You could say Jeep needs a new Compass. The US 4×4 brand has lost its way in recent years, haemorrhaging sales locally for three successive years. It hasn’t helped that its Cherokee model that launched in 2013 has struggled to fire in the all-important medium-SUV segment.
Whether awkward front-end styling has hindered that model is unknown, but the Compass’s cause surely can’t be harmed by looking much more like a Grand Cherokee Junior.
If the Renegade shocked with its steep initial pricing, entry to the Compass starts $6,900 lower than the Cherokee – from $28,850 – to give it a more competitive shot at segment leaders such as the Mazda CX-5 and Hyundai Tucson.
And it’s a Tucson we’re using here to gauge the qualities of a Compass that must be significantly higher than its desperately poor predecessor.
We’re making no apologies in advance that this is a Jeep comparison featuring not a single mud track, creek crossing or rocky mountain trail. If the new-generation Jeep Cherokee is going to genuinely compete with the best models the mid-sized family SUV segment has to offer, it needs to prove it can be highly capable on the suburban safari.
So, no range-topping (range-hopping) Compass Trailhawk here, but instead the one-below, third-tier Limited trim grade that costs from $41,250.
There’s still a part-time all-wheel-drive system and Jeep’s Selec-Terrain traction management. Externally, the Limited rides on 18-inch alloy wheels, includes fog lights and LED tail-lights, and incorporates parking sensors front and rear.
Inside are leather seats (with heating function and electrically adjustable driver’s pew), dual-zone climate, keyless start, an 8.4-inch infotainment touchscreen, 7.0-inch colour instrument display, and a BeatsAudio system.
Our test car’s options included a $495 black roof that creates a two-tone exterior, a $1,950 dual-pane sunroof, and a $2,450 driver-aid pack that introduces lane-departure warning, adaptive cruise, auto high beam, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, auto tailgate – and autonomous emergency braking (AEB) that is surprisingly not standard on the Limited, or any Compass for that matter.
Read more: Tucson news, reviews, comparisons and videos
That hands a clear equipment advantage to the $40,850 Hyundai Tucson Elite petrol AWD, despite the Korean model missing out on front sensors, heated seats, auto-dimming rear-view mirror, and offering seats that are leather-appointed rather than full leather.
While the Elite AWD’s price increased from $39,250 to $40,850 as part of a major mid-2018 update – and was only $38,240 when released in 2016 – the jump is at least matched by key additional features.
The Elite now includes AEB while also expanding its suite of active safety features – providing blind-spot and cross-traffic monitoring, fatigue detection, auto high-beam switching, and lane-keeping aid.
Digital radio and an Infinity audio system are also new for 2018 to help counter the Jeep on the infotainment side, and there’s a hill-descent control system (surprisingly absent from the Jeep – Trailhawk model only) and multi-speed adaptive cruise control.
One blip is the loss of the gesture auto tailgate previously offered (now on Highlander only).
NOTE: Thanks to a logistical issue with this test, you will see both a blue and a white Jeep Compass in this story. This is related specifically to vehicle fleet movements and availability. Given the Tucson is also blue, we apologise for any confusion!
US carmakers have been unfathomably slow to improve interior quality, but the Compass – built in India for the Australian market – is further proof Jeep is on the case.
But there’s a solidity to the cabin’s construction that was glaringly amiss from the previous model. Everything looks well put together, while cheaper plastics look less conspicuous than before.
It’s not perfect, as the indicator stalk feels stiff, the console bin’s lid operation lacks finesse, and the door trim is downgraded in the rear cabin. Shiny, black surrounds for the air vents, gear lever and touchscreen literally add some extra gloss. The stitched-leather seats (and door armrests) add to the quality appearance.
Not comfort, though. The front seat cushions are remarkably firm, the leather feels slippery, and generally the seats don’t feel sufficiently supportive. Compounding this is an undersized footrest.
Jumping immediately into the Tucson’s driver’s pew is blissful. With better cushioning, better bolstering, and a design that feels more naturally shaped to the body, the Hyundai’s seats are far more inviting.
The view from there is no longer bland, either. A heavily revised interior is another significant part of the Tucson’s update.
There’s a more sculpted, multi-layer design for the Tucson’s dash, which comprises a new-look heating-ventilation control panel at the bottom, new twin horizontal vents centre-middle, and a ‘floating’ 8.0-inch touchscreen transported from the i30.
