HOLLISTER, California — As I watched the 2017 Jeep Compass Trailhawk ahead of me start down Truck Hill, I began to wonder if I should have stopped by the outhouse before heading for the trails. The Compass turned sharply, dropped its left-front wheel into a rut, lifted its right-rear paw high into the air, and pointed its rump towards the sky. Then it dropped like an elevator and disappeared from my sight.
A gentleman in a Jeep jacket pointed at me ominously.
“You’re next,” he said.
Jeep had brought a small group of hacks out to the Hollister Hills off-road area in Northern California to remind us that the all-new Compass is a proper Jeep, apparently deciding that the most expedient way to do this was to send us down a hill steep enough to evacuate the bowels of even the most hard-core off-roader. It seems a sensible move, considering that few people consider the outgoing Compass to be a proper SUV, let alone a proper Jeep.
Surely, you are familiar with the Compass: The second-to-last remnant of the Bad Old Days at Chrysler, it is a not-distant-enough relative of the horrid Dodge Caliber. Together with its smaller and slightly inferior sibling, the Patriot, it comprises the low-end of the Jeep lineup — and the two of them sell like hotcakes. Jeep moved more than 192,000 Compasses and Patriots in 2016, just over half the annual sales of the market-leading Honda CR-V. Keep in mind that these two forgettable vehicles are some of the oldest vehicles in Fiat-Chrysler’s American lineup. That should give you some indication of the demand for cheap Jeeps.
The all-new 2017 Jeep Compass represents a shuffle in the Jeep lineup, as it is no longer the cut-rate Jeep. Instead, it slots between the Renegade and the Cherokee, with the former taking over as Jeep’s entry-level SUV. (The Patriot will die and no one will go to its funeral).
Between the Cherokee and the Renegade, Jeep has pretty well convinced me that they can make their transverse-engine platforms rock-crawl with the best of ‘em. Like its siblings, 4×4 Compasses have a four-mode all-wheel-drive system (Auto, Snow, Sand and Mud); the Trailhawk I drove adds a rock-crawling mode, hill descent control, a low range with a 20:1 crawl ratio, and chinless bumpers that improve approach and departure angles. Given the Compass’ tendency to lift a wheel over uneven terrain — an independent suspension only gives you so much wheel articulation — it relies on the brakes to grab any spinning wheels, airborne or not, which forces the differential to send power to the other side of the axle. Jeep says this can happen in as little as 1/8th of a wheel revolution when the system is in Rock mode.
As an off-roader, the new Compass works exceptionally well, though it’s a different style of off-road driving than one might employ in a Wrangler. I learned to off-road on old-school 4x4s: Put it in gear, let the clutch in as quickly as you can, then put your feet flat on the floor and let the machinery do the work. (I still remember a gruff northern Englishman instructing me on my first steep descent: “Doon’t touch the gas, doon’t touch the clootch, and for God’s sake, doon’t touch the brakes.”)
In the Compass, the methodology is gas-it-and-go: When forward motion ceases, you give it a little more accelerator, then wait for the AWD system to sort out where the traction is. It may take the Compass a second to get its footing, but it always seems to march forward; if it doesn’t, you just feed in a little more throttle. It’s so good that you can easily forget the engine is installed sideways.
We put hill descent control to the test on a pair of steep inclines, including the aforementioned Truck Hill, a deceptively innocent-looking drop that the OHV maps mark as “difficult” — as in “it is difficult to reconcile the actions of a sane person with those of someone willing to drive straight down the side of a sandy mountain.”
“Gas it a bit if it gets squirrelly,” advised the man in the Jeep jacket, but squirrely was never a problem: The Compass kept its footing and tip-toed down the hill. A Range Rover couldn’t have done the job any better. Personally, I’m really impressed at the engineering brainpower that can get such credible off-road performance from such a humble mechanical bits — either that, or the rest of the automotive industry is just really, really lazy.
From an engineering perspective, the new Compass is pretty much what you would expect. It is based on the same “small wide” platform as the Renegade, Cherokee, and Fiat 500X, its suspension employing MacPherson struts up front and Chapman struts (basically MacPhersons without steering capability) out back.
