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2017 Jeep Compass first drive

The 2017 Jeep Compass is compact, yet totally competent for outdoor exploration

There’s a reason why Jeep buyers are notoriously brand-loyal and why the Jeep brand sells more SUVs than any other automaker. In the year-end totals, 926,376 people bought a Jeep during 2016. Of course, Jeep only makes SUVs, and they offer everything from the rough-and-tumble Wrangler to the posh Grand Cherokee, but still, the brand is doing something right.

2017 is a renewal year for the Compass nameplate. First introduced for the 2007 model year, the Compass has always had a sibling vehicle in the Jeep Patriot. The notion at launch time was that the Patriot was a little more throwback and Spartan and the Compass would be a little more luxurious and urbane. Both models sold well through the tough times of the recession and into the current era. Last year, 121,926 Patriots were sold along with 94,061 Compasses. By any measure, both of these models were successful SUVs.

Compass vs. Cherokee

Heading into 2017 Jeep is dropping the Patriot and has completely redesigned the Compass. Where the Patriot was formerly the low-cost leader in the Jeep line, that space is now occupied by the subcompact Renegade. Jeep also offers the Cherokee in its compact SUV space, so consolidating Compass and Patriot into one vehicle makes sense. The new 2017 Compass fits into Jeep’s product line neatly between the subcompact Renegade and the more upscale Cherokee, giving Jeep buyers plenty of options to find the right vehicle.

The difference between the Compass and Cherokee boils down to two points you might care about. First, the Cherokee is available with a 3.2-liter V6 engine rated at 271 horsepower and 239 pound-feet of torque. You can’t get that engine on the Compass. The other thing is that the Cherokee is more expensive by at least $2,000 at comparable trim levels, though current incentives on the Cherokee are mostly wiping out that difference for now. The Cherokee also has a few high-end trim levels not offered on Compass. The thing to remember is that the Compass is not decontented in any way compared to Cherokee. Drive them both, and it’ll just come down to personal preference.

Just one engine, but many drivelines

The 2017 Compass will receive only one engine for North America, and that’s the well-known 2.4-liter MultiAir Tigershark, rated at 180 horsepower and 175 pound-feet of torque. But Jeep makes up for that by giving you a bunch of choices on the rest of the drivetrain. If you don’t want all-wheel-drive, you can get the Compass with your choice of six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission. That’s a real automatic, not a CVT, by the way. If you want AWD and the six-speed manual transmission, you can have that too. If you want an automatic transmission and AWD, you get a very nice nine-speed unit, and then you get your choice of Jeep Active Drive or Jeep Active Drive Low, which offers low range gears for getting over difficult terrain.

The thing to remember is that the Compass is not de-contented in any way compared to Cherokee.

All of the Compass 4X4 options include Jeep’s Selec-Terrain system, which offers Automatic, Snow, Sand, and Mud settings. Trailhawk trim gets you Active Drive Low, which adds low range, Hill Descent Control, and a Rock setting to the Selec-Terrain system. Both the single range Active Drive and the dual range Active Drive Low systems are capable of sending 100 percent of available torque to any wheel that has grip.

Before we leave the engine and drivetrain, let’s talk fuel economy. You’ll get 23 mpg in the city and 32 mpg highway with the six-speed manual and front-wheel-drive. You’ll get 22 mpg city and 30 mpg highway with the nine-speed automatic and all-wheel-drive. Finally, the Compass can tow up to 2,000 pounds.

Full luxury interior

One area where the new Compass excels is in its interior comfort and equipment. The design of the interior is pure Jeep – there’s no nonsense and everything is laid out neatly and intuitively. Touch materials are good quality even in the base Sport trim. You get cloth upholstery in the Sport and the mid-level Latitude trims, and leather in the top Limited and Trailhawk trims. Honestly, the price jump up to Limited is not very big, so there’s very little reason not to go all-in with Compass. The off-road spec Trailhawk is also very comfortable and offers your choice of leather seats, or leather with cloth inserts if you think heat is likely to be a problem.

