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Jeep has promoted its old crossover to compact SUV status. Will the Compass and its blend of ruggedness and contemporary styling be a hit?

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The Compass is Jeep’s assault on the lucrative compact SUV market.

Their ranks are numerous, and led by the likes of the Volvo XC40 and Volkswagen Tiguan, but few do much to embrace the utilitarian principles their raised ride heights espouse.

The Compass attempts to marry somewhat contrasting aims of being a hard-wearing, all-terrain 4x4 and a stylish, comfortable mode of family transport

It shouldn’t therefore come as a surprise that a company with 70 years of off-roading know-how should seek to leverage its experience and appeal to drivers who might just want some substance to match the style. It’s why the Compass not only has a stylishly raked roofline but comes with a switchable, GKN-built all-terrain four-wheel drive, and why it matches a more luxuriously appointed interior with suspension hardware designed to provide proper wheel articulation.

The gearbox is also fitted with a ‘crawl ratio’ capable of delivering maximum torque to either axle and yet amenities such as an electrically operated tailgate and 19in wheels are available as options. In terms of sheer versatility, very little else in this class comes close – at least on paper.

That’s why we’re road-testing the Compass. Nobody should doubt the makers of the Jeep Wrangler – a veritable mountain goat of a machine with an enviable history – can deliver a robust and ruggedly capable compact SUV on a budget. But equally, merely cloaking such a car in an attractive body is no guarantee of satisfactory on-road manners.

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With unrefined engines and a chassis easily flustered on British roads, the previous Compass was testament to this. Can this latest iteration do any better?

What Car? New car buyer marketplace

DESIGN & STYLING

Jeep Compass 2018 road test review - hero rear

Where the old Compass was a slightly awkward, ungainly looking thing, this new model manages to combine a degree of sophistication with some of that rough-and-ready aesthetic Jeep is famed for.

The iconic seven-slot grille contributes to a commanding front end, while squared-off wheel arches and a wide stance lend the Compass a presence that’s arguably more dominant than we’re used to from the established soft-roader set.

Jeep likes hiding design features around its latest cars. The Renegade had a Willys Jeep climbing its windscreen surround, now the Compass has the Loch Ness monster below the rear window

Peel back that exterior and you’ll find the Compass is based on Fiat Chrysler Automobiles’ ‘small wide architecture’ (which also underpins the smaller Jeep Renegade), albeit here in extended-wheelbase form. A range of petrol and diesel four-cylinder engines are available – our test car came in 2.0-litre, 138bhp MultiJet II diesel flavour, with four-wheel drive and a six-speed manual gearbox.

While for most compact SUVs off-roading will likely be limited to grassy fields or a slightly muddy forest car park, Jeep claims the Compass offers class-leading prowess off the beaten track.

Suspension is by way of MacPherson struts and coil springs up front, while the rear employs a Chapman strut arrangement (read: simplified multi-link) – supposedly for greater axle articulation capabilities. High-strength steel links and an isolated subframe for 4x4 models should also bode well for off-road durability.

The GKN-sourced, clutch-based four-wheel-drive technology, meanwhile, incorporates a disconnecting rear axle and power take-off unit. Under normal conditions, power will only be sent to the front wheels in order to improve fuel economy, although the rear axle will come into play when a shortage of traction is detected. A 4WD-lock function is also present, while Jeep’s Selec-Terrain system offers Auto, Snow, Sand and Mud driving modes.

While we don’t have a dedicated road test quarry in which we can put this off-road tech under the microscope, a glance at the Compass’s technical specs provides some insight as to how well it should fare against rivals. As far as ground clearance is concerned, the Compass puts 215mm between its undercarriage and the floor, while its breakover angle is 22.9deg – respectively, that’s a 15mm and 2.9deg advantage over a Volkswagen Tiguan.

Volvo’s Volvo XC40, meanwhile, offers 211mm of ground clearance and a 22deg breakover angle, so there’s precious little separating the American and the Swede. The Volvo offers superior wading depth too: 450mm versus the Jeep’s 406.5mm.

INTERIOR

Jeep Compass 2018 road test review - cabin

Jeep is playing to a more mature and sophisticated market here than it was, three years ago, with the Jeep Renegade crossover. It has created an interior with less in the way of visual charm and intrigue – but, instead, what’s clearly intended to be a more refined and luxurious ambience, and a more upmarket feel.

But, judged against compact SUVs’ increasingly high standards on perceived quality and fit-and-finish, our test car’s relatively plain, monotone and ordinary-feeling cabin failed to make much of an impression. Parts of the Compass’s interior clearly represent attempts at material richness, but they’re not all convincing (the cheap-looking ‘leather’ on the centre armrest is a case in point). Meanwhile, the car’s nicer ingredients are significantly outnumbered by plenty of fittings (HVAC, headlight and infotainment controls) that look or feel a bit cheaper than the likes of the Volkswagen Tiguan and Volvo XC40 now lead you to expect.