Design-wise, the Compass draws strongly on the “baby Grand Cherokee” theme of its predecessor, though the “shark fin” D-pillar is a nice little nod to the outgoing Compass. Inside, the Compass uses roughly the same dashboard layout as the Renegade, though it takes itself far more seriously. Soft-touch materials and high-quality trim pervade, and there are fewer playful details, although the whole shebang doesn’t feel quite as high-zoot as the Cherokee. The Compass is about half a foot longer than the Renegade, with a corresponding increase in rear-seat legroom and cargo space.
The US-market Compass comes with Fiat-Chrysler’s 2.4 liter “Tigershark” engine tuned for 180 horsepower and 175 lb-ft of torque. Automatic 4x4s get Chrysler’s much-maligned ZF-sourced nine-speed, while front-drivers get a six-speed. Like the Renegade, the Compass also can be had with a six-speed manual in either 4×2 or 4×4 form. (Praise be!)
All of the Compasses I drove were 4x4s with the nine-speed automatic, and acceleration felt just okay — not sluggish, not particularly quick, but definitely noisy. Chrysler is continuing to tweak the nine-speed transmission and the Jeep engineers present at our press preview repeatedly reminded us that we were driving pre-production vehicles that were still being calibrated. For the most part, the transmission behaved about as well as it ever does; upshifts were prompt, if not always smooth, but part throttle downshifts required very deliberate prodding of the accelerator. EPA fuel economy estimates go as high as 23/32 mpg city/highway for the manual front-driver, and the automatic 4x4s I drove are rated at 22/30.
Along with the Sport, Latitude, and Limited models, the Compass comes in the aforementioned Trailhawk edition, which comes with a raised ride height, more aggressive tires, and the trademark red tow hooks. (Jeep staffers openly acknowledged the irony that the chief spotting feature of their most rugged off-roaders is the bit you use to pull it free when its gets stuck.)
How is it on pavement? The Compass’ road manners, like its design, are more mature than the Renegade’s; it feels more buttoned down and not quite so playful. I wasn’t crazy about the steering; as you move off center, it responds too slowly, then too quickly, like a security guard that has been caught napping. Straight-line stability is good and it turns out that the best way to drive the Compass down the freeway is to keep your hands off the wheel.
I was impressed by the ride: The amplitude-reactive dampers that the Jeep engineers bragged about really do work. The suspension refused to be distracted from its assigned duties, and not even badly broken pavement could disturb the suspension’s ability to absorb impacts smoothly. Handling, like acceleration, is just okay: The Compass grips nicely and controls body motions well, but it carves the corners without much joy, as if it was closing its eyes and thinking of England.
It should come as no surprise that Jeep has priced the Compass right between the Renegade and the Cherokee. The basic Sport 4×4 lists for $22,090 (including a $1,095 destination fee) and the Limited 4×4 goes for $30,090 plus options; the Latitude and Trailhawk models fill the spaces between them. That seems like a fair price for all you get, but it might be a bit of a shock to buyers used to $20,000 Compasses and $18,000 Patriots. (The cheapest Jeep is now the entry-level Renegade, which lists for $18,990.)
The two Compasses will exist side-by-side, at least for a while; Jeep plans to sell both the old and new models as 2017 models — and just how much confusion do you think that will cause? Make sure you get the new one; if you can’t tell them apart, just drive down a steep, sandy, rutted hill. If you make it to the bottom without wrecking the car or soiling yourself, you’ve got the right 2017 Jeep Compass.
2017 Jeep Compass Specifications
|ON SALE||Spring 2017|
|ENGINE||2.4L DOHC 16 I-4/180 hp @ 6,400 rpm, 175 lb-ft @ 3,900 rpm|
|TRANSMISSION||6-speed manual, 6-speed automatic (FWD), 9-speed automatic (4WD)|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, FWD/4WD SUV|
|EPA MILEAGE||22-23/28-30 mpg (city/hwy)|
|L x W x H||173.0 x 73.8 x 64.6 in|