More an SUV than a soft-roader. Patchy dynamics but well finished and has good off-road ability
What is it?
Admittedly from a very low base, Jeep’s presence in Europe is multiplying. Momentum is building because it’s making cars that suit European conditions. The Renegade was the first of them. Now the Compass, which has the potential to do better again, as it’s aiming at the biggest-selling part of the SUV market. It’s the size of a Qashqai or Tiguan or Kuga or Sportage.
Or, if you like, the Land Rover Freelander, but oddly Britain’s best-known SUV maker has now absented itself from Britain’s biggest-selling off-road segment and has nothing smaller than the Discovery Sport.
Anyway, Jeep’s been in the 4x4 game longer than any, and finally has a comprehensive and coherent range: Renegade (4.2m long), Compass (4.4m), Cherokee (4.6m) and Grand Cherokee (have a wild guess… alright, 4.8m). Plus, for nutty off-road wrangling, the Wrangler.
The design is a strong point. At the front, Jeep’s trademark seven-slot grille is modernised, and the flanks carry strong half-hexagon blistered arches and a thick upward-tapering D-post. A chrome strip runs below the roof-line, then neatly flicks down to run under the rear window, and up again the other side. The proportions look tough and capable.
If you’ve got a long memory for failed cars, you’ll know there was once another Jeep Compass in Britain. It looked like a child had styled it, and was horrible to drive, one of the most uncompetitive cars you could have made the mistake of buying. Luckily so few are out there that it won’t besmirch the image of the new one, unless anyone mentions it. Ooops, just did. Anyway, this one has absolutely nothing in common, thereby proving that Chrysler is far healthier in bed with Fiat than it was when in bed with Daimler.
The new Compass has powertrains we’ve seen in other Jeeps and Fiats. Petrols are the 1.4 Multiair with variable valve actuation and turbo. Diesels are the 1.6 and 2.0. There are a few FWD and manual models, but for the top-power petrol and diesel it’s mandatory four-wheel-drive and nine-speed auto.
Interestingly, Jeep went for a strut-type rear suspension instead of the multi-link that rival car-based 4x4s offer. The reason is it can give more travel, for better off-roading. If you really want to get serious off the road, wait a few months after launch for the Trailhawk version, which adds another pretty convincing layer of off-road hardware and software.
Inside, in most trim levels, Fiat-Chrysler’s infotainment system UConnect has had a major workover and gets an 8.4-inch screen with nav and CarPlay/Auto. There’s lots of standard equipment in general, which shows that Jeep isn’t yet confident in Europe to position itself as premium, even though in America that’s how it sees itself these days.
The 170bhp 1.4-litre petrol is a lively and sweet-sounding engine in other Fiats and Alfas. Not here. It drones miserably, both at suburban speeds and when accelerating. All the verve seems to have been sucked out of it, and you need 9.3sec for 0-62.
Still, it’s not all grim. The ZF nine-speed autobox is less fretful than in other applications, shifting ratio only when it makes sense, usually doing it smoothly, and downshifting helpfully as you descend hills.
The diesel we tested is a 2.0, with the same transmission and also making 170bhp. Performance was similar, naturally. Although a 2.0 diesel is always going to have more torque than a 1.4 petrol, the autobox hides the petrol’s deficit well by using more revs. And since the diesel is also noisy and harsh for its type, it’s no quieter than the petrol even if it revs lower.
The autobox’s long top ratios mean peace at last from the engine when you’re cruising. The chassis subframes have bi-directional mounts for refinement, and sure enough road noise is low.
Another chassis tweak is frequency-selective dampers, a Koni race-derived feature that’s supposed to allow sharp shocks to be absorbed by the springs, while quelling the longer slow movement of body float. Hmmm. The suspension is very busy and surprisingly harsh at town speed. Not good for a family crossover. As speed builds, the harshness does melt away somewhat, but this is still a tautly suspended vehicle at least travelling solo. Maybe the suspension is tuned for load-carrying.
The well-tied suspension, as well as cleverly distributed torque through the 4WD system, does make this is perfectly capable thing through corners, even ones with lots of crests and dips. In that sort of regime the steering is accurate, too, if numb. Frankly though, in a family crossover, this talent is a bit superfluous, especially given that the engines really aren’t up for it. More plushness would have surely been a saner compromise.
It’s reasonable to speculate that the Trailhawk version, with longer springs for better clearance and puffier tyres for grip, will probably ride more softly. But it doesn’t arrive for a few months after the rest of the range, so we haven’t driven it. It also comes with crawler gears, underbody protection, and a rock crawl mode in the terrain-select system. The other 4WD versions have sand, mud and snow, all of which retune powertrain, diff and traction-control systems to suit.