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Review: 2017 Jeep Compass a solid city drive that excels off-road

There didn't seem much point in driving the new Jeep Compass on the off-road course here. This is a "soft-roader" surely – a compact SUV that will rarely drive on anything rougher than a cottage trail.

There's a special Trailhawk edition of the Compass, however, that is "trail-rated" because, well, it's a Jeep. "Most people will never take their car off-road in the way we'll do today, but they like to know they can," Jeep's senior manager for product strategy said in the morning briefing.

He also said that pretty much the only thing the new Compass shares with the old Compass is the name and then he went through all the design changes: a new 2.4-litre i4 engine; an extra 66 millimetres in the wheelbase, which gives more room to the rear seat; a redesigned and much improved cabin.

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The Compass replaces both the old Compass and the Patriot, which was popular in Canada but not sold so widely around the world. It's 15 centimetres longer than the Renegade (and now built on a stretched Renegade platform) and 23 cm shorter than the Cherokee – "It looks like a baby Cherokee," the senior manager said, "and that's not a bad thing." The new model will be built in four different countries and sold everywhere you can buy a Jeep. So it had better be good.

I headed out into the Texas hill country to find out if the changes are worth it. There are four trim levels available and I drove the "North" edition, which at $30,895 for the automatic is the second-least expensive, and projected to sell 40 per cent of them all.

You can get into a new Compass Sport for $24,900, but that's with the six-speed manual transmission that Jeep acknowledges maybe just 3 per cent of Canadian buyers will opt for. It's really only offered to bring the price down for better advertising – a stick-shift in a car as refined as the Compass doesn't have the gnarly cred of a Wrangler. That price also only buys front-wheel drive, which is available in both the Sport and the North and will probably account for just 10 per cent of total sales, but it's upgradeable to 4WD in each trim for an extra $2,500.

The front-wheel drive North edition is available with a tried-and-true six-speed automatic transmission, but all the 4WD versions (except the manual Sport) come with Jeep's new nine-speed automatic. This is a transmission designed to save fuel and the top three gears are all overdrives – I never did coax the cogs into ninth gear, even at (a legal) 120 kilometres an hour on a slight downhill grade.

The manual transmission also slightly improves the overall fuel consumption. Official figures were not yet available to the media, though the press release touts "delivering up to an estimated 7.8 litres/100 km." I don't know which universe this is in – the fuel consumption readout on my test vehicle showed an average of 10.6 L/100 km after about 200 km of varied driving.

The 180-horsepower engine is not as powerful as you'd think at higher speeds despite its 175 lb-ft of torque, and the ride is a little loud, perhaps because of noisy tires, but it's great around town. The four-wheel drive Compass also has a towing capacity of 2,000 pounds, which is higher than other vehicles in the segment, many of which aren't even tow-rated.

Move up to the $34,895 Limited and you get all the safety software and technology you expect these days – blind-spot warning, lane departure assistance etc. – but not, in North America anyway, active cruise control. It's sold elsewhere, but apparently there's not the demand for it here. If you want it, just wait a year or two. There'll be plenty of demand.

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The Trailhawk edition is slightly less costly at $32,895 but more off-road capable, with extra skid plates, better ground clearance, an additional driving mode ("rocks," as well as sand, snow, mud and auto) and a 20-to-1 crawl ratio. Jeep thinks it will account for 30 per cent of Compass sales and though its features are probably unnecessary, it does buy bragging rights.

Off-road, the Compass is very capable. Who cares if you never use it away from the asphalt? It's a Jeep, after all, and the new Compass is an improvement over the old. Jeep hopes to sell two million vehicles around the world in 2018, up from 1.4 million last year, and the Compass will surely help achieve that.

TECH SPECS

  • Base price: $24,900; as tested: $30,895
  • Engine: 2.4-litre four-cylinder
  • Transmission/drive: Six-speed manual or six-speed automatic with FWD, or nine-speed automatic with four-wheel drive
  • Fuel economy (litres/100 km): N/A
  • Alternatives: Hyundai Tucson, Kia Sportage, VW Tiguan, Mazda CX-5

RATINGS

  • Looks: It doesn’t look rugged, but it still looks like a Jeep.
  • Interior: Plenty of space for four inside, five at a pinch. A huge panoramic sunroof is a marvellous edition for claustrophobes (though a $1,595 option). I could sit comfortably in the back, with my six-foot frame almost, but not quite, brushing my head against the roof. The interior is far more refined than you’d expect a Jeep to be, but it’s still very practical. There are four different colour schemes (sand, ski, urban and forest, but no “mud”).
  • Performance: Not exciting or particularly fun to drive, but fine around town and okay on the highway. Off-road is excellent.
  • Technology: Finally, all the safety features and connectivity you want, except active cruise control. A central display screen ranges from five to 8.4 inches, depending on how much you want to spend. FCA’s UConnect system for integrating your smartphone is now in its fourth generation and becomes easier to use with each rollout. Compass now offers Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
  • Cargo: A little more room than before, with clever seats that fold flat and split 60/40 in the rear. The rear cargo hold has three different floor heights.

THE VERDICT

7.0

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A solid improvement over the old Compass, but don't be misled by the low prices for manual and two-wheel drive.

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