Stereo has chunky volume and tuning knobs, which we approve in principle but, like notable other fittings, their look and tactile feel is a bit low-rent

The Compass’s cabin is adequately comfortable and broadly pleasant. Our test car’s front seats were a touch too flat to offer decent support and didn’t have enough head restraint adjustment for taller drivers to make themselves entirely at home, but ergonomic control layout and adjustability were otherwise good. This isn’t a particularly spacious car by class standards, but it’s competitive.

Head room is eaten into in both rows by Jeep’s ‘double-pane’ sunroof, and typical leg room in the second row is only an average 740mm. The boot offers less loading space, according to the tape, than you’ll find in a Tiguan, DS 7 Crossback or Mazda CX-5, although our test car’s loading depth was a little adversely affected by an optional-fit temporary spare wheel that prevented use of its lower boot floor setting.

The car’s instruments are presented clearly. Its trip computer is easy enough to read and to navigate via the thumb consoles on the slightly awkwardly shaped spokes of the steering wheel. Meanwhile, our test car had both USB and three-pin AC power sockets for the use of second row passengers. The latter socket is useful for charging tablet PCs and other power-hungry mobile devices.

Our test car came with the Compass’s top-level infotainment system, which has an 8.4in touchscreen, and integrates smartphone mirroring for both Apple and Android phones (on entry-level Sport grade, you get a 5.0in set-up without mirroring, but that does have DAB radio). Just as well, because the fitted sat-nav is only averagely appealing to look at, could be easier to follow and doesn’t seem to plot particularly intelligent routes.

The system’s shortcut buttons, for switching audio sources or toggling the volume up and down, are on the reverse of the steering wheel spokes; it’s a surprise to find them there, but they quickly grow familiar to use. If you prefer to skip stations using the touchscreen display, there’s a line of shortcuts at its base to make your life easier, although the system takes its time to respond to inputs.

A reversing camera is included as standard equipment from mid-level Longitude trim upwards, but the one on our car had a tendency to crash the infotainment system, and contributed to our overall dissatisfaction with the set-up as a whole.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Jeep Compass 2018 road test review - engine

The 2.0-litre MultiJet II diesel engine in the Compass has been in service throughout FCA for a decade now – and, at times, particularly when the car’s starting from cold or when hauling hard from low speed, it sounds and feels every inch the decade-old power unit.

Though it’s crotchety under load and often feels soft in its responses to the accelerator pedal, however, the diesel isn’t actually short on outright torque or real-world pulling power.

Our Compass responded decisively when its brakes were applied suddenly. The sluggish stop-start set-up meant getting the 19in wheels turning again was less easy

The boosty, mid-range-centric power delivery became very apparent on the day of our testing. The Compass needed plenty of revs to make a fast getaway, but then insisted on upshifts no later than 4000rpm in order to maintain the best rate of acceleration. Other more modern diesels are certainly more flexible.

But compare the Compass’s in-gear acceleration with that of its rivals (30- 70mph in fourth: 12.1sec) and you’ll find empirical evidence to support our observation that, in its sweet spot, the Jeep can certainly knuckle down; it would have plenty of low-rpm torque for assertive off-roading or towing, for instance.

The Skoda Kodiaq 2.0 TDI 150 we tested in 2016 wanted more than a second longer for the benchmark 30-70mph fourth-gear sprint. Also, for all the extra apparent coarseness of the Compass’s diesel, it was only a decibel noisier than the Skoda when cruising at both 30mph and 70mph – proof that the Jeep’s engine settles well enough from its loaded gruffness when being driven in part-throttle conditions.

The Compass’s controls are uniformly medium-of-weight, though the gearlever has a spongy tactile feel as you shift that makes you a little unsure whether the gear you’ve selected has really engaged. There’s a slightly woolly feel to the clutch pedal action too, though neither is enough to be really problematic to the driving experience, neither is welcome.

Even less welcome, however, and speaking particularly ill of Jeep’s attention to detail when it comes to the car’s level of dynamic finish, is the irksome combination of that vague-feeling clutch with an electronic handbrake that doesn’t engage automatically or disengage quickly enough and an engine starter-generator that doesn’t act quickly enough to restart the 2.0-litre diesel at the traffic lights.

Too often, then, as a result of a three-way confluence of incompetence, the car causes you to stall – until you’re either used to its quirks, or sufficiently scarred that you remember to turn off the engine stop-start function in the first place.

While smallish pedal pads seem to make for the potential to miss the brake entirely when attempting an emergency stop, we never actually missed it in several full pedal pressure stops.

Our test car, on its optional 19in rims and high-performance SUV Bridgestone tyres, hauled up strongly on dry Tarmac. Customers should expect some compromise to that, of course, from Trailhawk models (on 17in wheels, hybrid off-road tyres).

