Jeep's new one-model assault on the compact SUV segment.Compatriot. The Jeep Twins.
Whatever you called them, the Jeep Patriot and Compass were the last relics of a dismal era in Jeep's long and storied history. The Renegade? New. Cherokee? New. Grand Cherokee? New enough, even if the shine's starting to wear off. Wrangler? Let's face it, who cares? The Wrangler is the American Porsche 911. There's somebody out there who cares deeply for each generation--even the ones with ugly headlamps--and redesigns really don't matter.
For 2017, Jeep redesigned and re-purposed the Compass as something more than just a compact car alternative. Have they done a convincing job? Read on to find out.
Finding a place
The 2017 Jeep Compass slots directly between the subcompact Renegade and the larger Cherokee. Academically, this makes sense--certainly more sense than having two nearly identical entries in the exact same position within the lineup. Speaking of which, when asked why Compass was chosen over its fraternal twin (Patriot) as the sole segment nameplate, Jeep's marketing representatives emphasized the new car's role as a global model, pointing out that "Patriot" could have as many negative associations as positive ones, depending on your point of view.
Indeed, the new Compass will be built in four countries (Mexico, China, Brazil and India) and exported to more than 100 individual markets. Models destined for the U.S. will come from FCA's Toluca, Mexico, manufacturing facility.
The illusion of choice
Around the world, it will be available with 17 different powertrain configurations. Unfortunately for us here in the States, we essentially only get four of those. The lack of diversity there really comes down to engine choices, which is to say that we don't get any. All 2017 Compass models sold in America will be powered by the naturally aspirated 2.4-liter TigerShark four-cylinder engine. It produces a reasonable 180 horsepower and 175lb-ft of torque.
How then do we get four powertrain configurations with just a single engine at our disposal? Well, it's all about the drivetrain.
First off, yes, the 2017 Compass is available with a manual transmission. Better still, you can combine that with all-wheel-drive. Yep, like the Renegade, the Compass is available in the venerable "Internet Comment Special" configuration.
Things get a little weird after that, however. Those who opt for an automatic will have their transmission choice dictated by the number of wheels they wish to power. 4x2 models come with a six-speed auto produced by Aisin. Bump up to a 4x4 and you're looking at the much-maligned ZF nine-speed unit.
A new wrapper
Groans could be heard from the desks of automotive journalists everywhere when FCA confirmed that it had granted the Compass nameplate clemency and sent Patriot to face the needle. Fundamentally, of course, they were the same car, but the Patriot's boxier (and beefier) exterior design could evoke the long-lost (but never forgotten) Cherokee XJ. How could the dowdy, dumpy, just frankly unlovable Compass be chosen to carry on the family legacy?
Fortunately, Jeep chose to divorce the nameplate from its previous design language. Instead, what we get is something that is roughly 60 percent Renegade and 40 percent Grand Cherokee. And, you know what? It works.
The new sheetmetal is an excellent compromise between the elegant, upscale musculature of the Grand Cherokee and the youthful, athletic lines of the Renegade. It's the natural evolution up from the Renegade and (forgive us, Jeep), exactly what we wanted to see in a new Cherokee.
While the exterior design of the Patriot and the Compass diverged rather significantly, they had one styling characteristic in common: their early interiors sucked out loud. There's no sugar-coating it. Costs were cut and cut hard. Even the emergency updates that came along with Fiat's cash injection were too little (and too late) to redeem the small Jeep twins entirely. Sure, those updates helped move a ton of metal, even in the twilight of their lives (try a combined 215,000 units in 2016 on for size), but by any reasonable analysis of their interior quality, they still trailed any compact competition significantly.
With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that the 2017 Jeep Compass redesign brings with it a raft of interior upgrades. Jeep goes so far as to call the interior "Upscale;" we're not sure we'd go that far, but if we were giving out "most improved" trophies, the new Compass would be in the running for certain.
The dash design flows outward from a prominent infotainment surround, drawing from the same basic design of the Renegade and Cherokee dashboards. The base ("Sport") model comes with a five-inch touchscreen backed up by FCA's updated Uconnect system. As you step up through the trims, that screen grows to seven and then eight-point-four inches (those two larger units also boast Android Auto and Apple CarPlay integration).
Elsewhere in the cabin, prominent improvements include new seats with far more attractive designs and accents; a thick, attractive three-spoke steering wheel; a new surround for the leather-wrapped gear selector (along with a stitched leather boot); a redesigned instrument cluster with a digital information display and significant updates to the dash and trim materials found throughout.
