Can the Jeep Compass perform off-road? Long-term road test finale
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2019 Jeep Compass Limited
• Surprisingly capable off-road
• Quirky charm
• Practical and spacious
• Not terribly efficient
• ... nor quick
• Hard and flat seating
I was sceptical of the new Jeep Compass’ much lauded off-road ability. It’s where the brand’s story started, and where our long-term road test ends.
Given its small dimensions, front-wheel drive bias, and new-age platform, it shouldn’t be able to perform on the rough ... regardless of what they say in the brochure. But taking the Compass off the beaten track was its final mission as a Driven test car.
It performed admirably for much of its stay, with a comfortable and fuss-free 2200km added to its odometer while in our hands.
We’ll miss the smoothness of its 2.4L lump and roomy cabin. Being American, neither element came as much of a surprise. That said, neither did the fuel consumption. A final figure of 8.7L/100km was solid, if a little unremarkable.
Back when the Compass was introduced to the fleet, we said its greatest strength (and weakness) was the Jeep badge, and the character and off-road clout that comes with it.
The character half of the equation starts strong. As we’ve mentioned the looks are hugely distinctive. That seven-slot grille is unequivocally one of modern motoring’s most instantly recognisable faces.
Jeep also stacked the Compass with a heavy dose of brand-orientated “Easter eggs”. The array of dots and dashes on the driver’s foot rest spells out ‘sand, snow, rivers, rocks’ in morse code, the vents on the inner c-pillars mimic the American flag, and hat tips to the Willys Jeep are hidden everywhere.
It’s charming, but the eye-winking touches are countered by the fact that a significant portion of its genealogy can be traced to Fiat.
Its platform was initially made for front-wheel drive Fiat and Opel hatchbacks before getting appropriated for the Compass, its Renegade sibling, and the Fiat 500X.
The Compass has character. But, on the road most of that character speaks with an Italian accent.
To test the Compass off-road we took it to Hampton Downs Motorsport Park.
Apart from its national and international circuit layouts, the Waikato track has a few small courses ideal for handling tests; including a handy off-road circuit.
For 4x4s the course is relatively mild. Most of its patrons are corporate groups getting taught the basics of off-roading. On this day for example, we shared the course with a school of tradies in Toyota Hilux utes.
But, our Compass Limited tester isn’t like “most off-roaders”. It’s not built on a ladder chassis — instead using a monocoque structure like most passenger cars. It comes with four-wheel drive, but that system has to rely on traction generated from reasonably low-profile 225/55 Bridgestone rubber.
Those opening minutes of discovery didn’t fill my fingertips with confidence. The Compass felt jarred and brittle on the rough surface, like it didn’t belong there. I imagined the Hilux mob were perplexed at why such a vehicular city slicker was trying to follow their lead.
But as the minutes went by, confidence levels increased. The act of positioning it on cambered surfaces with a wheel neatly cocked in the air showed how precise the Jeep Active Drive 4x4 system could be with throttle inputs, with minimal wheel-spin or mechanical decisiveness.
Eventually all that was left were the two most challenging portions of the dusty Waikato venue; the steepest incline and the articulation course.
The hill, far steeper in person that it looks in images, would result in fruitless scampering wheel-spin for many of the Jeep’s peers.
But, to my own genuine surprise, the Compass swallowed the hill with not so much as a peep of slippage. Amazing, considering the standard of tyre fitted and the lack of any run-up. Commendable approach, break-over, and departure angles of 16.8, 22.9, and 31.7-degrees respectively helped, too.
The lack of a hill descent feature was somewhat disappointing. It’s standard in the Limited’s beefier cousin, the Trailhawk, which is fair. But it’s worth noting that it’s an increasingly common standard feature in mainstream SUVs.
The articulation course was where the Compass Limited’s biggest off-road weakness would emerge. Granted, it did complete the stretch of deeply corrugated dirt with gusto. But this was mostly down to Jeep’s impressive four-wheel drive system and its quick-thinking ability to shift its power around when a wheel is suspended in mid-air.
The problem, inevitably, is the limitations of the platform. The Trailhawk is more appropriate for these kinds of activities, and is in all likelihood the best in the segment for an off-road bash.
Still, I left the Compass Limited blown away by how capable and confident it is in tricky situations. It might not be able to take on Moab, but in being the segment standout for off-road ability it still holds the Jeep name up high.
There’s something deeply satisfying about knowing that your SUV isn’t a mere facade. And to that end, the Compass earns a mountain of respect.
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