With our test car further enhanced by a new optional beige trim ($265), the Tucson now offers one of the most premium-looking cabins in the segment.
The touchscreen graphics present well and the menu functionality is amply intuitive, while, as with the Jeep, there’s the option to switch to an iOS- or Android-style interface with Apple CarPlay/Android Auto.
Read more: Everything Hyundai
Above, and in all sets: Tucson top, Compass below.
The Infinity eight-speaker audio sounds great – which is necessary to compete with the Compass’s superb nine-speaker Beats system.
Jeep’s Uconnect has already proven to be a likeable infotainment system in other FiatChrysler products (including Maseratis, no less).
Beyond the generously sized 8.4-inch screen, the presentation is slick and the screen is responsive to touches. The 7.0-inch digital instrument panel sitting between the analogue speedo and tacho is also double the size of the Tucson’s version.
We did experience some electronic glitches. The Uconnect system rebooted itself during one drive, while the tyre monitoring system kept persisting that pressures were low even after we had double-checked them and reset the monitor. The same thing happened on a Trailhawk diesel variant we sampled briefly, hinting at a broader issue.
The Elite version of the Tucson features a ‘deluxe’ centre console finished in smooth plastic and incorporating two cupholders, square tray, and an area under the centre stack with plenty of room for smartphones and featuring a 12-volt socket and AUX/USB ports.
Long door bins with bottle mouldings are joined by a usefully sized glovebox and console bin, and there’s a side storage slot on the front-passenger side. There are also extendable sun visors, with the driver’s side including a card slot.
Easy-access storage options aren’t as useful in the Compass, with a smaller console bin and glovebox, and only two bottle mouldings for door bins. However, there’s a secret compartment under the front passenger seat. A netted side section on the passenger side is handy, too.
Up back, there are moulded door bins, vents, map pockets, a USB port and 230-volt socket.
Rear leg room is good (as is foot space) – especially considering the Compass’s 4.4m length – though head room is cramped by the Jeep’s optional sunroof.
The bench also shares the limited comfort of the front seats: too flat, too slippery, too unsupportive.
There’s a centre armrest (with two cupholders), though it forms the centre section of a 40-20-40 split-fold rear-seatback set-up – so the boot is exposed when it’s lowered, meaning objects could fall into the rear seat.
It’s a regular armrest in the Tucson, and the Hyundai adds a rear USB port for 2018.
Rear passengers will be significantly more comfortable in the Tucson, with the Hyundai making its slightly bigger dimensions count with good space over the head and in front of the knees and feet.
The Tucson’s boot looks basic but is a good size for the class at 488L and features a retractable cargo blind that can also be repositioned to act as a cargo-floor barrier. Fold down the 60-40 rear seats and its 50L advantage over the Compass extends past 200L (1478L v 1251L). There’s also a luggage net.
Hyundai, however, has removed the hands-free electric tailgate from the Elite for 2018 (reserving it for the flagship Highlander). The Compass requires the optional tech pack for an auto tailgate (with no gesture function).
The Compass’s 438L boot is still bigger than those of some bigger SUVs.
Both models share a 12-volt socket and tie-downs in the boot. For spare wheels, the Tucson comes with a full-sizer, whereas the Limited is the only Compass not to feature a full-size spare as it sits on 18-inch wheels rather than the 17-inch wheels fitted to other variants.
The Compass’s cargo cover is so difficult to remove (you’re forced to lower the rear seats), most owners are unlikely to bother.
The Compass Limited is available with Jeep’s 129kW/229Nm 2.4-litre ‘Tigershark’ four-cylinder petrol we’re testing here, or for an extra $2500 a 2.0-litre ‘Multijet’ four-cylinder turbo-diesel with 125kW and 350Nm.
Potential buyers should try both engines in any test drive. A quick steer in a Compass Trailhawk revealed the diesel to be a noisy performer and sluggish at low speeds, though it offers stronger mid-range pulling power than the petrol.
It also saves four litres of fuel every 100km (5.7L v 9.7L/100km) and gels slightly more effectively with the nine-speed auto.
Despite having to shift 135kg less than with the entry-level (Sport) Jeep Cherokee, the 2.4-litre requires hard pushes of the throttle pedal for meaningful progress, though even then acceleration is lethargic.
The petrol Limited is the slowest Compass in the range, pegged at 10.1 seconds for the 0–100km/h acceleration run.
