Jeep grooms Compass for competitive sector

Jeep.

It may be the only automaker in history that has never actually made a car.

Not what most people would call a car anyway. All-wheel drive only.

The Jeep has always been about one thing from its history in the mud and ruts of WWII battlefields. Going somewhere.

While other car brands have tread 4WD-only – Land Rover, for example – their posh 4WD machines, like the little Range Rover Evoque, definitely belong in ‘car’ territory.

But not Jeep.

The closest they’ve come to making a “car” in nearly 80 years of history is this one. It’s called the Jeep Compass and it’s the first model ever to wear the famous nameplate that isn’t just about getting places others can’t.

The Compass is … gulp … an SUV. It’s even only available in front-wheel drive, for God’s sake.

Most Jeeps have names like Gladiator, Commander, Aggressor and Liberator that reinforce their muscular, hairy persona.

But a compass?

It can make a driver feel lost, which isn’t entirely misleading in the case of this fairly smooth, fairly civilized Jeep.

The Compass has been around for a couple of years, but it recently underwent an extensive mid-range makeover, inside and out.

Most of the attention was on the all-new interior with better technology, vastly improved infotainment systems and plenty of luxury appointments. Outside, a new grille and headlight arrangement brings the Compass in line with Jeep’s latest corporate look.

Tested here is the S Limited model, which sits just below the flagship Trailhawk at the top of the Compass range.

It’s smoother and more sophisticated than any other Jeep – stylishly designed, impressively finished and heavily equipped.

The new interior comes with dual 10.1-inch digital display screens – one for the dashboard and the other for touchscreen access to infotainment and cabin control systems.

The new Uconnect 5 system is impressive and easy to use, while driver assistance safety features include traffic sign recognition, intelligent speed assist, adaptive cruise control, autonomous emergency braking, rear cross-traffic alert and blind spot.

However, it has an overzealous lane assist system that makes unnecessary and often unwelcome steering inputs when it senses the driver is not paying proper attention to lane markings.

The leather seats are both heated and ventilated – impressive for a car in this segment – ​​as are the sunroof and 360-degree parking camera.

The generous kit comes at a price – $46,500 – which pushes the Jeep perilously close to some of the best-selling vehicles in this competitive market segment. Key rivals include the Toyota RAV4 Edge, Mazda’s CX-5 GT and the Hyundai Tucson Highlander – all of which are $50,000 investments.

While the Compass is good in many ways, it will have its work cut out in drawing buyers away from these segment leaders. The main culprit is its 2.4-litre engine – a carryover from the previous model and delivering a modest 129kW and 229Nm – which feels underpowered for a car of this size.

It consumes an official mark of 9.7L/100km which is not good for any modern machine, let alone a small vehicle with a nine-speed automatic transmission.

There was also a noticeable hum (or growl) coming from the powertrain during normal sealed road operation. It can be intrusive, especially on quiet, smooth surfaces.

While a turbodiesel is offered in the Trailhawk, the petrol version could do with a turbocharger to compete with its Mazda and Hyundai rivals.

The new cockpit speaks of quality, but its well-proportioned appearance somewhat overstates the car’s off-road capabilities – as do the off-road system controls.

The switch labeled 4WD Low, for example, doesn’t mean low range, but just keeps the transmission in first gear while drifting through soft ground. Likewise, the “diff lock” setting engages all-wheel drive permanently, rather than on demand.

The system allows the driver to choose between mud, sand and snow, indicating that the Compass has at least some level of off-road capability.

While it may tick a lot of boxes for those looking for an urban-focused machine that can also be a useful off-road performer, its weaknesses, along with the car’s price tag, make it a tough choice against some quality opposition.

JEEP COMPASS S-LIMITED

* HOW BIG? It officially belongs to the small SUV category but is probably half a size bigger than that, with impressive interior space and generous carrying capacity.

* HOW FAST? Its 2.4-litre, four-cylinder engine – producing 129K/W – is well behind the class leaders. It does the job but is hardly a dynamic performer.

* HOW Stubborn? It sucks 9.7L/100km, which is nothing to write home about.

* HOW MUCH? It costs more than $50,000 when you factor in the cost of the road.

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