What is it?
Jeep was the first company in the world to design, engineer and build the first proper SUV. Known as the Willys Station Wagon, this great, great, great granddaddy of the modern SUV first went on sale in 1946. And it wasn't just any old off-roader; it was the real deal, with almost every essential SUV element present. It had an upright two-box shape, plenty of space in the cabin, a tough build and, of course, a proper four-wheel-drive system that allowed it to clamber over obstacles with ease.
Fast forward 70-odd years and it's precisely these genes and strands of DNA that have given the new Compass an unassailable edge. We've only just driven out of the plant in Ranjangaon, near Pune, but the Compass has already made such a strong first impression that we're scratching our heads. Is it really that good?
Our test car was finished in silver, and while it isn't its most fetching colour, it does allow the lines to come shining through: the well-defined shoulder line, the sharp lines on the bonnet and those typically square and tough-looking wheel arches. The focus, of course, is that seven-slot grille and those slightly sunken headlights. And yes, it does look like a baby Grand Cherokee – the handsome lines and a square jaw easy to appreciate. But there is a hint of ungainliness from certain angles due to the flat bonnet and long cabin, and bigger wheels would have helped the aesthetic. Still, there are some extremely well-executed details, like the shark fin-like D-pillar and the manner in which the roof drops towards the rear in an almost Range Rover Evoque-like manner.
What is it like on the inside?
The Jeep's cabin is a pleasant surprise. Yes, the design of the dash is quite boring and there are a few not-so-nice bits of hard and shiny plastic – the piano black surrounds around the vents being a prime example – and the touchscreen is small and a bit fiddly to use. Also, it's quite a step up into the cabin, and the sill is wide, and that could be an issue for short or elderly folk. Otherwise, everything on the inside is executed to such a high level that there's a genuine honest-to-god luxury car vibe here.
The soft-feel textures, supple leather, superbly finished bits of chrome and a build that's genuinely tank-like, all leave a lasting impression. Jeep has been bold and has specified this top-of-the-line Limited 4x4 variant with premium Alpine leather interior. The soft and supple seats are finished in 'snow white' which won't be easy to keep clean, but they feel so luxurious. And that's not it: there's the leather-wrapped steering wheel that gives the cabin a lift, the padded door pads are superbly crafted, the metal-tipped gear knob that gets cooled by the air-con vents is an absolute delight to hold, and the graphics on the screen inside the instrument panel are clear and easy to read. However, the dummy switches on the right of the steering wheel are all too conspicuous and a glaring reminder of missing features.
There is a bit of reflection from the dials, and storage space on the centre console is limited, but otherwise, the cabin is thoroughly practical as well. Space on the inside is huge, with plenty of leg- and shoulder-room, and the front seats are extremely comfortable. The bench at the rear has been changed for India. There is now a lot more thigh support due to the longer squab, the seat height is just right, and the backrest is a tad vertical, which, unlike the Tucson's, doesn't recline. In fact, rear seat comfort is where the Tucson is clearly better than the Compass and its limited width makes it only suitable for two adults.
There's also plenty of safety kit. Four-channel ABS and ESP are obviously present and standard, but you also get Panic Brake Assist, Hydraulic Booster Failure Compensation, Electronic Roll Mitigation (essential in the US), Electronic Brake Pre-fill and six airbags.
Jeep has knocked out a bit of essential kit though. Sure, you get four-wheel drive and Select Terrain, but there's no diesel auto yet (a nine-speed is expected early next year). However, certain features that one expects in a car in this class – like cruise control, a sunroof, and auto headlights and wipers – are missing. You don't get an auto-dimming mirror either.
What is it like to drive?
We start our test drive of the Compass by getting off the road into some barren fields. There's a bit of a hill ahead and a well-beaten path. But we take the short way up, across some bunds, over a rocky ledge and then up a steep incline. The Compass initially walks it, but then stalls up a steep, crumbly rise. We roll back to have another go, selecting the four-wheel-drive lock this time around, and the Jeep bounds up and over. The next 15 minutes or so are spent doing immature (but fun) stuff like driving up ridges, clambering over medium-sized rocks and crossing pillow-soft fields that have been ploughed, waiting for the rain. There's no low range and we don't use the Terrain Select dial, but the Jeep still scores really well. And what leaves a lasting impression is that it just feels tough, solid and unbreakable.
DNA test done, it's time to get in and see if the Compass rides like a luxury car too. Back on the road, it settles down to the slightly bumpy tarmac quite nicely. There's a mild rocking movement over the lumpier bits and there's a hint of stiffness too, but otherwise, the ride is so supple, so absorbent and so silent. The Compass gets Frequency Selective Dampers, as on the earlier-gen Merc C-class, which adjust automatically for high-frequency bumps or body roll.
Straight-line stability is superb and the steering is very impressive, but there is quite a bit of roll in corners. However, the Compass soon settles on its springs nicely and then you can lean on it and go harder and harder. This is an SUV that is not averse to corners. It has a really nice balance to it, and the brakes give you a great amount of confidence on the way into corners. The steering compensates for pull or drift and is well-weighted, extremely direct and, for a fully electric system, comes with a surprising amount of feel.
Fiat's 2.0-litre Multijet II diesel makes its debut in India under the hood of the Compass. Producing around 170hp, it is run through a six-speed manual that, for the most part, sends power to the front wheels. These series two engines use seven injections of diesel per power stroke and, as a result, are a bit more refined; but there's still a fair amount of pitter-patter at idle. At lower engine speeds, there's a bit of lag too. Power starts to flow in smoothly after 1,800rpm and then there's a linear ramp up in performance, all the way to 4,000-4,500rpm. There's a considerable amount of punch in the mid-range and the Compass gathers speed at a rapid rate when you keep flat on the floor. But even though the gearbox is light and slick, and the metal cue-ball-top gear lever is a joy to use, the SUV is best enjoyed a couple of notches below flat out; the motor gets a bit boomy after 3,500rpm and once past 4,500rpm, it starts to feel extremely strained. The Compass will, however, cruise happily between 130kph and 140kph and press on, and there's a lot more power available. Jeep, however, is yet to sign off on the state of tune of the engine and NVH levels; the flow of power could improve once that is done.
Should I buy one?
The Compass is a seriously impressive SUV that seems to take full advantage of Jeep's experience with SUVs. In fact, look deep into its headlights, past that seven-slot grille, and you can see the years and years of know-how shining through. Prices for the Compass diesel start at a very competitive Rs 15.45 lakh (ex showroom Delhi), with this top-of-the-line Limited (O) 4 X 4 going for Rs 20.65 lakh. What you get for your money is real off-road ability, strong dynamics and plenty of luxury and comfort on the inside. Sure, the touchscreen isn't really what's expected of a car in this class and there are important bits of kit missing, like a sunroof; and those interested will have to contend with Fiat's less-than-fantastic dealer network. Rear seat comfort could have been better for this segment, and those looking for a diesel automatic SUV will be disappointed as the Compass will get that only at a later stage. But this SUV's fundamentals are so strong, it's difficult not to compare it to cars from a class above, like the Volkswagen Tiguan which is a lot more expensive at where it stands today. And that's the real kicker – the Compass may just be the value luxury SUV you have been waiting for.
Apple, Levi's, McDonald's, Coca-Cola are American icons that have all carved a niche for themselves here in India, and something tells me Jeep is about to join that band.