The nine-speed auto lacks smarts, too. On steep hills it takes a couple of stabs to pick the right gear, it’s hopelessly indecisive on undulating roads, while even on the flat it sometimes holds a gear too long or shifts too early.
No such frustrations in the Tuscon Elite with its combination of 1.6-litre turbocharged petrol engine and seven-speed dual-clutch auto.
But Hyundai’s seven-speeder responds well in throttle off/on scenarios around town – such as when you’re rolling into a roundabout, ready to negotiate it if clear of traffic.
It cycles through the gears crisply and quickly, while the engine is not only refined, but also responds well from low revs and provides generally strong performance. Overtaking is a far less cautious exercise than it is in the Compass.
Slight transmission delays, which we’ve become accustomed to since this breed of gearbox emerged from Volkswagen more than a decade ago, can still be experienced occasionally, most noticeably – in conjunction with some turbo lag – when trying to accelerate quickly out of corners.
Both models are missing stop-start systems, and both are mainly front-drivers to help save fuel – bringing the rear axle into play when required for traction purposes – though the Tucson carries a clear official fuel economy advantage (7.7L v 5.7L/100km).
The Elite can also tow up to 1,600kg (braked) compared with 1,000kg for the Compass Limited petrol (the diesel Compass is rated at 1,500kg).
The Jeep is fickle about surface quality. On smooth roads, the Compass offers uprighted composure through bends and plenty of tyre grip; on rougher bitumen, excessive vertical body movement reduces driver confidence.
It’s a similar story around town, where the Compass – riding too stiffly – introduces body vibrations and movement on patchier roads. At least it deals perfectly well with speed humps and road joins.
Hyundai Australia used the Tucson’s 2018 update to further fine-tune its ride and handling – and with success. There’s an incremental improvement to its urban ride, which is now among the best in the segment. It feels like you’ve jumped into a Mercedes S-Class after the Compass.
The Tucson also offers greater compliance on bumpy country roads, as well as noticeably quieter tyres, making it the easy pick for longer trips.
Read more: Everything Jeep
For the rarer owners who will actually take their ‘soft-roader’ off-road, the Compass has more tools: a Selec-Terrain system that can be tailored to varying surfaces (Mud, Snow, Sand plus Auto modes); better ground clearance (212mm v 172mm); and superior departure and ramp-over angles (though the Tucson’s approach angle is slightly better). Both offer 4WD lock.
If you’re really serious, get the $44,750 Compass Trailhawk (though it’s diesel only and comes with fewer convenience features than the Limited).
The Tucson Elite saves $300 per year on fuel based on official consumption figures applied to an annual mileage of 15,000km.
More money is saved when comparing servicing costs. Hyundai’s lifetime capped-price program charges $1,505 across five years in 15,000km/12-month intervals for the Tucson. Jeep’s program, limited to five years or up to a lower maximum mileage of 60,000km, costs $2,595 for the same period – one of the highest charges in the segment.
Both carmakers provide free 24/7 roadside assistance, provided annual servicing is conducted.
Five-year warranties are also shared, though Jeep’s is capped at 100,000km, whereas Hyundai’s is unlimited.
The original Compass scored one of the lowest ratings (4.5/10) in CarAdvice history, so it could be said its replacement couldn’t have failed to be an improvement.
Beyond a new exterior design that arguably makes the Compass the most stylish model in Jeep showrooms, credit is still due for the way interior presentation and quality have been lifted markedly. Rear leg room and boot space are also decent considering dimensions that are relatively compact.
Yet, although the Compass Limited provides some good features, its dearth of standard technology is exposed by the updated Tucson. The full leather upholstery is also wasted, as basic seat comfort and support are severely lacking – and compounded by an overly firm ride.
Add in the frustrating petrol engine and nine-speed auto drivetrain combination, and the Compass becomes a difficult model to recommend unless regular off-roading is planned.
The Hyundai Tucson had already impressed when it replaced the underwhelming ix35 in 2015, but the 2018 update has stepped it up to another level in cabin presentation and equipment (if disappointing the auto tailgate was deleted and pricing continues to creep up).
The Tucson is comfortable in both the way it accommodates people and the way it rides, it’s more practical than the Compass in terms of cabin and boot storage, and it’s cheaper to run.
Then consider the 1.6-litre turbo-petrol and dual-clutch auto that’s in a different division to the Jeep’s 2.4-litre and nine-speed auto combination, and this is a decisive win for Hyundai.