Hard knock life: Driving the Jeep Compass 1.4

Designed to be a spartan, cramped, and Unabashedly functional 4×4, the Willys Jeep was created to do one thing and one thing only, to help mobilise the Allied Forces in their War effort against the Axis Powers and to say it had a tumultuous introduction into this World is quite an understatement.

But like all the past greats, the little Willys Jeep took everything in its stride and excelled in everything that was thrown at it. Proving itself to be exceptionally tough, durable and versatile in the face of great adversity.

So great was its role in the World War II that it earned an almost mythological reputation on the battlefield. So impressive was its capabilities that General Eisenhower wrote that most senior officers regarded it as one of the six most vital U.S. vehicles to win the war. And so legendary was its role in the field that General George Marshall called it, “America’s greatest contribution to modern warfare.”

Indeed if there ever was an automotive school of hard knocks, the now iconic Jeep would have graduated with full honours and would have remained till this day, more than 70 years later, the best student the school had ever seen.

Today, the car we’re driving is a Jeep. But it’s not that one. The Jeep we’re driving today, might carry the same iconic badge and sport a front grille similar to the mighty war veteran, but the Jeep we’re driving today was designed to fight another sort of battle. The battle of sales figures.

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With the popularity of compact crossover SUVs growing exponentially year on year, this is a market all automotive manufacturer can no longer ignore. Especially so if the core identity of a marque was built on tough, off-roady and rugged SUVs. So, with that in mind, how does the 2018 Jeep Compass fare in the most contested automotive segment today? Let’s find out.

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Aesthetically, I do have some mixed feelings. while I appreciate Jeep jazzing up their image with a sleeker and more modern approach to their design but personally, it does feel a little staid. Especially when put next to its smaller but more adventurous and chunky Renegade sibling. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad design, quite the contrary, the Compass actually looks rather pleasing to the eye and contemporary.

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But I strongly feel that the designers should have been given more free reign to give the car a bolder aesthetic given the marque’s lineage. Like what they’ve done with the Renegade. It just feels a little too safe looking for a Jeep don’t you think?

Although the Compass has been refreshed for 2018, it has actually been around since 2016 and in some areas, it shows. In part, due to how quickly other manufacturers have been to up their game in an area that matters the most to the majority of potential buyers, the interior.

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It might have looked and felt perfectly fine back in 2016, but the past 2 years have not been kind to the interior of our Compass. It has definitely not aged well inside and it seriously feels rather dated.

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Yes, there are some rather cool toys in here, GPS, Apple Carplay, Android Auto, Dual zone climate control, Lane departure warnings, an array of sensors for parking, and a ridiculously loud (and entertaining) 506-Watt Beats premium audio system. But, its how everything’s put together that unfortunately falls short.

The touchscreen infotainment system has a rather cumbersome UI design that makes it really difficult to navigate while on the move and some of the switchgear just doesn’t feel that well put together. For instance, the action of the turn signal stalk has an unfortunate tendency to pull itself inwards whenever you try to engage your indicators, and because that is the same stalk that engages the brights, you might end up sending a slightly different signal to any car that’s ahead of you. Ask me how I know.

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Of course, it’s not all doom and gloom in the cabin, of course, the chunky buttons that engage the various off-road modes are rather fun to poke at and there is plenty of space inside for 5 adults. Rear passenger space is especially good for a car in this segment with a good amount of head-room and leg-room. Storage space for the cabin is adequate but we think it could be improved upon and boot space is more than sufficient, with 410 litres of space with the rear seats in place and expands to over 700 litres with the seats folded down.

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There are two features here that were present on our test car that will very sadly be missed on those sold locally, the powered tailgate and those very comfortable ventilated seats. Pity.

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Since we were on the topic of lights earlier on, I should point out that the Jeep Compass runs halogen headlamps. Yes, for the model year 2018, in its more luxury-biased “Limited” trim, the Compass has halogen lights up front. They do come on automatically, but still, I’m sure you can do better Jeep.

On the move, the Compass’ 1.4-litre Multi-air powerplant does a decent job hauling this almost 1.5-tonne vehicle around and we will have to give it credit where it is due, the engine feels unfussed when ambling around town. Even on expressways, the 168 horsepower unit feels relatively smooth and unobtrusive. Ride comfort is decent with most bumps soaked up relatively well.

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It is only when you try to ask more of it that things start to unravel. It’s not that it doesn’t respond, respond it does, but you will very quickly get the sense that moving rapidly isn’t what this car wants to do. The gearbox might be a 9-speed unit but to be honest, it doesn’t really matter because it is so slow to change up or down, and so bad at choosing gears it might as well be a 4 or 5-speed box. Pushing it into “sport” mode doesn’t help either as all that does it hold onto each gear for as long as it possibly can regardless of throttle input, couple that with a 1.4 engine and it just 3 like you’re wringing the car’s neck every-time you put your foot down. In short, it gets rather unpleasant.

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This doesn’t get any better in the corners either as you do feel the car’s weight, and there is almost negligible feel through the steering wheel as you attempt to load it into corners, couple that with a rather spongy brake pedal and once again we’ve driven the car out of its element. In short, it gets rather unpleasant.

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Pushing the big round 4×4 button doesn’t do anything to improve the handling as well since all it does is make the car feel even heavier and even slower. So, best sticking to the highways.

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If I was to be truly blunt with you readers, I really wanted to like this car, I wanted to write about how those wanting a little more street cred from a small compact SUV can do no wrong with a Compass, and I was wondering about how best to approach this write-up, given that it was the first (and now, probably the last) time I was given the keys by the kind PR folk over at Jeep Chrysler Singapore. But given how strong the competition is and how much Jeep’s rivals have leapfrogged the Compass in terms of design, build quality and drivability, it is difficult to justify this car’s asking price of S$148,888 (including COE), especially when you can get behind the wheel of the (what looks to me) rather impressive Skoda Kodiaq for S$132,900.

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The Jeep Compass might have a strong brand heritage and strong history, but if that’s what you’re really going for, I’d recommend taking a look at its smaller and better-looking brother. The Renegade.

It’s ain’t easy being Jeep, but isn’t adversity what Jeeps live for?

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