“We’ve got big shoes to fill,” said Mike Manley, a couple of days ago at the unveiling of the 2017 Jeep Compass. As the global head of Jeep, he’s tasked with keeping a big stable of iconic Jeep vehicles looking fresh and appealing, not just to American tastes, but to an ever-increasing global market. And one of the hottest global segments is the compact SUV, sales of which he says are projected to grow 20 percent in the next year.
To meet that challenge, Mark Allen, head of Jeep design, said, “We’ve done a complete refresh of the brand line.” The latest is the Compass, a vehicle which sits between the Renegade and the Grand Cherokee. “It’s based on the Renegade, but it’s a little bit longer,” he said. He also noted that it borrowed design cues from the Grand Cherokee, but “in a much smaller package.”
It’s all part of what Jeep calls “small-wide 4×4 architecture,” which is, essentially, a modular platform that allows several vehicle lines to be built using the same basic underpinnings.
A generation ago trucks were infrequently refreshed to save on developments costs. These days, however, a far more demanding consumer is forcing manufacturers of all stripes to refresh product lines on an on-going basis, and shared architecture helps Jeep keep pace with these consumer wants on a more cost-friendly footing. It also helps with overall performance not to have to re-engineer the wheel every three years.
At this point in the morning presentation I figure I’m listening to a retelling of Goldilocks looking for a bowl of porridge that was “just right.” But given the projected growth of this segment, Jeep needs to be a big player—and the Compass (designed in the United States, but built in Mexico, Brazil, China, and India) is expected to do much of the heavy lifting.
Like all Jeeps, the Compass shows its DNA through the seven-slot grille, which, said Manley, “is a must-have.” The model that most interested me—as it will any hunter or angler—is the Trailhawk, which boasts 8.5 inches of ground clearance as well as 17-inch tires (with higher sidewalls for improved offroad performance). He also said the Trailhawk comes with tow hooks. “Some people have asked us why we still equip Jeeps with tow hooks,” he said. “Well, to our way of thinking, if you don’t get stuck, you’re not driving it right. That’s the reason for the tow hooks. And that’s why we have serious skid plates underneath. We don’t just say ‘offroad.’ We mean it.”
The day I spent driving the Compass in the Hill Country of Texas included time on a ranch where Jeep had constructed an offroad trail with a couple of nasty spots, sections where spotters had to guide drivers in low-range 4WD through steep drop-offs and rock-studded chutes. The exercises were designed to show the overall trail worthiness of the Trailhawk. Jeep engineers paid particular attention to this model, as it’s the very essence of what makes a Jeep a Jeep.
“One reason it performs so well offroad is that it has a very stiff body,” said chief engineer (and turkey hunter) Art Anderson. “That body is 65 percent high-strength steel. It’s lightweight as well, and it gives us a very stable platform to attach all of the chassis components and the powertrain. That stability also helps reduce annoying vibrations.”
The Trailhawk uses a 2.4-liter inline four-cylinder engine mated to a nine-speed automatic transmission. For someone who began driving 4WD trucks with three-speed automatics and manual locking hubs, the continuing evolution of the automatic transmission is truly mind-boggling. But as Anderson notes, “Those nine speeds give us a twenty-to-one torque ratio. And getting the torque to the ground, and managing it–which we do with an efficient driveline and control system–to the tire that has the traction is the name of the game.”
Jeep pioneered four-wheel-drive systems, so it should come as no surprise that the full-time 4WD system in the Compass, which Jeep calls “Jeep Active Drive,” is a sophisticated package designed to smoothly and automatically toggle between 2WD and 4WD via a rear-axle electronic disconnect system. “It’s always on standby,” Anderson says, “ready to turn on at the first sign of trouble.”
This feature is a concession to increased customer requests for systems that do it all without a driver having to figure out what to do when traction gets iffy. In addition, Trailhawk models also have Jeep Active Drive Low, which is what I used to successfully navigate that trail. It does require driver input, but a simple twist of a dial engages the system.
Another big benefit of this powertrain is that it delivers good fuel economy along with all this performance—30 mpg on the highway, 25 mpg combined. “Now, there’s no more compromise between off-road capability and fuel economy,” Anderson said.
What I’ve seen lately is that the cost of all this performance in new four-wheel-drive SUVs can stagger the imagination. But the Compass is actually quite modestly priced. Base 4×2 models start at just under $21,000. The Trailhawk 4×4 starts at $28,495, but naturally will cost more if you add a lot of options such as the communication, entertainment, and navigation packages. Given how “connected” many people are these days, Jeep expects a lot of Trailhawk owners to add to that basic package.