trim levels are available with FWD or full-time 4WD. The lockable center coupling of the Freedom Drive I active 4WD system is activated with the touch of a handle. An electronic-controlled coupling attached to the rear differential transmits torque to the rear wheels through a 2-stage clutch system.

Safety and capability are enhanced by such standard features as side-curtain airbags, electronic stability control and electronic roll mitigation and brake assist with rough-road detection.

And while this is the first Jeep not Trail-Rated – it lacks skid plates and other heavy off-road paraphernalia – that does not mean it lacks capability.

The Compass sits 4 ins. (10 cm) higher than the Caliber, with greater ground clearance and the design of a utility vehicle, down to such details as tucking the fuel line in the undercarriage.

The 4WD system provides more traction than the all-wheel-drive system of the Caliber, Chrysler says, and the whole package has a degree of capability not offered on the Dodge.

A test drive up an intimidating sand dune here and a jaunt along the beach underscores that this is a striking alternative to a midsize sedan or cute ute.

A spotter along for the ride suggests testing the shallow surf and the Compass needs no further urging. “Whoa, not so deep!” the guide cautions as salt spray drenches the test vehicle and the wipers can’t clear the windshield fast enough.

But the Compass doesn’t flinch here, or on logging roads, or winding asphalt or crowded freeways.

Steering and braking are commendable; the CVT smooth. An AutoStick is offered on the Limited trim for manual control of the automatic transmission, but the most spirited ride can be had with the base model equipped with a 5-speed manual.

Some transmission whine and tire noise does creep into the cabin.

The Compass rides on a 103.7-in. (263-cm) wheelbase, just shy of the Liberty’s 104.3 ins. (264 cm) and quite a bit more than the old Cherokee at 101.4 ins (258 cm). Standard 17-in. wheels can be traded up for 18-in.

Inside are 60/40 fold-flat rear seats that recline on the Limited (which the $30,000-plus RDX cannot claim) and the front passenger seat folds forward, creating a table within 60.7 cu.-ft. (1.7 cu.-m) of cargo space.

Occupants sit 2 ins. (5 cm) higher in the Jeep than in the sister Caliber, on standard cloth seats that can be upgraded to Chrysler’s YES Essentials patented fabric that spurns stain.

The bucket seats on the Limited feature leather trim and standard manual adjustment. Height adjustment on the base model must be purchased as part of a package, a must for shorter drivers, who also are at a disadvantage because the Compass does not have adjustable pedals or a telescoping steering wheel.

And while there is ample leg room for adults in the rear seat (39.4 ins. [100 cm]), a middle passenger obscures much of the sight line for shorter drivers. There is no headrest for the fifth passenger in North America (there is for Europe), but again, it would hinder the sight line.

Similar to the Caliber, a 9-speaker Boston Acoustics Premium Sound Group is available with subwoofer and speakers built into the liftgate for tailgate parties, as well as a handy, always-charged flashlight built into the headliner.

A power outlet is conveniently placed in the center console, and an auxiliary audio input jack accommodates an MP3 player that can be stored in the center console flip pocket. Adjusting a stored iPod is problematic with a manual gearshift, though.

An optional navigation system will be introduced later in the year.

In a nod to the past, the Sport model bases with manual crank windows.

That serves as a reminder the Compass sets a new course as the most affordable Jeep, although it will lose that mantle to the Patriot when it bows at a slightly lower pricepoint this fall.

The Compass starts at $15,985, including $560 destination fee, for a Sport model with a 5-speed manual transmission. A loaded Limited trim with 4WD can get the price to about $23,000, still reasonable.

Job One for the Compass at Chrysler’s plant in Belvidere, IL, was May 30, with the CUVs arriving in showrooms at the end of June.

Because the Caliber, Compass and Patriot share the same chassis and family of engines, despite totally different tophats, the Belvidere plant can adjust production to demand.

It seems to be anyone’s guess which of the three will prove most popular –or they easily could split the 400,000 units that can be produced annually on three shifts.

Chrysler has charted a course with the Compass that takes the Jeep brand into decidedly unnavigated waters.

But consumer research suggests that as long as the rugged Wrangler continues to anchor the lineup, the brand can expand into calmer seas. The gamble is that Jeep will net more incremental sales and buyers new to the brand than the number of loyalists who get away.

The new Compass may not be perfect, but given the value and styling, the auto maker should sell a boatload of them.

apriddle@wardsauto.com