Long-term road test: is the Jeep Compass a genuine SUV contender?
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There's a faint, at times condescending voice when it comes to the label of 'most improved'. It can be an honest assessment of positive achievement, or a sharp jab underlining how dismal things used to be. In the case of SUVs like the new Jeep Compass, it could even potentially mean both.
I say 'new', but the second-generation Compass has been around for a few years now. Nevertheless, time has yet to take the shine off what was easily one of Jeep's biggest model transformations.
The first-generation Compass was built on a car platform — the Mitsubishi Evolution, curiously, among its distant siblings. This helped lead to questions about whether it or its sister model, the Patriot, were 'real Jeeps'. A comprehensive refresh in 2011 helped it immensely (particularly in the looks department), but even that was somewhat thwarted by a stern two-star safety rating from Euro NCAP.
Thankfully a big chunk of that changed with the 'new' Compass. Replacing both its namesake predecessor and the Patriot simultaneously in 2016, its styling was pulled in line with the rest of the manufacturer’s offerings and its interior quality grew exponentially.
And now one has joined the Driven long-term test fleet.
The cheapest way to hop into a Compass is via the Longitude trim, which currently has a recommended sale price of $34,990. At the top end of town is the adventure-orientated Trailhawk, at $49,990. And in the middle sits our long-termer; the $44,990 Limited.
Each model comes equipped with the same engine — a naturally aspirated 2.4-litre petrol four-cylinder making 129kW at 6400rpm and 229Nm at 3900rpm. Australia gets a less powerful but far more torquey 2.0-litre turbo-diesel engine, but sadly us Kiwis miss out.
The entry-level Longitude sends this power purely to the front wheels via an Aisin six-speed automatic, while our Limited and the Trailhawk sends power to all four corners via a ZF nine-speed automatic.
It’s an interesting drivetrain to say the least. The 2.4 lets out a promising sharp four-cylinder rumble on ignition that isn’t necessarily reciprocated by its performance capabilities.
Jeep, as partial pioneers of the nine-speed automatic, has predictably done well here with calibration. The roaming nine-stage goes about its business in a predictable and relatively seamless way. It’s eager to jump down a few cogs with each stab of throttle, and smoothly ratchets up to top gear on motorways for the benefits of economy.
The engine is less convincing. Low-down torque is competent, making the Compass a handy companion around town and through the ‘burbs. But it’s quick to run out of puff when pressured in places like motorway passing lanes.
That’s somewhat reflected in the aforementioned numbers. The Toyota RAV4, Kia Sportage, and Hyundai Tucson all make more power and torque from pretty similar engines.
To compete with those SUVs, and indeed the rest of the extremely crowded crossover segment, the Compass needs to have more up its sleeve than just a nice gearbox.
One such surprise ace is the way in which the Compass drives. A glance at the spec sheet doesn’t necessarily offer any clues to why it drives so well — MacPherson struts up front and coil-over absorbers all round are complemented by lightweight Chapman struts in the rear that amplify articulation off-road.
And yet, somehow, the Compass is one of the most enjoyable SUVs in class to chuck into corners. Body-roll is minimal, steering is vague but direct enough to allow precision from the driver, and the Bridgestone rubber offers plenty of grip.
It scores well inside, too. The 438L boot is ample (and would be bigger if Jeep didn’t devote large portions of it to the suspension towers of the rear wheels), and rear legroom and headroom is equally impressive.
Complimenting this is a decent mix of tech. Along with stuff like parking sensors, adaptive cruise, and heated seats, the Compass Limited gains a few big-car features too like parallel and perpendicular parking assist and a BeatsAudio system.
At the centre of it all is the big square 8.4in infotainment system. A bit of an intimidating mess at first in its layout, the Uconnect interface quickly grows on you. Being clear and offering Apple CarPlay and Android Auto helps, too (are you listening, Toyota?).
There’s a lot of positive to the Compass, but its biggest pro is also its biggest con — the fact it's a Jeep.
The Jeep connection gives the Compass access to rich heritage and off-roading know-how that a Kia Sportage could only ever dream of. The supporting styling is more arresting and distinctive in person than most, too. But, Jeep themselves acknowledge that the brand faces “perception issues” in this part of the world.
If the Compass is anything to go by, they’re clearly trying quite hard to change that.
2019 Jeep Compass Limited
Pros: Distinctive looks, off-road capability, high spec
Cons: Price, engine lacks pep
View Jeep Compass for sale on Driven.