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When you first see the all-new Jeep Compass, you might very well do a double-take, then ask this question: "Is that a smaller Grand Cherokee?"  Well, it kind of is. And that's very good news for both this model and the Jeep brand.

A quick backgrounder to bring you up to speed. The 2017 Jeep Compass is all-new. Though it has the same name as the outgoing model, this 5-passenger compact SUV is totally revamped. It not only replaces the model of the same name, but the Patriot as well, which is being discontinued. One caveat to be aware of is that the outgoing Compass is also still available as a 2017 model. If you want the latest version—and you do—make sure you're shopping for the all-new Compass, not the soon-to-be previous-gen version that's a decade old.

Those housekeeping items out of the way, let's address your next question: How's the all-new Jeep Compass? Jeep invited us to a test-drive in Northern California to find out. The route involved extensive driving on various paved roads and challenging off-road terrain.

Global appeal

Before our test-drive of the new Compass, Jeep execs gave us a deep dive into its making. Like the subcompact Renegade that debuted two years ago, the Compass is meant to appeal far beyond America's borders. As a global vehicle, it will be built in four countries and offer 17 powertrain choices around the world. The American version is simpler, with all models fitted with the 2.4-liter Tigershark 4-cylinder. This 180-horsepower engine is offered with three transmissions: A 6-speed automatic for front-drive models, a 6-speed manual for front-drive and lower trim 4-wheel-drive models, and finally a 9-speed automatic that's exclusive to higher trim 4-wheel-drive models, including the range-topping Compass Trailhawk. All U.S.-spec models are made at Jeep's factory in Toluca, Mexico.

Size-wise, the Compass slots between the subcompact Renegade and the compact Cherokee, but its design takes inspiration from Jeep's Grand Cherokee flagship. As such, it's meant to evoke a premium feel, most so in the Limited and Trailhawk models like the ones we drove. Sport and Latitude trims round out the model lineup, with the Latitude variant expected to be the volume seller.

Also: Class of 2018 – New Cars Ready to Roll

On-road comfort

Before we could test the Compass in the dirt playground of Hollister Hills State Vehicular Recreation Area south of San Jose, we had to get there. Our route would take us over highways and a surprisingly long and twisty route. Here, too, the new Jeep Compass' resemblance to the larger Cherokee and Grand Cherokee is apparent. On pavement where the majority of Compass SUVs will spend the majority of their time, it feels remarkably comfortable. With its longer wheelbase and overall length, the Compass is more buttoned up than the Renegade, and more like the larger, more mature Cherokee and Grand Cherokee.

The 9-speed transmission used in Jeep's small SUVs hasn't been our favorite, but the good news is that it continues to improve. The units used in the pre-production models we tested felt more like a CVT (continuously variable transmission), which is a step up to the at-times hesitant responsiveness we've experienced in past models using a 9-speed.

On challenging twists and turns and under hard cornering, the Compass protested. This is not meant to be a sporty SUV with an athletic suspension that relishes corner carving. If you want that, get a Mazda CX-5. But if you want a Jeep, and by that we mean an SUV that is ready and willing to hit the mud, dirt and whatever other tough terrain you throw at it, then the Compass it is. We did exactly that, and Jeep's newest SUV was up to the challenge.

Off-road-ready

Here's where the Compass separates itself from every other compact SUV outside of those wearing a Jeep badge. Like its Cherokee and Renegade siblings, the Compass offers two 4x4 models, each with settings that optimize the vehicle for terrain such as snow, sand and mud. Exclusive to the Trailhawk model with its Active Drive Low 4x4 system is a "rock" mode that enables the Compass to creep and crawl up and down seriously harsh terrain.

While it's true that the Compass, as well as the Renegade and Cherokee, use a unibody vs the Wrangler's body-on-frame construction, this little SUV proved extremely adept. The all-new Compass consumed trails that would leave competitors in pieces. On a very steep, very slippery decline, the Compass' hill-descent control worked like a charm, keeping the SUV's speed in the low single digits and enabling us to focus on steering.

Going up the other side was a non-issue. The couple of times I feared the Compass would get stuck, it didn't. With careful throttle inputs and a turn of the wheels when needed, the Compass' smarter-than-me traction systems did the rest to claw its way up. A tenacious one, this is.

In other terrain the 2017 Compass proved just as competent. The 8.5 inches of ground clearance on our Trailhawk model enabled it to wade through water deep enough to create a wake, while also clamber over logs and other obstacles. In all situations, the 2.4-liter engine proved to have just enough guts to make it through.

Also: Kelley Blue Book Best Buy Awards of 2017

The Best of Many Worlds

Like the Renegade that came before it, the Compass proves that you can have a compact Jeep that offers the best of many worlds. It's comfortable for commuting; efficient at up to 32 mpg; offers the latest safety features such as blind-spot monitoring, forward-collision warning and lane-departure warning; can tow up to 2,000 pounds; and offers a robust suite of tech features such as CarPlay, all integrated around 5.0-, 7.0- or 8.4-inch touchscreens. But most impressively, the Compass is a legitimate off-roader. In 4x4 form, it has the chops to take you farther off road than most will ever dare, and certainly farther than any rival.

The all-new Jeep Compass is slated to hit dealer lots around April. Base front-drive models start just over $22,000 after factoring in the $1,095 destination fee. A base 4-wheel-drive Compass begins at a still-reasonable $23,590, and tops out around the $30,000 mark for Trailhawk and Limited trims.


 

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