It's not flawless, however. Try as we might, for example, we could not find an example in FCA's evaluation fleet that had a power-adjustable passenger-side front seat; even the (nearly $34,000) Limited model still had manual adjustment. It was a discovery that made us flash back to the morning's press briefing, when we mistook the description "uniquely Jeep" for "uniquely cheap." An unfortunate preconception, perhaps, but given this model's history...
On the right path
Our moment of weakness in the briefing reminded us that we needed to approach the new Compass with open minds, and it was with that thought that we departed for the on-road portion of our evaluation loop.
We made a handful of determinations almost immediately; chief among them was that we were not going to be pleasantly surprised by the combination of the 2.4L TigerShark and the nine-speed automatic. The Compass is not a heavy car, but it's no featherweight either. 4x4 models with the nine-speed start at more than 3,300 pounds and top off north of 3,600 (TrailHawks being the beefiest of the bunch); that's a good chunk of car for a sub-200-horsepower engine to haul around, and it showed.
In fact, our experiences on the hilly ranch roads north of San Antonio, Texas, called to mind our previous stints behind the wheel of cars equipped with the same engine and transmission. Like the Fiat 500X, the Compass struggled to maintain speed on grades. Climbing hills would cause it to slow significantly; descending from their tops would encourage the car to run away from even a cruise-control-defined speed. Sometimes these fluctuations would be as much as 10 miles per hour below or above our target velocity.
Fortunately, our time with the smaller Fiat taught us that we could keep this in check by manually shifting the nine-speed auto. Jeep doesn't offer paddle shifters, of course, but with the gear selector toggle we were able to choose far more appropriate gears in order to limit the Jeep's tendency to blow off our desired speeds. Sure, this meant cruising around in fourth or fifth gear a good amount of the time, but with nine ratios to choose from, it should come as no surprise that the difference in RPM between, say, 5th and 7th gears was so trivial that we often forgot to shift back up after negotiating hilly sections.
We suspect our stubborn refusal to let the nine-speed do its thing cost us quite a bit in the fuel economy department, however. Jeep rated the Compass at 22-23 mpg city and 31-32 mpg highway (dependent on configuration). We averaged just a hair under 23 mpg driving somewhat aggressively on back roads and highways. Oops.
Off the beaten one
At the end of the morning's drive we were greeted by an off-road course put together specifically to showcase the Compass TrailHawk's off-road capability.
The TrailHawk model of a given Jeep will always represent the pinnacle of that nameplate's off-road prowess. To that end, it gets a one-inch lift, slightly different suspension tuning, and a revised 4x4 control system featuring a 20:1 crawl ratio in "low range." While this system will never be as versatile as what you'll find in a Wrangler, Cherokee or Grand Cherokee, it allows you to put immense amounts of torque to the ground at very low speeds. No matter how rugged the competition may be, Compass has the trump card here.
We wouldn't be surprised if several of Jeep's competitors could handle maybe 75-80 percent of what our course had to offer, but remember, 20 percent is what separates a C and an F--passing with an average grade versus failing outright. Sure, even the Compass wasn't doing much "articulation" in the aggressive dips designed to showcase just that--one can go only so far with a unibody trucklet with a trumped-up strut suspension--but we'd take the TrailHawk's approach (30 degrees), departure (34 degrees) and break-over (24 degrees) angles (and, failing those, its skid plates) over any competitor's.
It can also ford 19 inches of water, though we didn't encounter more than half of that anywhere along our drive.
There, on that course, we set aside all of our gripes about the engine and transmission and lavished in its capability. But there's a catch, and a big one. For every driver who takes advantage of the TrailHawk's (admittedly segment-beating) off-road superiority, there will be many, many, many thousands of customers who do not. So while it was easy for us to banish its on-road deficiencies from our minds in light of the opportunity to practically drive the Compass off the edge of a cliff with no ill effects, we have to remind ourselves (and you) that our experience is not at all representative of the typical buyer's.
Leftlane's bottom line
The 2017 Jeep Compass is light-years ahead of the car it replaces. We commend Jeep for not only delivering a compact SUV with great style and capability, but also for catering to the enthusiasts who remain loyal to the brand despite its evolving character. The new Compass is not without its flaws, but it's finally a competitive option for those who admire the seven-slotted grille.
2017 Jeep Compass Latitude 4x4 base price, $24,295; as-tested, $28,925
2017 Jeep Compass Limited 4x4 base price, $28,995; as-tested, $33,860
Exterior photos by Byron Hurd; interior photos courtesy of Jeep.