Mountain Wheels: Jeep’s Compass reborn as a capable baby Grand Cherokee
Companies are sometimes compelled to grow a little too fast for their own good. And as we remember the years when Jeep was apparently asked overnight to cover the earth with Jeep nameplates, the emergence of the considerably non-Jeepy Compass and Patriot (you may also feel the same about the Liberty) probably caused a few diehards to shiver — but still buy more weird aftermarket parts for their Wranglers.
The credibility gap felt in the early Compass (not, for the record, the worst car ever, and also still a great seller for Jeep, believe it or not) prompted the company to come up with a completely remade and revised rendition of the car for 2017, about the only similarity to the first-wave vehicle being the name.
That 2017 Compass, as we learned by tipping into muddy ravines and teetering over Compass-sized slabs of rock at a private ranch in the Texas Hill Country a week ago, is about a 1,000 percent improvement over the existing model.
It looks very much like a scaled-down Grand Cherokee, its interior design and functionality is quite impressive and, as we found on those rocks and muddy chutes, it has the Jeep off-roading DNA and can do much of the Jeep-styled crawling, wading and exploring, especially in the slightly more robust Trailhawk edition.
It’s still designed to fill a spot on the expansive Jeep continuum, somewhere between the cute and rudimentary Renegade and the well-established new Cherokee, and the Grand Cherokee itself. Starting Compass prices begin just shy of $21,000, with the top of the line Trailhawk or the fully-fitted Limited 4×4 edition both still under $29,000.
Compass’s size (a 103.8-inch wheelbase, 173 inches overall, nearly 60 cubic inches of cargo space with the rear seats folded), built on an expanded Renegade platform, also makes the vehicle just the right size for the international market — a Grand Cherokee looks like a dump truck in Thailand, Brazil or South Africa — and as a result, it will be produced in four different countries and outfitted with 17 different engine and powertrain combinations, depending on the market. Ours will be made in Mexico, barring the still-evolving (and frequently revised) nature of presidential relations with that country.
For the U.S., the sole choice for now is a 2.4-liter four-cylinder Tigershark engine that produces 180 horsepower and 175 lb.-ft. of torque. We found that more than adequate for a burst of San Antonio-area expressway cruising and plenty for pulling the little Jeep up and over treacherous obstacles. You’ll be able to get as much as 31 MPG on the highway in a 4×4 version; front-wheel-drive versions will litter the flatlands, but will still be competent mixed-weather travelers.
What choice the Compass lacks in engine it makes up for in transmissions and 4×4 technology choices. Depending on your choice of basic Sport, better Latitude, rugged Trailhawk or fancy Limited edition, you’ll find a nine-speed automatic, a six-speed automatic for the front-wheel-drive versions or an honest-to-goodness six-speed manual.
You can also get the Jeep Active Drive system, which will throw all of the Compass’s torque to the front wheels during hairy conditions, or a more advanced 4×4 system with an authentic rock-crawling low range. Both have the Selec-Terrain system, allowing you to dial up settings suitable to winter or different off-road conditions. And in dry road conditions, the 4×4 driveline system will disconnect the rear wheels, for added fuel efficiency.
Compass seems more comfortable actually heading off road than the capable but too-cute Renegade; the vehicle’s scale and stance (as much as 8.5 inches of clearance, plus healthy approach and departure angles, especially in the duty-built Trailhawk edition) had it feeling very much like an accomplished and bulletproof machine — almost like a very updated version of the original 1990s’ and 2000s’ Cherokee.
Looks are a fantastic improvement from the old version, with a rear profile that — especially with a gloss black roof and the red paint job — looks awfully rounded and Range Roverish, in a good way. Up front, low-profile (but not Cherokee slit-like) headlamps, a very Grand Cherokee-styled seven-bar grille and some colored tow hooks all contribute to a well-rounded, pleasant and enticing package.
The interior has also taken a slightly less angle-crazy mix of recent Jeep dash styles, with a shield-shaped motif and a sculpted form that’s efficient and attractive. You can also get, depending on the model, four different Uconnect navigation and information systems, with touchscreens as large as 8.4 inches. Apple CarPlay or Android Auto makes music and information integration easy on the larger screens.
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