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2017 Jeep Compass First Drive - The Right Direction

Posted in Vehicle Reviews on February 23, 2017
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Photographers: Courtesy of Jeep

It’s no secret that the Jeep brand has become Fiat Chrysler Automobiles’ superstar brand, both at home in the U.S. as well as abroad. Jeep loyalists had some concern when the Fiat deal was first announced. Would Sergio Marchionne attempt to transition Jeep’s tried-and-true platforms to European car platforms, completely destroying any off-road capability in the process? After having driven several Fiat-based Jeeps over the last few years, we can safely say that Jeep’s lineup is more capable than ever, from the KL Cherokee to the scrappy little Renegade. And for those that don’t think it’s a “real” Jeep unless it has solid axles front and rear, there’s still the Wrangler. But let’s face it, the majority of SUV buyers aren’t looking to traverse the Rubicon or conquer the red rocks of Moab. Most just want a capable, practical, sure-footed commuter that can handle the occasional trip to the ski slopes. That was the Compass’ calling since its introduction in 2007, along with its boxier sibling, the Patriot. And for the first time in a decade, the Compass finally gets a ground-up redesign.

There Can Be Only One
For 2017, the Compass no longer has to share the limelight with the Patriot. For those looking for a more traditional “Jeep” look, there’s now the Renegade, with which the Compass shares its platform, with a little extra wheelbase and length for added comfort and versatility. In the relative hierarchy of the Jeep brand, the Compass now slots in just above the Renegade and just below the Cherokee. The Jeep representatives see the Compass’ competitive set as the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V, although the case could be made that the Cherokee is a more direct competitor to Japan’s crossover juggernauts. There is admittedly some product overlap between the Cherokee and Compass in terms of pricing and equipment. However, Jeep sees the Compass buyer as being younger, more urban, and more value-oriented. As of this writing, pricing for the new Compass has not been announced. We expect it to be slightly higher than the outgoing model and deservedly so. The new Compass is a much better vehicle than its predecessor in every conceivable measure.

Styling that Makes Sense
In the course of its 10-year model run, the first-generation Compass went through two major styling iterations, some that worked better than others, but none that could truly be described as cohesive or harmonious. When the Compass was first introduced, it had the signature round headlights and seven-slot grille characteristic of the Wrangler. While recognizable as a Jeep, it wasn’t especially attractive or rugged-looking, for that matter. In 2011, the Compass received a makeover making it look more like the Grand Cherokee, with rectangular headlamps and a grille design more reminiscent of its big brother. However, the change was only from the A-pillar forward, leaving the Compass to solider on with its carryover styling from the cowl back. Now, finally, the Compass looks like it was designed by the same team, with a rugged, modern, refined look from bumper to bumper. Its resemblance to the Grand Cherokee is as convincing as ever, finally adopting a horizontal taillight design, giving it the familiar resemblance from the rear as well. Despite the similarities, the Compass’ proportions, beltline and other details give it a look all its own.

Trailhawk - Refined Ruggedness
For the first time in the Compass’ history, the model is being offered in a Trailhawk variant, an indication that Jeep still takes its models’ off-road capability seriously. While we wouldn’t compare the Compass to a Wrangler Rubicon or even a Cherokee or Grand Cherokee Trailhawk, the little rig is capable of tackling far more grueling off-road terrain than it will likely ever encounter in the hands of owners.

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As with the Cherokee and Grand Cherokee, the Compass Trailhawk has plenty of visual cues to set it apart from it mall-crawling brethren. Aside from the “Trail Rate” fender badge, the Trailhawk gets a bespoke tailgate badge, front red tow hooks, a black hood decal, and an off-road–friendly front bumper giving it a much greater approach angle than other Compass models. On the inside, “Trailhawk” embroidery adorns the seats, which also get red contrast stitching.

The Trailhawk also naturally gets the highest ground clearance of any Compass and the most suspension travel, at 8.5 and 8.2 inches, respectively. The Trailhawk also earned immediate credibility with us by having a full-size spare tire, as far as we know, the only model in its competitive set to offer one. Lesser Compass models have a temporary spare or inflator kit.

