Firstly, a brief history lesson: the exact origins of the Jeep name are clouded by confusion, despite dating back to the start of WWII, one of the most documented periods in history. It’s often suggested that the word ‘Jeep’ is derived from military personnel drawing out the letters ‘GP’ from the war time model’s ‘General Purpose’ name. Which is fine, except that GP actually stood for ‘Government Purposes’ and immediately throws doubt over this suggestion if the origins of the initials have got confused in a relatively short space of time. What is known is that in February 1941 an early model was demonstrated in Washington DC and was referred to in the Washington Daily News as a ‘Jeep’. The notion that soldiers gave it the Jeep tag and it had become so widely used just five months after the first drawings of the prototypes were sketched seems too far-fetched for me. No, I subscribe to the Popeye theory. Not heard of that one? Well in spring 1936 a new character appeared in Popeye comic books. He was other worldly, looked like nothing else you’d seen before, was small and had the ability to go just about anywhere it wanted. His name? Eugene the Jeep. It’s an easy to make transition to a vehicle of similar qualities, that appeared less than five years later.
In the decades after WWII, Jeep forged a reputation for producing both tough and luxurious 4x4s, from the go anywhere Wrangler (the descendent of those original military models) through to the larger Cherokee and pampering Grand Cherokee ranges. It’s now over 18 years since Chrysler brought Jeep to the UK to tackle the establishment, during which time the brand has gained a loyal following, especially with those who find Land Rovers too pricey and rivals from the Far East a little too anodyne.
Spring 2007 saw the British market debuts for two closely related models which represented new territory for Jeep – so called crossovers or soft-roaders – not rugged SUVs for which the brand was known. The shared underpinnings were clothed in very different bodies: the upright and traditional model was the Patriot whereas the Compass had a not altogether cohesive amalgam of styling cues, aimed at more youthful buyers. Patriot sales were pleasing enough but the Compass failed to hit the target and was quietly dropped from the price lists at the start of 2010. But now, it’s back, with a new front end inspired by the forthcoming Grand Cherokee and a host of other changes.
Although the models share the same platform (as they do with other models, including Mitsubishi’s Outlander and its Citroën and Peugeot variants) and mechanicals, the look of the two entry level Jeeps couldn’t be more different.
The Patriot is a regular tall, chiselled estate body, familiar to buyers of the Cherokee and Grand Cherokee ranges. It features the traditional seven slotted grille flanked by circular headlamps to share a resemblance to the Wrangler. It looks substantial and has an air of toughness about it. It’s simple and gimmick free and will appeal to those wanting a no-nonsense and practical family car.
The 2011 Compass is not an all new car but its year away from the British market has proved worthwhile as it’s returned a much better vehicle for it. From the windscreen forward, the body work is all new, the previously sad and droopy snout replaced by a leaner, crisper design which gives it a close family association to the fourth generation Grand Cherokee on sale in the summer. Whether the nose blends in with the rest of the essentially unchanged styling is a moot point.
Jeep’s designers were given free rein to make the Compass distinctive, which it certainly is – squared off wheel arch apertures jar with the necessity for the wheels and tyres to be circular, while ‘hidden’ rear door handles are still clearly visible. It’s curious that if the designers were so intent on having this feature why it wasn’t as well integrated as when Alfa Romeo and SEAT utilise the same characteristic. Rather than giving the impression this is a sporty 3-door crossover, it instead looks like the handles are in the wrong place. Finally, at the back, the slope of the tailgate and the upward sweep of the ‘D’-pillar design limits both rearward visibility and practicality.
Ultimately though, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and for some, the revised Compass could well be the epitome of cool in this market sector.
The Inside Story
Upon climbing inside the relationship between the two is immediately evident, especially when they are as similarly specced as these two were – both in well equipped Limited trim levels. The door cards, seats and dashboard are identical, although the Compass I sampled was fitted with the colour touch screen navigation system in lieu of the standard radio/CD unit fitted to the Patriot. The full colour display on the sat nav was easy to use and enjoyed attractive graphics, although it was somewhat optimistic showing the Humber Estuary in blue rather than the brown of reality.
