My guide, in a white Jeep Wrangler, seems impatient. I asked for an off-the-book tour at the Hollister Hills State Vehicle Recreation Area in California, and he sets a pace a little fast for my offroading abilities. But all I can do is try to keep the pace in my Trailhawk-edition Compass -- the last thing I want is to get lost in these intersecting and twisting mountain trails.
I can't quite follow his line as we make a turn on the narrow track, and I'm forced to back up and try again. He has the courtesy to wait for me at the top of the next hill. I blanche as the rear end of his Wrangler disappears amongst the brush heading up a black diamond-rated trail, but gamely follow.
With the Compass set in four-wheel-drive low, four-wheel-drive lock and its Selec-Terrain system dialed to Rock, it scrabbles up the rocky trail. The tires on this pre-production model, Falken Wildpeak H/Ts, look more suited to the pavement than the dirt, but its systems manage to compensate for slip. The front tires catch on a rock, so I give it more throttle and the Compass finds its way over.
Despite taking a detour from the pre-approved track on this Jeep-sponsored drive of the Compass, this small SUV handles extremely well, even with a novice behind the wheel. I'm impressed how it minimizes lateral slip, forging its way up and down rocky, uneven surfaces while letting me maintain my intended line.
The new Compass, introduced at last year's Los Angeles auto show, shows Jeep's design pendulum settling down to a mid-position after swinging radically for the Cherokee and Renegade models. I can imagine a Jeep-loving Goldilocks pronouncing the Cherokee as too futuristic, the Renegade too old-school but the Compass just right.
Taking its design cues from the Jeep Grand Cherokee, the Compass slots between the Cherokee and Renegade in size. And like modern Jeep models, it comes in a range of trims, scaling up cabin comfort and offroad capability, with the top-trim Trailhawk earning Jeep's Trail-Rated badge.
Although Jeep keeps the Compass down to a single engine in the US, a 2.4-liter naturally-aspirated four cylinder making 180 horsepower and 175 pound-feet of torque, it will offer three different transmissions. The Trailhawk comes with a nine-speed automatic, also available in slightly modified form in higher trim Compass models, while a six-speed automatic and a six-speed manual hold the lower ground.
With those different transmission options, not to mention four-wheel-drive and front-wheel-drive versions, expect the Compass to post more EPA fuel economy ratings than Star Wars universe movie scripts in development.
Along with offroad trials in the Compass Trailhawk, I drove both the Compass Limited and Latitude trims for a couple of hours on pavement. The interior of the lesser Latitude trim looked as good as that in the Compass Limited, although it lacked a few niceties such as dual zone climate control or power adjustable seats, available as options at lower trims. In design and cabin materials, the Compass emulates the plush Grand Cherokee.
The Compass wouldn't be my first choice for an extended road trip thanks to a lack of sound deadening that meant more wind noise than I would have liked. Likewise, the engine makes a pitiful groan under sustained acceleration. Given the engine's power figures, I wasn't surprised that the Compass took its time in passing maneuvers. I needed to plan my freeway merges a little more carefully than I would with a zippier car. Even with just 180 horsepower, Jeep rates the Compass at a 2,000-pound towing capacity for the four-wheel-drive versions.
On twisty mountain roads, handling felt a little on the heavy side. The Renegade has a similar feel, so this characteristic seems to be part of Jeep's plan and gives the Compass a sense of substance. A front-wheel-drive platform, Jeep offers two different four-wheel-drive systems. The one available on Sport, Latitude and Limited trims can fully disengage the rear wheels for better fuel economy. The Compass Trailhawk's system, called Jeep Active Drive Low, works full time and adds a Rock mode to the Snow, Sand and Mud modes of Jeep's Selec-Terrain system.
Jeep makes a back-up camera standard and offers optional blind-spot monitoring, a feature that sounds a warning when other cars sat in adjacent lanes and I hit the turn signal. Jeep also makes forward collision warning available but oddly doesn't offer adaptive cruise control, which would automatically brake to match the speeds of slower traffic ahead.
Uconnect, the navigation and entertainment system from Jeep's parent company FCA, gets a well-deserved cosmetic and functional update in the Compass. I've praised this system before, as it includes a dedicated data connection and integrates useful third party apps. Now icons in the system appear on a hexagonal outline, which looks very sleek but also goes with Jeep's rugged reputation.
One big update gives Uconnect support for Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. I was impressed when, after plugging my iPhone into one of the Compass' two USB ports, CarPlay took over the 8.4-inch touchscreen immediately. Even better, I could seamlessly go from the CarPlay interface to Uconnect's native apps, something that doesn't work as well on other automaker's systems. Jeep offers a few different versions of Uconnect in the Compass, but only the top one includes navigation. That makes Android Auto and CarPlay even more relevant for buyers who don't want to pay for the full list of Compass options.
Compact SVUs such as the Honda HR-V and upcoming Ford EcoSport are a growing segment, but the Compass really stands out among the competition for its offroad capability. As one last exercise at Hollister, I drive the Compass Trailhawk down Truck Hill, a long and very steep dirt road worthy of a roller coaster ride. With descent control engaged, the Compass holds a steady crawl down the hill, letting me adjust the speed minutely with a tap on the brake or accelerator pedals. After I get over the initial fear that comes from pointing the car down at this extreme angle, the trip became almost boring as the Compass arrested any lateral slide, maintaining its pace and line.
As mentioned above, the 2017 Jeep Compass will be available in four different trims: Sport, Latitude, Limited and Trailhawk, the latter coming standard with offroad gear above and beyond what's available on the other trims. And while there may not seem to be much of a size difference between Compass and Cherokee, this new SUV is an important step for Jeep, as it will be built in four different regions of the world and sold globally.
The Compass is smaller than the typical small SUV, such as the Honda CR-V and Ford Escape. The Subaru Crosstrek stands as a more direct competitor in size. If you also consider capability, then its biggest rival is the upscale Land Rover Discovery Sport.
Pricing has not been announced yet.