Back in 2000, Jeep rolled out its Varsity crossover concept to predict soft-roading models that would be more at home taking kids to college than crawling over boulders and craters. It was handsome with its sharp creases and slanted backlight. The production version that debuted for 2007, by then re-badged Compass, was always challenged in looks and quality. A drive in the second-generation 2018 edition demonstrates much was improved.
Styling Cribbed From Grand Cherokee
Fitting between the sub-compact Renegade and mid-size Cherokee, the merely compact Compass cribs styling cues from those siblings plus the large Grand Cherokee. The front features a wide seven-slot grille and wrap-around headlamps that echo the Grand Cherokee. Muscular wheel well and hood sculpting also crib the big Jeep, but the floating roof design give it a unique style. Place it over 18-inch wheels for that urban hiker aesthetic. If you want more attitude, step up to Compass Trailhawk and its off-road accoutrement.
Interior design is all Grand Cherokee on a slightly smaller scale. Our Latitude trim placed Chrysler’s UConnect touchscreen in the middle of the organically curved dash. Heated front seats, heated steering wheel, and dual-zone automatic climate control take the chill off of winter post-haste. We skipped the up-level audio system, and there’s a lot of black vinyl, but you’ll hardly care while soaking in sunshine beneath the dual-pane sunroof. Stay safe with blind spot, rear cross path detection, and lane keep assist systems.
Italian Heart, Italian Soul (Kinda)
Engines and architecture are shared with Fiat, which means all Compass versions get a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine that delivers 180 horsepower and 175 lb.-ft. of torque. It all routes through a 9-speed automatic transmission and four-wheel-drive system with Auto, Snow, Sand, and Mud modes. Combined with auto start/stop, the powertrain returns a surprisingly efficient 22/31-MPG city/highway.
You’d think a chassis that hails from Italy would fly over curvy pavement while slapping a big smile on drivers’ faces. The vehicles handles well, but the suspension is pretty firm and can clunk over rougher roads – certainly not what you imagine. Steering certainly offers more feedback than in the previous generation, so it’s not a total bore to drive. And, then there’s that engine. It provides enough power for everyday driving, but it is fully tasked on fast freeways or under quick acceleration. A turbo would add enjoyment.
While Jeep earned its varsity letters with the Compass, the competition has gone back to training camp and will be aiming to eat its lunch in the new season. While they can’t beat the Compass off-road, vehicles like the VW Tiguan, Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, and Subaru Crosstrek are far smoother to drive on-road and are nearly as capable as our Latitude model on moderate trails. I wish Compass had embraced more of its Italian side to take full advantage of what should be an incredible driving experience. As it stands, it’s an urban-friendly Jeep – and a pretty handsome one at that. A base price of $21,095, or $32,655 as-tested, keeps it competitive.
Contact Casey at AutoCasey@aol.com; follow him on YouTube @AutoCasey.
2018 Jeep Compass Latitude
Five-passenger, 4WD Crossover
Powertrain: 2.4-liter I4, 9-spd auto trans
Output: 180hp/175 lb.-ft. torque
Suspension f/r: Ind/Ind
Wheels f/r: 18”/18” alloy
Brakes f/r: disc/disc
Must-have features: Safety, Performance
Fuel economy: 22/31 mpg city/hwy
Assembly: Toluca, Mexico
Base/As-tested price: $21,095/$32,655