The dashboard itself is a significant step up from what early adopters to the Compass and Patriot lines would have enjoyed. Out went straight lines and Kinder-egg quality plastics and in came curves, bright trim accents and a step up in build integrity. Plastics on the upper dash feel substantial, although remain firm, but those on the lower aspects appear to be more prone to scratching. Nevertheless, Jeep customers buying the latest models will be impressed – others, cross-shopping against the likes of Kuga, Sportage, Qashqai and Tiguan might feel a little short-changed with the absence of soft-touch, slush moulded fittings.
What those new to Jeep won’t have complaints about is the high level of equipment fitted to this pair. A leather interior, with electrically heated seats up front and reclining ones in the back lend an air of quality. The very easy to use and effective climate control system responds quickly to the demands made of it too, with the dials falling very close to hand. Cruise control, trip computer and a good quality stereo, along with electric windows and power folding mirrors complete the headline features. Switchgear feels solid and functional and doesn’t give the impression that any of the buttons or switches will come off in your hand after a few prods or twists.
Space in the front of the cabin is generous and comfortable with lots of headroom and a centre armrest which slides fore and aft. The rear bench, with reclining backs, is easily spacious enough for two adults, and would fit three at a squeeze. The general narrowness of the car is evident here but more of an issue is that the centre rear passenger would have their legs splayed around the transmission tunnel which is made taller by a twin rear cupholder mounted on top of it. For the outboard passengers, legroom is fine, although the narrow rear door openings give the impression it’s tighter in the back than it really is.
The loadspace is where the two differ the most on the inside, with the slope of the Compass’ tailgate eating into the carrying capacity. Measurements reveal that, seats up, the Compass has 458l compared to the Patriot’s 536l. An unusual feature of the Compass is a hinged panel which folds down and allows the speakers to face outwards when the tailgate is opened – a perfect musical accompaniment to all those beach parties we enjoy up and down the country.
The rear portion of the car gives away evidence of cost cutting too – the side panels of the boot are made of a hard, shiny plastic. With the best will in the world, it’s difficult to see how these wouldn’t be scratched and scraped within a short space of time. The rear outer head restraints are another example: colour-wise they match the grey leather perfectly but squeeze them and their man-made foam rubber secret is all too obvious.
Taking the Rough with the Smooth
Two different mechanical packages were sampled in petrol automatic and manual diesel formats. The 2.4-litre petrol engine mated to a continually variable transmission (CVT) is only available on the Compass. As well as a conventional automatic, it can also be driven as a sequential manual, using Chrysler’s Autostick system, whereby the gear lever is knocked left to downshift and right to go up a ratio. The six speeds are programmed ‘steps’ in the otherwise seamless transmission. Going side to side takes some getting used to as virtually all other setups involve a backwards/forwards motion. But, like most of these systems, it’s best left in D. Moving off from standstill is quite a revvy affair, with a significant amount of din entering the passenger compartment, but once it’s up and running the noise and revs drop to more sedate levels. It’s very easy to drive and builds up momentum at a rate in line with the car’s character.
The common rail diesel unit and six-speed manual gearbox in the Patriot is shared with the Compass and replaces the previous 2-litre engine from Volkswagen. This 2.2 motor comes from Chrysler’s former partner Mercedes-Benz and whilst economical, is not one of their best exponents of engine refinement. At low revs, there’s a perceptible agricultural clatter mated with a whistle from the turbo. With the stereo on, neither is particularly noticeable though and certainly by the time typical urban road speeds are achieved both appear to have subsided considerably. When it is up to speed, it’s relaxed yet flexible – sitting in sixth at 40mph registers around 1400rpm, but dabbing the accelerator to overtake generates enough torque to manage the manoeuvre effectively without needing to drop a cog. Talking of gear changes, the lever is positioned quite high on the dash so falls perfectly to hand and despite a longish throw the changes are smooth, positive and satisfying. Overall, the faster diesel engine feels as though it has a much greater urgency from standstill than the figures suggest and is the more satisfying to drive of the pair, in terms of the willingness to accelerate. The fact that the fuel economy is significantly better than the petrol model adds further to its appeal.