2017 Jeep Compass
Jeff Zurschmeide/Digital Trends

Rear seat room is generous for a compact SUV, and even with the second row seats in use, you’ll get a lot of cargo into the back of the Compass. Overhead, you can get the Compass with a panoramic two-pane sunroof that covers both rows of seats. The sunroof is optional on Limited, Trailhawk, and Latitude trims.

If you’re harboring any ideas of a Jeep being rough or noisy on the road, dispel them now.

The Compass gets the latest fourth-generation Uconnect system, and screen options include 5-inch, 7-inch, and 8.4-inch sizes. Uconnect now supports both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, which is nice. Depending on packages and trim levels, the Compass has its own GPS navigation. One thing to know – if you spring for the top 8.4-inch touchscreen, you’ll be able to use all the familiar tablet gestures like swiping and pinching, as well as voice controls.

The only gripe I can make about the tech in the Compass is that like all of the more complex modern systems, it’ll take you a while to learn the system and remember how to do things. We drove along with overheated backsides and hot fingers for a while before we could figure out how to turn off the heated seats and steering wheel. On the other hand, available heated front seats and steering wheel functions are very effective and will be a Godsend if you get winter where you live.

On and off road

The best part of the new Compass is its on-road manners. If you’re harboring any ideas of a Jeep being rough or noisy on the road, dispel them now. The Compass rides like a bigger SUV – you could be forgiven for thinking you were in a Grand Cherokee. Steering and handling are predictable and responsive. A few times I wished for some more engine power, but the drivetrain is well matched to the vehicle. If you want a faster rig, buy a Grand Cherokee SRT, or get the Cherokee with the V6.

2017 Jeep Compass
Jeff Zurschmeide/Digital Trends

There’s nothing special you need to know to drive the Compass. If you’re driving a 4X4, just leave the Selec-Terrain in Auto mode and forget it. How often are you driving in sand or mud, really? If you need to get out of a bad place, both Active Drive systems offer a 4WD LOCK button that puts power to all four wheels.

I think the Compass stands head and shoulders above most, and competes strongly with the best of the field.

Perhaps the most surprising observation was the quiet inside the Compass. Wind noise was nonexistent and normal conversations are easy. That takes a lot of work to achieve in any modern vehicle. Combine that with the basic comfort of well-designed seats and great visibility, and the Compass is a joy to drive.

Of course, the new Compass is still a Jeep, so we had to go off-road. As part of our test drive, we ended up at a ranch where we got into some of the Trailhawk rigs and went on a little wheeling adventure. We engaged low range on the Active Drive Low system, hit the 4WD LOCK button, and then we just drove. Honestly, the Compass just goes where you point it. With spotters working for us, we had no problems going over rocks, lifting a tire or two, and managing hills where one moment you’re looking at nothing but sky and the next you’re hanging in your seat belts and looking straight down at dirt. The 4X4 system in the Compass works, and 99 percent of Compass owners will never do what we did.

Conclusion

You have probably noticed by now that I was impressed with the Compass. Having driven most of the compact SUVs on the market, I think the Compass stands head and shoulders above most, and competes strongly with the best of the field, especially in the areas of ride and cabin comfort. Too many compact SUVs feel cheap and thrown together, but the Compass feels solid and confident. The Compass also wins on off-road capability. Most compact SUVs don’t even offer the kind of 4X4 tech you get with the Jeep.

Finally, the Compass is substantially less expensive compared with the top-sellers in the market. The Compass starts at $22,090, which is about $2,000 less than market leaders such as the Honda CRV, Toyota RAV4, and Nissan Rogue. The Compass is also more affordable than the economy alternatives like the Kia Sportage, Hyundai Tucson, Ford Escape, and Chevrolet Equinox. With the 2017 Jeep Compass, you’ll pay less and get more for your money. If you check every box for every option, you can drive away in a loaded Compass for about $33,000.

If you’re shopping for the best compact SUV, the 2017 Jeep Compass should be at the top of your test drive list. You’ll see clear differences in the driving experience and in the quality of construction between the Jeep and its competitors, and the Jeep will cost you less money.

Highs

  • Looks like a Grand Cherokee
  • Nice ride on the road
  • Handles off-road very well
  • Comfortable
  • Great cargo space

Lows

  • Touchscreen requires too much attention
  • Could wish for more engine power