On Road and Trail
Styling and trim packages can only cover up so much if the underlying package is lacking. Thankfully, we can say the basic bones of the Compass are not lacking in any way. Engineers and product developers tenaciously pursued improving the Compass’ ride, handling and refinement, and the results are impossible to ignore. The noise, vibration, and harshness levels are in a whole different universe than the last model, thanks to a much stiffer chassis employing more than 65 percent high-strength steel, triple-sealed doors, and specially-designed Koni struts designed to filter out high-frequency impacts. Acoustic wheel liners were also selected to further muffle road noise. Electric power steering improves control and handling, while reducing the parasitic loss inherent with a hydraulic system, improving fuel economy.

There’s only one engine available in the U.S.-spec Compass, a 2.4L 16-valve I-4 with MultiAir, producing 180 hp and 175 lb-ft of torque. Three transmissions are available, depending on trim level. Lower-level models get a choice of a six-speed manual or automatic. Higher-trim models such as the Limited and Trailhawk get a nine-speed automatic transmission. Unfortunately, you cannot spec out a Trailhawk with the manual. The nine-speed is part of the secret sauce giving it a virtual “low-range” and a crawl ratio of 20:1.

Most of the time, the power produced by the 2.4L engine is adequate to scoot the Compass around town and on the freeway. However, freeway passing maneuvers require patience and planning, as there’s little mid-range power left in reserve at highway speeds. A 1.6L or 1.8L GDI turbo would probably help fatten up the midrange torque.

The experience of driving the Compass off-road is much like that of the Renegade, but with a little more comfort. In short, due to the lack of a traditional stepped low range, and the I-4’s modest output, you can’t be afraid to use the throttle. To crawl over rocks, you’ve got to put the hammer down and let the little four-banger give you all it’s got. As long as you’ve got a good line, and ideally a spotter standing outside, you’re probably not going to do any major damage. The likelihood of the engine overpowering the driver’s skills is minimal.

For those that plan on serious trail rides on a regular basis, the Compass, even in Trailhawk trim, is probably not the best choice. Those wanting to combine the quotidian virtues of a crossover with the substance of an off-road SUV would be better served by the Cherokee, which does have a stepped, geared low range. That said, we would not attempt the trails and obstacles we did in the Compass in a RAV4, CR-V, Escape, or any other comparable crossover without fearing some major damage, or the peril of getting stuck.

Plugged In
Connectivity is becoming a big part of the driving experience, and in that area, the Compass doesn’t disappoint, with up to a colossal 8.4-inch Uconnect touchscreen interface. A 5 or 7-inch display is standard, depending on the trim. Likewise, the gauge cluster features either a 3.5 or 7-inch Driver Information Display. There’s also Bluetooth calling and audio connectivity, as well as multiple USB inputs, and a 12V DC power point. The fourth-generation Uconnect system supports Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, as well as featuring available SiriusXM Guardian connected services for roadside assistance, hands-free calling and text messaging, and a customizable home screen. A rearview camera is standard on all Compass models. Other available comfort and convenience features include heated front seats, a power rear liftgate, and a forward collision warning system.

Gateway Drug
We feel the Compass is the perfect complement to the Jeep lineup for those that want the rugged image associated with the brand, but have to deal with the daily grind of commuting, kids, and part-time Uber driver. The Compass offers a budget-friendly option with more comfort and space than the Renegade, at a lower cost than the Cherokee or Grand Cherokee. Those that get hooked by the Compass’ all-weather traction and capability will have plenty of choices climbing up the brand hierarchy, either going the rugged yet refined route with the Cherokee and Grand Cherokee, or hard-core with the Wrangler. While the purists may never accept the Compass as a “true Jeep” the engineers and product developers have done a shrewd job of growing the lineup to have broader appeal at home and abroad, while still offering uncompromising models to those for whom only solid axles and locking differentials will do. The new Compass breathes new life into a long-neglected name and promises to be an integral part of Jeep’s success around the globe.

2017 Jeep Compass
Vehicle type: Compact CUV
Base price: $22,090
Price as tested: $29,690
Engine: 2.4L fuel injected, 16-valve SOHC I-4
Transmission: 6-speed manual, 6-speed automatic, 9-speed automatic
Horsepower: 180 @ 6,400 rpm
Torque: 175 lb-ft @ 3,900 rpm
Curb Weight: 3,184-3,633 (FWD-AWD)
Towing capacity: 2,000 pounds
EPA mileage rating (AWD/FWD): 22 mpg city/30-31 mpg highway

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