Although entry level versions of the Compass are front wheel drive, both the versions tested here had four wheel drive capability. In ordinary conditions, all the power is transmitted to the front wheels but as they begin to lose traction drive is transferred rearwards. As the roads were dry and free from loose gravel, the 4×4 light on the dashboard didn’t illuminate until I locked the system on, via a T-shaped lever deep down beside the hand brake. Inevitably grip would be increased at the expense of fuel consumption on a day to day basis but in slippery, muddy and snowy conditions, having full four wheel traction is a boon. The intelligent system diverts all the power to whichever wheels have the most grip in this mode, ensuring progression in all but the most challenging of circumstances.
The 2011 Compass has revised suspension tuning which makes the car a more rewarding companion on the road. However, these things are relative – buyers don’t choose this type of vehicle looking for nor expecting thrillingly engaging driving experiences and the Compass doesn’t set out to shatter these expectations.
Negotiating bends is a simple enough task, with little roll in the body to unsettle passengers and cargo but the communication through the wheel is vague, despite the accuracy of the steering action. That lack of feel might prove beneficial when off-road as steering kickback will be reduced as hillocks and ruts are traversed but on asphalt it feels distant.
At higher speeds the ride quality is compliant, allowing the driver to understand the road surfaces and drive accordingly but around town and below 30mph some of the poorly surfaced routes of Hull would unsettle both the Compass and the Patriot, sending a jiggling sensation briefly through the body. It’s not terribly disconcerting, it just feels under-damped.
The Patriot will clearly appeal to those who value practicality in particular and like the perpendicular styling of traditional 4x4s, whereas the Compass has ‘Marmite’ looks which are certainly individual and have character. The one to go for is purely down to personal choice, but mechanically, the turbo diesel engine and six-speed manual gearbox is the one to have of the combinations tested. Its greater potency and superior economy make it the default choice, unless you really must have an automatic.
With the Patriot still selling in reasonable numbers and a revised Compass which should be able to secure a greater share of the market than before, Jeep has two offerings in the growing medium-sized, higher riding family car sector. It’s a competitive arena in which to lock horns with established players but the American firm is carving out a niche. Whereas rivals tend to follow styling themes of small MPVs and tall chunky hatchbacks, the Compass and Patriot tread a different path.
So what do the Compass and Patriot have in their favour to tempt buyers and their chequebooks away from, say a Qashqai? Firstly, the goodwill of the Jeep brand will be attractive to both new and used buyers, even if this pair don’t have the same go-anywhere ability. Secondly, they’re very good value as new buys, starting at under £17,000 for a front wheel drive (4×2 in Jeepish) 2-litre petrol model in Sport trim. Yes, there’s evidence here and there of cost-cutting measures but the cars feel well assembled and were free from rattles and squeaks, and these Limited versions have a wealth of standard equipment. Not opting for four wheel drive lops a further £2000 off the prince of the 2.2 CRD Limited Compass too, at £21,595.
Opting for a Compass or Patriot will set you apart as being different from the herd and give you plenty of toys and character for the money. If these are important factors for you in a market full of similarly sized crossovers, then you’ll be satisfied with your Jeep purchase.
Model Tested: Jeep Compass 2.4 CVT Limited 4×4
Top Speed: 116mph
Average fuel consumption: 32.8mpg
CO2 emissions: 199g/km
Engine size: 4/2360cc petrol
Price: £21,695 (May 2011)
Model Tested: Jeep Patriot 2.2 CRD Limited 4×4
Top Speed: 125mph
Average fuel consumption: 42.8mpg
CO2 emissions: 172g/km
Engine size: 4/2143cc common rail turbo diesel
Price: £22,195 (May 2011)
Many thanks to Howard Young and Matthew Welsh of Peter Stockill Ltd, Hull for their excellent levels of service and assistance, as well as supplying the cars.
All photographs © Keith WR Jones; Eugene the Jeep image courtesy of Hobojeepers