Alvin Thomas tests an SUV that aims to combine rugged reliability with practical style.
For all its time in existence, the Jeep Compass has seemed like a fish out of water, with a jarring soft-roader image that has obscured Jeep’s vision of more than 70 years of building off-road-ready trucks and SUVs that can take on anything Mother Nature chucks at them.
Yet, with growing demand for family haulers in this part of the world – where even SUVs run on smooth tarmac and are safely stowed away in garages – the Compass makes a return to form; albeit by ditching its softer tone for an image befitting the Jeep badge.
Butch by appearance and practical by nature, the new Compass takes the red rag to the bull, fetching just about every quirk from its larger sibling – the Grand Cherokee – and shrinks it down to create something of an all-rounder fit enough to take home glory from the Asians who have been on top form of late.
The Compass boldly proclaims itself too. Whether it’s the dual tone fiery orange paintjob (that out tester came in), or the generous serving of Jeep badges and logos in and around the car, there’s just about enough to tell you that Jeep isn’t mucking around with its new crossover SUV.
In this case, the looks aren’t deceptive. The Compass embodies the Grand Cherokee in shape and form – from the headlamps to the haunches around the fenders, the general side profile, and plastics around the bumpers and the wheel arches.
The bumper, however, is carved out in good taste; with a handful of air intakes to help cool off the engine, and a modernised take on the seven-slot grille that’s both functional and striking to look at.
Another subtle styling cue is a chrome strip that runs below the roof-line and then neatly flicks down to run under the rear window, and up again the other side.
It’s a proportional vehicle at first glance although we suspect the larger 18- and 19-inch alloys will round off the burly looks as opposed to the 17-inchers our ‘Longitude’ variant came fitted with.
Built around the same adaptable Fiat-derived SCCS platform that underpins the Jeep Renegade and Fiat 500X, the Compass benefits from wheelbase length – 80mm more, in fact, than the sub-compact SUV, Renegade.
This makes for better interior dimensions than the cutesy Renegade, and just about enough space for five full-sized adults. The seats on our tester were finished in soft fabrics – a blessing in this summer heat – though it can be had with leather as well.
The cushy seats can lack bolstering, but they’re good on lumbar support and are positioned in a manner that mimics the height of an SUV but with enough leeway to lower it to levels more in line with the general height of the Compass.
Luggage space is generous for this segment at 770 litres with the seats up or 1693 litres with the rear seats folded down.
Keeping in line with Jeep’s design ethos, our tester came packing the 7-inch touchscreen running the brand’s UConnect system. UX and UI are in line with market standards, if not better, with quick responses to touches and quick flips through pages. Higher variants will receive the larger 8.4-inch unit, which packs navigation and a host of other off-road pages.
Cabin ambience is among the best we’ve tested in an American SUV: the dashboard is neat and uncluttered, and there’s a generous dose of soft-touch plastics that ups the general feel.
Also, hard plastics are kept to lower levels of the cabin that won’t meet your knees or even your foot… unless you are trying hard to reach them.
The steering wheel is wrapped in leather, and there are controls on either side to control the cruise functions and the multi-information display (on the instrument cluster). We particularly took a shine to the set of buttons behind the wheel that control the music and its levels.
In terms of safety, Jeep chucks in your usual arsenal of six front and curtain airbags, alongside traction and stability controls with electronic roll mitigation, as standard. However, higher variants will receive Forward Collision Warning-Plus, Lane Sense Departure Warning-Plus, Blind-spot Monitoring with Rear Cross Path detection, ParkView rear backup camera with dynamic grid lines, automated parallel and perpendicular park assist, and adaptive cruise control.
A 2.4-litre in-line four-cylinder motor rated at 184hp and 321Nms does all the heavy lifting for the Compass. It’s a well-acclaimed gutsy motor that breathes hard (while producing an animated exhaust note) to keep the power flowing till the red line at 5,000rpm.
Acceleration figures aren’t overwhelming by Jeep standards. The 100kph mark is achieved in about 10 seconds (or maybe lesser depending on the climate), and the nine-speed automatic transmission upshifts early to help the engine sip on fuel than gulp it down.
It’s a fine match, and the Compass copes far better than expected on the highways – both noise and vibrations were kept to a minimum. On the expressway, and at speeds between 120kph and 140kph is where the SUV belongs. It trundles along fine with little to no hesitation and wind resistance rarely makes a mark on the way it rides.
Throttling hard results in instant kick-downs, but manually overriding the system can often result in dithering shifts (especially when you’re trying to use engine-braking) that seem to be on a hiding to nothing.
The electric-assisted steering has some weight to it, but has an unexpected bite-in that can make for some fun when poking through the twists. Brake feel is great, with a fair bit of force from the get-go and linear progression that keeps the vehicle from tipping over.
Even as it’s pegged an entrant in the lineup, the Compass pulls through as a fine off-roader with plenty of tricks up its sleeve. There’s about 148mm of ground clearance and an additional skid plate for protecting the underbody, and axle articulation is enough to keep you grounded and safe even during some spirited rock-climbing sessions (if you’re the one person that takes their Compass off-road). When the going gets tough, however, Jeep’s terrain select system will allow you to switch between ‘Auto’, ‘Sand’, ‘Snow’, and ‘Mud’ modes, though higher variants come with 4WD ‘Low’ and ‘High’ to help you.
Progress transpires when you pick up on your mistakes and rectify it – and that’s exactly what the Compass achieves. It’s a well-rounded and value-for-money tank that’s backed up by great on-road dynamics and a tech-heavy cabin rarely seen in a vehicle at this price point.
Gone is the run-down design and the hard-plastic interiors. It’s a no-brainer: Jeep’s Compass is among the best compact SUVs you can currently own today. Talk about scoring a bang for your buck.
• Engine: 2.4-litre in-line four-cylinder
• Transmission: Nine-speed automatic
• Power: 184hp
• Torque: 321Nms
• Reverse camera (optional)
• Cruise control
• Speed limiter
• Electronic parking brake
• 17-inch alloy wheels
• ABS, EBD, and TC
• Hill Start Assist
• Auto hold assist
• 770-litre boot
• 7-inch touchscreen infotainment system