Struggling to find your bearing in the bizarrely confusing world of crossovers and SUVs? Perhaps Jeep’s new Compass can help.
The second generation Compass, which has shifted an impressive 169 units during its first month on sale in South Africa, is a brave departure for the quintessential American automotive adventure brand.
Why? Well it’s now a true a crossover instead of an SUV and – in the South African market – drives only with its front wheels.
ADAPTING TO MARKET DYNAMICS
"A front-wheel drive Jeep, what’s the world coming to?" Of course you’d be fully validated in asking such a queston, but considering the fluid market dynamics at play in the SUV segment it’s simple to see why Jeep’s optioned to reconfigure the Compass as a decidedly urban crossover for SA.
The South African all-wheel drive SUV market was up 35% from 2009 to 2010 and two-wheel drive SUV sales increased by 70% in the same period. It’s clear the market is shifting, illustrated by that most successful of crossover’s, Nissan’s Qashqai, which shifts nearly Golf 6 levels of stock – and most of it front-wheel drive.
Ultimately, Grand Cherokee and Wrangler owners who consider Jeep branding on a vehicle without a rear differential something of an affront to 70 years of off-road excellence are in a sitution similar to that which Range Rover and Discovery 4 owners are experiencing with the pending arrival of Land Rover’s Evoque – the first front-wheel drive for the hallowed British off-road brand.
So, as much as Jeep’s marketing tagline for the new Compass, "urban Jeep", is deeply oxymoronic, what’s the package like as a C-segment crossover/SUV?
MINI-ME GRAND CHEROKEE?
GENERATION GAP: Whereas the original Compass looked like something that was left out in the sun too long, the new one’s mini Grand Cherokee aesthetic is quite appealing…
In styling terms, the new vehicle is a notable advance over the first-generation Compass. The flat-slab flanks and rectangular wheel-arches are not really to my taste but they are characteristically Chrysler (with all its American design values) and, viewed nose-on, the iconic Jeep seven-slat grille and power-bulge bonnet render a look very much that of a miniaturised Grand Cherokee – not a bad likeness to imitate.
First-generation Compass owners will also notice the presence of black plastic cladding all around the bottom of the new version. I usually dislike this contrasting mix-'n-match styling device but the cladding works well to break-up the shape and colour contours of the new Compass; when you step away and take it in, it’s better than the old car's colour-coded body finish; that was slightly overpowering due to its odd proportions.
Rolling 18" wheels, the new Compass is a uniquely Americanised take on what a compact crossover/SUV should be. It’s also the second vehicle to be introduced since Chrysler’s integration with the Fiat automotive empire and as such provides a guide to what loyal Jeep customers can expect.
BETTER INTERIOR - AT LAST...
Jeeps products have always featured rather striking exterior styling but the interiors have been, at times, plainly abysmal with poor ergonomics, atrocious packaging and toy-grade plastic. The first-generation Compass, especially, was severely lacking in interior design and material quality. Ergonomics were of the claustrophobic military-vehicle variety and the materials used made even Chinese toy manufacturers blush. Has the second-generation Compass improved?
Settle into the driver’s seat and you’ll immediately notice the new wheel, a three-spoked multi-function item that is softer to the touch (and easier to feed through the hands) than the first Compass’s four-spoked effort. It also has better remote controls (including Chrysler U-connect Bluetooth phone synchronising) and those horrid horizontal aeration vents have been replaced by ovoid ducts. The centre console is of a (slightly) revised design too, with rotary dials replacing the antiquated grip-'n-twist aircon controls of the first-generation Compass.
Beyond the improved cabin architecture, there’s loads of kit too.
The driver’s seat is powered (all occupants sit on leather) and a six-disc CD front-loader (bit much of a muchness in the world of digitised music though, especially considering the Compass features a USB slot in its cubby). Safety’s well catered with dual front airbags and inflatable curtain restraints along the sides.