RIDE & HANDLING

Jeep Compass 2018 road test review - cornering front

The woolly, imprecise impression given to you by the Compass’s pedals and gearlever finds its equal in the car’s overly permissive initial body control. It’s loose enough to admit enough pitch and headtoss into the car’s ride on motorways, A-roads and faster B-roads as to disrupt your comfort levels just a fraction, and to make the car carry just a suggestion of restlessness and dynamic coarseness with it wherever it goes.

This is perhaps the result of Jeep’s adoption of ‘frequency selective’ dampers for the car. Each damper has a pair of reservoirs and switches to a firmer damper setting when quicker inputs force the oil it carries through a pre-defined threshold on pressure.

Electronic stability control and 4x4 system meter out torque on tighter corners to maintain balance and deliver good traction

What that means in practice, on the road at least, is that the Compass isn’t without a sense of suppleness or support; and also avoids backing up its soft initial ride with handling that lets the body run out of control in extremis. Even so, you’d say the car’s ride tuning lacks a bit of sophistication in comparison with a better-checked, better-tied-down compact SUV class average.

The Compass’s steering has a similar flavour in that it’s slightly spongy and vague just off-centre, progressing to improve as you add lock by picking up more tangible road feel. At all times, it feels a touch over-assisted in its normal setting, getting even lighter at parking speeds to the extent that the parking steering mode included on every new Fiat and now FCA model for a decade or more, which adds even more power assistance, would seem superfluous.

Though the car’s lack of good close body control and its failing on on-centre steering feel combine to make it slightly trickier to drive smoothly and instinctively, neither affects its road-holding. The Compass certainly rolls to greater angles than some of its competitors, but it settles in a mid-corner stance in which it maintains balanced grip levels and good stability.

Hurrying the car through a bend is a benign process too, with the car’s electronic traction and stability controls combining with its four-wheel-drive system to deliver torque where there’s grip to be had, but subtly keeping you from deploying too much.

The Compass stays safe, stable and benign when driven to the limit of grip at Millbrook – and, given its remit, that’s all it really needs to do. That a Jaguar E-Pace or a BMW X1 would zip around with considerably more grip, pace and precision says more about their more road-biased dynamic briefs than any superiority in their dynamic execution.

The Jeep’s fast initial rate of roll comes as a bit of a surprise when you commit it to a tight bend, but the body’s lateral movement is ultimately checked before it undermines the car’s handling stability or steering authority.

The electronic stability control is well-matched to the grip level of the tyres, and quells understeer before it’s allowed to build too far. Leave it on and you can banish any worry that you’re going to run wide by using too much mid-corner power; if you turn everything off, you’ll find quickly that understeer is what you’ll be met with on the limit.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Jeep Compass 2018 road test review - hero front

The Limited Compass tested here might be the third-highest of four trim levels but, starting at £31,495 and costing more than £36,000 with options, it will seem prohibitively expensive to many, and rightly so given its various weaknesses.

Included as standard are 18in alloys, privacy glass, electric leather seats and several bits of off-road-related hardware – and so assuming the car will be used predominantly on traditional roads, cheaper Longitude trim represents better value. The wheels are an inch smaller, but included are a reversing camera, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, the larger 8.4in touchscreen and dual-zone climate control.

Jeep fares comparably against VW Tiguan, although premium-badged Volvo beats both in depreciation stakes

Further down the line, the Compass is expected to hold its value reasonably well – almost identically to a comparatively priced Volkswagen Tiguan, in fact, though some way behind the Volvo XC40, which is our current pick of the class.

But given its modest power output, the Jeep should certainly return better fuel economy than it does. Its touring figure of 44.8mpg is only marginally better than the much more powerful D4 XC40 and some way off the slightly more powerful Tiguan TDI 150, which managed more than 50mpg.

What Car? New car buyer marketplace

VERDICT

Jeep Compass 2018 road test review - hero static

A really strong contender in Europe’s burgeoning compact SUV segment could do wonders right now both for the Jeep brand and its FCA parent. But, while we don’t doubt that the Compass will bring a dose of growth, it’s unlikely to feature at the very top of the class’s sales chart on merit.

While it’s rare for SUVs of this size to offer the most spacious of cabins, the Compass’s practicality is average at best. It has a torquey but gruff diesel engine that performs well enough in a qualified sort of way and ride and handling that’s passable but conspicuous by its lack of a premium-brand dynamic finish. When you look at the stated capabilities as an off-roader (strong but not outstanding), there’s also perhaps one less reason to indulge it.

A spunky design and a well-known brand may have been all the Renegade needed to succeed, but the compact SUV market is full of more grown-up cars

Moreover, where the biggest success of other compact SUVs may be to make the luxury of their bigger siblings available at a lower price, the Compass seems to do the opposite, taking interior fittings common with cheaper FCA-group relations and trying its luck with them at a higher price point. In this and other ways, it seems a car doomed to mediocrity.

What Car? New car buyer marketplace

Jeep Compass First drives