SAN ANTONIO, Texas—If there’s anything Jeep didn’t change on the all-new Compass but should have, it’s the name. What was previously the brand’s entry-level model, along with its twin sibling Patriot, actually sold fairly well in Canada but didn’t have a stellar reputation for performance or quality.
Keeping the name was a global decision, Jeep’s Canadian reps say, because the Compass is now a global vehicle, built in four plants worldwide. And to make it even more confusing, the all-new one is a 2017, as are the last run of the old-style Compass.
But that’s all it shares with the old one, and that’s a very good thing. Built on the platform that’s under the Renegade and Cherokee, which it slips between, the new Compass is, for the most part, a really good compact SUV. And if you opt for the Trailhawk model, it’s shockingly good at rough off-road stuff.
It’s available in two-wheel-drive as the Sport and North, at $24,900 and $28,395 respectively, and in 4WD at $27,400 and $30,895. The other two trims are four-wheel only: the Trailhawk at $32,895, and the Limited at $34,895.
The designers describe it as a “baby Grand Cherokee,” and that’s pretty much on the money. The trademark seven-slot grille touches the headlights to give the front end a wider look. The back end does the same, tying the taillights together with a sharp body line that hides the backup camera—a $475 add-on to the two lower trim levels and standard only on the top two. The Trailhawk uses unique front and rear fascias that improve the off-road departure and approach angles, and include signature red tow hooks.
The side profile is clean and uncluttered, with a large greenhouse that gives the Compass excellent visibility. The wheelbase is stretched 66 millimetres over the Renegade, almost all of it dedicated to the rear seat. The available gloss-black roof treatment lengthens the look, and a dual-pane sunroof can be added to the North and up for $1,595. And for the first time, you can get a power liftgate on the Compass in all but the base Sport trim as a stand-alone option.
The cabin is also a scaled-down version of the Cherokee, with a few tweaks to differentiate it. It’s night-and-day over the old Compass, with plenty of soft-touch materials and features such as contrasting stitching on the Limited’s leather chairs. The seats are supportive and comfortable, and the extra stretch to the wheelbase provides some additional legroom for taller passengers. It’s still narrow, though, and three across the back seat are a tight fit.
That slender shape also makes for a small centre console, and since it’s occupied by the 4×4 system’s dial, gearshift lever, electric parking brake and power outlets, there’s not a lot of space for small-item stuff outside of the covered console box.
There’s more room at the rear, where the cargo floor can be removed and reinserted into three positions, providing up to an additional 16 centimetres of height. The rear seats fold almost flat, along with the front passenger chair. All trim lines include a reversible cargo mat that’s carpet on one side, and rubber on the other.
There’s a lot of sound-deadening material, which does a good job of blocking out most of the road noise. Overall, the interior is very well done.
Chrysler’s Uconnect system is simple to use and continues to be one of the industry’s best, and it now adds pinch-and-zoom capability, along with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
A few electronic nannies are also available, including forward collision warning with active braking, blind spot monitoring, and lane-keeping assist that uses the electric power steering to nudge the vehicle back over if it drifts out of its lane. Oddly, though, adaptive cruise control is added to some global-market models, but not in North America.
All Compass models use a 2.4-litre “Tigershark” four-cylinder that makes 180 horsepower and 175 lb-ft of torque. It’s available with a six-speed manual transmission in the Sport, in either 4×2 or 4×4 configuration. That’s not expected to be a huge seller, and it’s mostly for a low starting price and fuel efficiency numbers.
The automatic in the 4×2 is a six-speed, while 4×4 models come with a nine-speed automatic.
My test drive was restricted to 4×4-with-nine-speed models. The engine is fine, but the transmission could use tweaking, tuned more for fuel economy than driving performance. It’s lazy on acceleration, taking a couple of beats before downshifting, and I had to rethink a couple of highway manoeuvres when I didn’t get as much oompf as needed to finish what I’d started. It then went the other way, getting a bit busy on hills as it hunted for a gear.
Although it’s not appreciably heftier than much of its competition, the Compass feels not just substantial, but heavy. The ride is smooth and comfortable once you get everything moving, though. There’s a start/stop feature that shuts down the engine at idle, and it’s a bit jarring at start-up, but you can turn it off.
The 4×4 system runs primarily in front-wheel, but it can transfer up to 100 percent of power to one wheel if necessary. All have a terrain select dial for auto, mud, snow or sand, but the Trailhawk adds an additional “rock” setting, along with a 20:1 crawl ratio and hill descent control, plus front and rear skid plates. It carries the “Trail Rated” badge for traction, ground clearance, manoeuvrability, water fording, and articulation—but it’s a company term, not an industry standard, and Jeep won’t reveal exactly what the minimum standards are.
Even so, anything with the badge is seriously capable off-road, and the Compass is no exception. I was extremely impressed when driving it through a challenging course. It’s all rather ridiculous, of course, since the vast majority of buyers will never do anything remotely close. But they want bragging rights, and Jeep needs to uphold its reputation, and so the Compass Trailhawk delivers.
At $30,895, the North 4×4 is expected to account for 40 percent of sales, with the Trailhawk taking 30 percent, and the Sport and Limited at 15 percent. That puts it about the middle of competitors such as the Hyundai Tucson, Kia Sportage, Mazda CX-5, Honda CR-V and Volkswagen Tiguan, although many buyers may go well over that starting price with available options.
Its acceleration issues aside, the new Compass is not just a considerable improvement over the old one—which, realistically, wouldn’t take much—but is a well-designed, comfortable, and handsome vehicle on its own. If a Wrangler’s too rough, and a Renegade’s too urban, look past the name and check out the Compass.
Disclosure—This writer’s travel and accommodations were provided by the automaker for the purposes of this first-drive review.