The Compass’s standard equipment list is comprehensive. The only upgrade available is Jeep’s MyGig satnav/infotainment system (R15 900). It provides a very convincing built-in navigation, audio, entertainment and communication system. The 20 Gig hard drive can hold as many as 1600 songs, interfaces seamlessly with your iPod and can store and view jpg compression images from your digital camera.
It renders a very useful and safe-storage portable hard drive when on holiday and running out of memory-card space in the bush for your camera. It has a 16.5cm, thin-film transistor screen for the central MyGIG display which is conveniently viewable from across the cabin even at an angle of 180-degrees.
BETTER BY FAR: New steering wheel and switches are a great improvement. Hateful footwell intrusion from the bell housing has been addressed too. Wish the wheel was reach-adjustable, though…
The new Compass is powered by two-litre, dual-overhead camshaft, four-cylinder petrol engine that's good for 115kW/190Nm – and no, there’s no turbodiesel.
Although the torque figure looks a little weak (especially for Gauteng drivers), the Compass’s peak rotational force is similar to that of its two-litre petrol rivals, Nissan’s Qashqai and X-Trail (both good for 198Nm) and the Korean siblings from Hyundai and Kia, iX35 and Sportage (197Nm).
Interestingly the Compass and both Koreans each drive through a five-speed manual transmission instead of the six-speed configuration so in vogue with most two-litre turbodiesel engines nowadays…
Jeep’s engineers have finessed the Compass’s all-wheel independent suspension and recalibrated the steering's power assistance to provide better counterweight.
The shock-absorbers have been modelled on those on the Grand Cherokee, spring rates have increased by 20% and front and rear stabiliser bars are 10% stiffer. To assess these changes we were given a circular route through the Cape Town CBD towards Cape Point and back – taking in the winding roads of the peninsula - but even before setting off there was an issue with the steering wheel not being reach-adjustable; it doesn’t lift high enough either. Adjustment to wheel and seat won't be easy for a driver taller than 1.8m.
The five-speed transmission’s shift action is not the happiest mechanical linkage you’ll ever manoeuvre through an H-gate; the clutch take-up is not particularly traffic-friendly either as it’s bite (engagement) point is temperamental, suddenly meshing at the end of clutch pedal’s range of motion. Despite this, the Compass is awfully refined: road and mechanical noise is excellently damped and the revised power-steering assistance is a revelation considering how artificial and numb the old Compass felt when it was tipped into a corner.
The only real issue with the new car's dynamics (bar the fact that its two-litre petrol engine’s bound to feel a touch unresponsive at Reef altitudes, like any non-turbo engine of similar capacity) is the ride quality on imperfect surfaces.
Inside the Cape of Good Hope nature reserve there’s particularly uneven stretch of tarmac but even at nature-reserve cruising speed (50km/h) the Compass’s ride was upset. The reason? Those 18" wheels. Although they're an inch (or more) up on Compass’s class rivals (and look great) the car’s ride quality would undoubtedly be better with 17" alloys shod with higher-profile rubber (more compliance in terms of sidewall absorption).
A REAL JEEP?: Despite Jeep’s decision to market the Compass only with front-wheel drive in South Africa, 4x4 versions are plenty capable and trail-rated in other markets.
Although many would consider the idea of a front-wheel drive Jeep rather silly, the Compass retains a respectable level of ground clearance (205mm), which means it should park on pavements with ease and cruise the most rutted (level) gravel with aplomb.
Featuring Jeep's roll-over mitigating stability intervention software, the Compass should be a good choice for those planning to cover significant distances on gravel where the ESP system applies brake pressure to lock the correct wheel, enacting a slide instead of a dig-and-roll-over action when an emergency avoidance manoeuvre gets out of hand.
All things considered, it looks good, is spacious, (very) well equipped and has a maintenance plan (100 000km) as part of its R269 999 price – undercutting two-litre petrol rivals iX35 (R274 900) and Sportage (R274 995) as well as Nissan’s Qashqai+2 (R312 600) and X-Trail (289 900).
Despite being the least expensive (feature-for-feature) front-wheel drive crossover/SUV available the Compass is by no means cheap - and that's not something you could say about a Jeep for quite some time...