Compass a move in the right direction

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Standard features include a unique front and rear fascia for improved approach and departure angles, black anti-glare hood decal, red recovery hooks, four underbody skid plates, a full-size spare wheel and all-weather floor mats. Photo: supplied

Rising stature seemingly works every which way for the new Jeep Compass.

First off, while it is based on the same platform as the smallest model in the Jeep stable, the Renegade, albeit stretched by about 7cm, you wouldn't twig to this. Its appearance has been crafted to cultivate commonality with the brand's biggest model, the Grand Cherokee. So much so, that the promotional push references it as the "baby Grand''.

Also elevating is its mojo. The previous Compass was very much a budget model, probably too much so in its content.

This one remains sharply priced, but the emphasis on getting all the basics right, improving the look and feel and generally creating a better, more upmarket ambience is evident. The exterior may be sharper and more in keeping with current Jeep design trend, but the interior is where creativity and care is most evident.

The cabin is nicely designed and, though there are still some low-grade plastics in there, these are no longer so easy to spot. In fact, the only reason you might find some at all is when you're looking for "Easter eggs'' _ that is, a set of quirky and clever fun design cues crafted into unexpected places.

Examples? Moulded into the driver-side plastic below the windshield is a tiny lizard, ready to scamper towards the vehicle identification number. Look somewhere else (I can't give away all the secrets) and you'll see the silhouette of what appears to be the Loch Ness monster. An outline of the iconic seven-slot grille and circular headlights appears in various places around the car. The most interesting is in the centre console bin, because it has the word "Project'' etched below it. What exact
project is it? No-one seems to know.

All of the above feeds the third and final element on the up: the Compass' status within the family. Old Compass hardly hit the bottom line, whereas this one has greatness ahead. The world is in love with SUVs, Kiwi buy-in is running above global pace and our love for Compass-sized models is such they claimed 25,000 sales last year.

It's another sign of market taste that the version likely to sell strongest will be the entry Longitude, which was absent from our media drive day, not simply because it costs the least but also through it being, ahem, front-wheel-drive.

That drivetrain layout is of course at odds with Jeep's rough, tough, go-anywhere image yet, frankly, the market condition is such, the distributor says, that it would have been nuts not to have what's essentially a street-bound edition alongside the alternative four-wheel-drive Limited and Trailhawk editions.

The drivetrain opportunity is much less complex for NZ than in some other places, with diminished interest in diesel in this sector determining the 2.4-litre Tigershark aspirated petrol engine borrowed from the Renegade Trailhawk. This runs through a six-speed automatic in Longitude and a nine-speed in the others.

"The market is telling us that petrol is the way to go,'' says Jeep NZ boss David Smitherman. "The opportunity for diesel is a bit limited in this class. You never say never. If enough people talk to us about it, we might take a look.''

Standard equipment includes 17-inch alloy wheels, a touchscreen display with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto in the Limited and Trailhawk, voice command and Bluetooth connectivity, a 3.5-inch instrument cluster display, reversing camera, seven air bags, leather-wrapped steering wheel, electric park brake, electric driver lumbar adjustment, LED ambient interior lighting, automatic adaptive headlights, tinted privacy glass, fog lights, roof rails, rain-sensing wipers, bright side window surrounds, forward-folding passenger seat and passenger in-seat cushion storage.

Along with the addition of 4x4, the Limited adds Jeep's Selec-Terrain traction feature, with the choice of auto, sand, mud and snow modes for optimal grip on different terrains. It also gains front and rear parking sensors, parallel and perpendicular park assist, nine-speaker Beats audio system, 18-inch alloy wheels, bi-Xenon headlights, LED tail-lights, leather upholstery with heated front seats, sat-nav, 7.0-inch instrument cluster display, eight-way driver/four-way passenger adjustable seats and dual-zone climate control.

In traditional Jeep fashion, the range-topping Trailhawk holds comfortably as the most off-road-focused member of the Compass family. The addition of the Active Drive Low 4x4 system with an extra-low (20:1) gear ratio helps you make slow but determined progress across really challenging terrain. It also achieves rock mode to the Selec-Terrain system, hill descent control, off-road suspension and a raised ride height.

Standard features include a unique front and rear fascia for improved approach and departure angles, black anti-glare hood decal, red recovery hooks, four underbody skid plates, a full-size spare wheel and all-weather floor mats.

The Compass also beefs up active and passive safety aids, but it's unfortunate the key elements of autonomous emergency braking (AEB), lane departure warning, blind spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert bypass Longitude. AEB was integral to the car acquiring a five-star safety rating from the Australasian New Car Assessment Programme just before standards toughened.

Brand thought that Trailhawk would prove itself as the most accomplished true off-roader in its class was put to the test in a recognised off-road playground north of Auckland, the Woodhill Forest. We had a great old time tackling, and taming, some well-rutted tracks undulating through the trees.

For all-round on- and off-seal ability, the Limited just pips the battlewagon; it feels better composed and evidences less body roll in fast corners. There's also more feedback through the steering wheel. The ride comfort of both models reminds that the ``sport'' part of SUV shouldn't be taken too seriously in respect to driving trait.

Some of this might come down to footwear. Trailhawk goes against usual trend for a flagship in having smaller shoes than the Limited, 17-inch rubber versus 18s. The off-road grip was negligible where we went but, on seal, the bigger rubber was quieter.

The driving demeanour could be called American, but the car itself is more international. Quite apart from this being an Italian-American brand, the Compass makes history by being the first Jeep entirely built outside the United States. There are four source points, the one feeding New Zealand being a new $US280 million plant in Ranjangaon, India.

To push up Compass interest, Jeep has reduced the full recommended retails listed by $3000 in respect of the entry and mid-grade and by $5000 for the flagship, until June 30.

Compass a move in the right direction
At a Glance

Jeep Compass

Prices: $39,990 to $54,990
Engine: 2359cc four-cylinder petrol, maximum power 129kW@6400rpm, maximum torque 229Nm@3900rpm
Transmission: Six-speed automatic (Longitude), nine-speed automatic (Limited, Trailhawk)
Brakes and stability systems: Front and rear disc brakes, ABS, BA (except Longitude), ESC, TC, TSC
Safety: Five-star Ancap
Wheels and tyres: Alloy wheels, 225/50 R17 and 225/55 R18
Fuel and economy: 7.9 Longitude/9.7 Limited/9.8 Trailhawk litres per 100km, fuel tank capacity 60 litres
Emissions:  190 Longitude/230g of CO2 per km
Dimensions (mm): Length 4394, width 1819, height 1629 Longitude/1644 Limited/1657 Trailhawk