Most crossover SUVs can’t really cross over very much.
They look like rugged, off-road-ready SUVs, but they’re really just high-riding cars, with light-duty AWD (usually optional) and not much more off-road capability than the cars they are based on.
Except for this one.
WHAT IT IS
The Compass is a compact-sized, two-row crossover SUV that’s based on a car chassis — like other crossovers — but with capability comparable to truck-based SUVs.
It offers a 20:1 gear-reduction feature that operates like a truck-type 4WD system’s two-speed transfer case — but without the additional weight of a two-speed transfer case.
It also offers almost nine inches of ground clearance — in Trailhawk trim. Combined with its more rugged-than-most AWD system this Jeep can tackle terrain that’s off limits to other crossovers, yet still behaves with car-like civility when the terrain is paved.
Prices start at $21,595 for the base Sport trim with front-wheel-drive and a six-speed manual transmission (something else the Jeep offers that’s becoming hard-to-find in other crossovers).
A top-of-the-line Trailhawk with the most-capable version of the AWD system (which includes a Rock Crawl mode) and the additional ground clearance, off-road M/S-rated tires, tow hooks, skid plates and various trim upgrades, stickers for $28,945.
There’s almost nothing that’s directly competitive with the Compass as far as capability — that isn’t also a truck-based SUV.
And much more expensive.
The next-closest thing is probably the Subaru Crosstrek — which can match the Jeep’s ground clearance and which also comes standard with a very capable AWD system (the Jeep’s is optional) and costs a bit less ($21,895) to start.
But the Soobie hasn’t got the gear-reduction feature, the adjustable terrain settings or the trail-rated tires.
It also can’t tow 2,000 lbs.
The Jeep can.
An Upland special edition variant has been added to the mix; it includes the Trailhawk’s 17-inch wheels, tow hooks, skid plates and front clip — but not the Trailhawk’s AWD system.
It’s designed to look rather than play the part.
There’s also a new High Altitude Appearance Package for the Limited trims. This one comes with 19-inch wheels, an upgraded 8.4 inch UConnect touchscreen, HID lights and gunmetal/tungsten interior trim.
Truck-based SUV capability — without the truck based SUV’s price tag.
Three transmission choices.
Available manual transmission — both FWD and AWD versions.
UConnect system is one of the best available- at any price, in any class of car, crossover or truck.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Slow-pokey acceleration; zero to 60 takes 10- seconds.
Fairly thirsty; expect to average low 20s — not far off the average of larger/more powerful truck-based SUVs packing V8s.
Auto-start/stop system is standard, like it or not — even if you don’t like the engine shutting itself off at every red light, then chugging back to life when the light turns green.
UNDER THE HOOD
Every Compass comes with a 2.4 liter four cylinder engine that produces 180 horsepower, but you have three transmission options — as well as the option to choose front-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive.
The base trim comes with the 2.4 liter engine and a six-speed manual transmission; a six-speed automatic is optional. Models with the optional AWD system come with either the manual or a nine-speed automatic.
Trailhawk models come with a more aggressive 4.34 final drive ratio (to provide additional low-speed leverage) vs. the 3.73 ratio that’s standard with other Compass trims.
Regardless of combo, mileage is about the same: 23 city, 32 highway with the manual and FWD; 22 city, 30 highway with the nine-speed automatic and AWD.
The Compass can tow a respectable for its size/class 2,000 lbs. The Subaru Crosstrek maxes out at 1,500 lbs.
Another thing the Compass comes with is two batteries — to deal with the added electrical load imposed by the auto-stop/start system. There’s a 500 amp main battery and a secondary 150 amp battery. Dual batteries aren’t new; heavy-duty trucks have been so equipped for decades, especially diesel models — which impose high cold-cranking demands on batteries because of their very high compression.
But the Compass has different demands.
Rather, Uncle does.
Jeep (like every other car company) installs auto-stop/start to tweezer fractional per-vehicle MPG gains for the sake of complying with government fuel-efficiency fatwas. But the “solutions” arrived at to achieve these government-mandated gains impose a whole slew of new costs — including two batteries that will likely be shorter-lived batteries, because of the charge/discharge cycling (hard on batteries) that comes with all that engine stopping and starting.
It’s worth mentioning that auto-stop/start is not an option you’re free to choose to buy if you want it — or not. For the pretty obvious reason that most people would choose not to buy it.
Because there’s little, if any, benefit to the owner.
Auto-stop/start is another example of “features” for which there is no market demand but which the government effectively demands we pay for.
Both up front — and down the road.
ON THE ROAD
The Compass isn’t speedy, but it is immensely capable.
Its AWD system may not have a two-speed transfer case, as “real” (truck-type) 4WD systems have, but the Jeep achieves the same result without it, via the 20:1 crawl ratio built into the transmission.
