The outgoing Jeep Compass had a well-deserved bad name for being outdated and underperforming. Now, Jeep is setting out to replace that unloved model with something that will give the brand positive marks – and more importantly, sell in strong numbers.
After a few days behind the wheel of the new Compass, this one in Latitude trim, I came away impressed with the overall package, despite some flaws that will hurt it as it competes in what’s a cutthroat segment.
When it comes to the Compass, “choice” is a key word: It comes in four trims (Sport, Latitude, Limited, and Trailhawk) and there are two possible drivetrain layouts (4×4, 4×2) and three transmission choices (nine-speed automatic for some 4×4 models, a six-speed manual for other 4×4 models, and a six-speed automatic for 4×2 models). That doesn’t even include the five engines that will be available across the globe, depending on the market (three gasoline, two diesel), although here in North America, there is no engine choice – the sole powerplant is a 2.4-liter four-cylinder that makes 180 horsepower and 175 lb-ft of torque.
The Latitude trim is a step up over the base Sport model, and it sort of serves as a mid-level trim between the higher-grade Limited and the off-road-oriented Trailhawk. It can be relatively well-equipped and it’s the best way to get a manual transmission and four-wheel-drive without sacrificing a ton of creature comfort (although you will sacrifice some, such as nav. On the other hand, you can have Apple CarPlay and Android Auto with a manual, which would negate the need for nav.).
That’s based on a quick look at the online configurator, anyway. I include this info to appease the “save the manuals” crowd, as my test ride came equipped with the nine-speed automatic – a gearbox that’s drawn nothing but scorn in other implementations across the Fiat-Chrysler lineup.
Other standard equipment included keyless entry, push-button start, rearview camera, air conditioning, Uconnect infotainment, Bluetooth, USB, and tilt/telescope steering wheel.
The Customer Preferred package ($795) added rear-park assist, blind-spot monitoring, cross-path detection, rain-detecting windshield wipers, and an alarm. The Navigation Group package ($995) added navigation, 8.4-inch touchscreen, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto capability, and satellite radio. My test ride also came equipped with the Popular Equipment Group ($995), which adds 8-way power driver’s seat, 7-inch instrument cluster display screen, remote start, dual-zone climate control, and auxiliary power outlet, among other things.
Add in another $1,500 for the nine-speed automatic, $695 for the Beats audio system, $245 for the spare tire, $595 for the 17-inch wheels and $1,095 for destination and the sticker price tips just past $30K, to $31,210.
The Compass slots in between the Renegade and the Cherokee, size-wise, and it has an exterior design that has a seven-slot grille that’s similar to what’s found in the Cherokee and Grand Cherokee. But unlike the Cherokee, the Compass doesn’t have a sloping snout that sticks out – it looks more like a baby Grand Cherokee, with a more traditionally boxy hood, although the edges are softened by being rounded off.
Most of my time in the Latitude was spent either on the freeway or in urban driving, and despite Jeep’s reputation as an off-road brand, that’s how most will be used. I’m not saying the Compass isn’t capable – I didn’t have a chance to go off road with it – but most buyers aren’t going to tackle any terrain more difficult that a potholed Midwestern street. Crossovers, even those with off-road chops, are being bought in droves by suburbanites not because they can tackle the Rubicon, but because they can carry more stuff than sedans.
Carry the Compass can, with a caveat. That caveat is this: The Compass has less cargo volume (rear seats up or down) than the Hyundai Tucson, Kia Sportage, Honda CR-V, or Toyota RAV4, which are pretty much the competitive targets. The good news is that even so, I found plenty of room for luggage and other random stuff during a three-hour drive from Wisconsin to home base in Chicago.
While that means those who prioritize cargo-hauling abilities might want to shop elsewhere, there’s still enough room inside for grocery getting or a couple of suitcases for a weekend getaway.
Lack of interior storage space struck me as a more serious issue – the Latitude lacks for small cabin storage areas where one can easily stash a cell phone or sunglasses, and the center console is shallow.
Rear-seat room, however, is generous, even for those who are tall of frame, such as myself.
The Uconnect display is updated, with crisper graphics, and the touchscreen works intuitively. Controls are easy to read and reach – Fiat Chrysler has figured out how to balance modern infotainment tech with old-fashioned ergonomics in just about all of its interior designs, and there is no exception here. Be sure to be on the lookout for all the little design Easter eggs that are hidden throughout the interior.
Road manners are mostly positive, but the report card stops short of perfect. Highway ride is nice and smooth, and potholes and rough roads are generally muted. The steering, however, is just a tad on the light and quick side, although it does offer good feel – the front tires never feel too distant.
The four-cylinder needs more punch, particularly for merging and passing. At least the nine-speed is better behaved than it has been in the past. Overall, the package feels more sporty than not, and it’s engaging enough for most folks, but it’s not quite on par in the smiles per mile department with the Renegade or GC – both of those vehicles manage to feel sportier on road than they should. The Compass won’t bore you, so that’s good, but it’s just a hair short of what it could be, based on what Jeep’s done with its stablemates.
The Compass is one of those vehicles that on its own merits offers a solid package, but it may run into trouble due to its flaws. The relative lack of power and the shortage of interior storage are troublesome, and it doesn’t compare favorably to the competition when it comes to cargo room. Plus, Chrysler reliability is always a concern.
On the other hand, the new Compass is handsome and has impeccable highway manners to go along with one of the better infotainment systems in the class. Its interior is driver-friendly (except that whole storage thing) and passenger room is plentiful. Equipped with the four-cylinder and the nine-speed automatic, highway fuel economy is listed at 30 mpg (22 mpg city), and with the manual it goes as high as 32 mpg highway, so its fuel-economy numbers aren’t wallet-crushing.
Chrysler just discontinued a model that was good-looking but suffered in comparison to competitors due to practical concerns – the 200 sedan. That car was done in in part by lack of rear-seat room – an emphasis on design led to a sloping roofline that ate into rear headroom. So one might be concerned that the lack of cargo room compared to rest of the competitive set could be a problem.
That likely won’t be the case here. The 200 also wasn’t as fun to drive as the competition. That won’t be an issue with the Compass – even with its shortcomings the Compass is class-competitive when it comes to on-road dynamics.
The good news for Jeep, as if Fiat Chrysler’s strongest brand needed more of it, is that the Compass will now be in the discussion and on the shopping lists of anyone looking to buy in this class. Quibbles about storage space and acceleration aside, the overall package is as well done as any of its rivals.
That’s what Jeep needed with the Compass – a viable compact crossover offering that splits the size difference between the Renegade and Cherokee while also siphoning buyers away from stalwarts like the CR-V and RAV4. One that isn’t a punchline. One that buyers will actually test drive – and put down payments on.
Sure, the bar to clear was set low by its predecessor, but Jeep didn’t just move it up a notch and call it a day – it moved it right to where the competition is, and more or less hit it.
The bad name is no more.