All versions with the AWD system get driver-selectable terrain modes (Auto, Snow, Sand and Mud) which optimize throttle tip-in/shift points and the traction control system to give you maximum . . . traction.
The Trailhawk gets a fifth mode, Rock Crawl — designed for just that. It can also traverse nearly two feet of water, too.
You can take this Jeep off-road; almost anywhere a truck-based 4WD SUV could risk — especially the Trailhawk version, which has an extra margin of clearance, the ground-grabbing 17-inch Falken Wild Peak knobbies.
And it does this in a relatively small, affordably priced package.
Cast around for a 4WD SUV that’s similarly capable and you’ll be spending a lot more than the $23k or so an AWD Compass will set you back. Even the $28k or so Trailhawk is a relative bargain compared with what that amount of money would buy you in a “real” 4WD SUV.
The one thing the Compass doesn’t do very well is pass on paved roads. There is just enough engine to get you going. Not much left to get you going faster, either.
Also, the nine-speed automatic (AWD versions) is programmed to please Uncle, which means it is programed to upshift to its top three overdrive gears as soon as it can without actually bogging the engine.
But it often comes close to bogging it — all for the sake of MPGs, to make Uncle happy.
This can be countermanded by keeping your right foot down — which the shift programming actually encourages, because otherwise the already slow-moving Compass moves even slower.
But the end result of that is the engine gets worked harder — and so uses more fuel in real-world driving.
Keep in mind: New cars are programmed to do best on government tests — not in real world driving. The whole thing is a stupid game — and we’re the losers.
Note also that the Compass delivers its best-case EPA mileage numbers with the six-speed manual transmission. Not with either of the available automatics. You’ll also get the best real-world performance with the manual, as well as greater control — always an important consideration but arguably especially so in an off-roader.
A neat thing about the Compass is its tow-ability. Not how much it can tow, but that it can be easily towed, as behind an RV. Because it has a neutral range that allows the wheels to freewheel.
AT THE CURB
Though small — the Jeep is just 173 inches end to end — it has lots of room, including 38.3 inches of backseat legroom, more than many current (and larger) mid-sized sedans have in a package that’s about a foot shorter, end to end. Which makes it a great city/suburban vehicle as much as an off-road vehicle.
It also has much more room for cargo than most cars: 27.2 cubic feet behind its second row of seats and 59.8 cubic feet with the seats folded down.
This space efficiency is one of the major reasons for the huge popularity of crossovers.
The taller profile of the crossover layout also gives the Jeep more headroom (39.2 inches in the first row, 38.5 in the second row) than a typical lower-riding car, which is another reason for the popularity of this layout.
Other crossovers are similarly or even more space-efficient, of course. But they can’t match the Jeep’s capabilities.
Which includes angles of approach (16.8 degrees), departure (31.7 degrees) and breakover (22.9 degrees) that are unmatched among crossovers and — per above — equaled only in much more expensive SUVs.
So it not only looks like a Jeep — it’s worthy of the Jeep name.
As part of the FiatChrysler family, the Compass comes with Chrysler’s superb UConnect system, the centerpiece of which is a large 7 inch LCD display (8.4 inches is optional) that’s easy rather than distracting to use because of the large buttons and comprehensible menus. The system (both versions) come standard with AppleCarPlay and Android Auto; you can access your Compass via your phone and also use your phone to find your Compass in a crowded parking lot.
The system also offers Off Road pages, which includes topographical mapping.
Jeep could have put a stronger engine in the Compass — something along the lines of the 2.0 liter turbo four (270 horsepower) that’s become available in the one-size-larger Cherokee (for 2019). It would certainly have addressed the many criticisms about the slowness of the Compass.
But then you’d have a turbocharged engine- and with it, the extra cost/complexity. The Compass’ 2.4 liter engine is arguably perfect for a vehicle such as this — a rugged little runabout that isn’t designed to get there quickly, just designed to get there . . . regardless of conditions.
A diesel, of course, would be even more perfect. The low-end torque, the long-term durability — with the of much better fuel economy. But we can’t have that. Not because Jeep doesn’t have a diesel — or doesn’t want to offer it. Jeep offers diesel engines in almost every model it makes.
Just not here.
Because of Uncle, again.
Errata: Be aware that the Trailhawk’s off-road tires are noisier on-road and will wear faster than the all-season tires that come with other trims. Serious capability entails some compromises.
Also: You can temporarily disable the auto-stop/start system by pressing a button on the center console. Unfortunately, this has to be done every time you go for a drive. There is no way to permanently shut it off, forever.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Though there are lots of crossovers on the road, none in this class can match the Compass off-road.
. . .
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