- The Compass' new turbocharged engine is a big improvement.
- Overall refinement is still lacking, with a noisy cabin and twitchy ride.
- Trailhawk remains the off-road king in this segment.
First Drive: 2023 Jeep Compass Completes Its Two-Year Makeover
A new powertrain adds more performance, but the Compass still lacks refinement
The 2023 Jeep Compass builds on last year's update — which featured a revised interior and exterior styling tweaks — by swapping in a new powertrain that provides needed performance improvements. These updates add up to one comprehensive refresh for the Compass, which is now much more competitive than it was just a couple of years ago.
I spent a day driving the Compass both on- and off-pavement to see how transformative the changes are for this tweener SUV that sits somewhere in between subcompact and compact crossovers. But the Compass has plenty of company in this size range, going up against a wide range of competitors from the Subaru Crosstrek to the Toyota Corolla Cross to the Mazda CX-30.
On the road
The pre-refresh Compass was in desperate need of an engine transplant. Its previous powertrain felt anemic and coarse, and was paired with one of the clunkiest auto stop-start systems I've ever encountered. Now, all Compass models come with a turbocharged 2.0L four-cylinder and a new eight-speed automatic that Jeep says shifts faster and more smoothly. Output has been bumped up to 200 horsepower and 221 lb-ft of torque, significant improvements over the outgoing engine's 177 hp and 172 lb-ft of torque. Four-wheel drive is now standard across the board, with Trailhawk models adding on a 4WD Low range that gives it a 20:1 crawl ratio that's very useful off-road (more on that later).
This new engine changes the character of the Compass. There's no more plodding away from a stoplight or planning out highway merges with a calendar. It gets up and goes with zest, giving the Compass plenty of zip in all conditions. The auto stop-start has also been improved too — it fires up the engine dutifully right as you start to lift off the brake so by the time you reach the gas pedal things are ready to go.
Besides the added power, there's the bonus of added efficiency. The Compass gets an EPA-estimated 27 mpg combined (24 city/32 highway), an improvement of 2 mpg across the board versus last year's model (with 4WD).
Though I like the Compass' increased power quite a bit, the powertrain still unfortunately feels and sounds coarse at times. The transmission does a bit of hunting under hard acceleration, picking a gear or two before settling in, and engine noise is a constant companion. At anything over 2,500 rpm a familiar four-cylinder drone reverberates throughout the cabin, and there's a fair bit of tire noise as well, even on the all-season tires you find on most trims.
Jeep has also added a new rear stabilizer bar and reworked the steering calibration, so turn-in is sharper and the rear end feels a touch more planted. But the ride quality is still only so-so; you feel (and hear) road imperfections even if body roll is decently controlled. One thing to note: Jeep says the different trims of the Compass have steering calibration that's tuned to the type of tire it comes with stock. So if you planned to do some light off-roading in a Limited trim, for example, which comes with all-season tires, if you threw on all-terrains, it might feel a bit off.
The Compass' calling card has been its capability off-road, notably in the Trailhawk model. It comes standard with an all-terrain tire, more ground clearance (up to 8.6 inches from the standard Compass' 8.1 inches), and a tucked-in front fascia that allows for a much larger approach angle of 30.4 degrees, compared to 16.1 degrees. There's also the low-range gearing mentioned above and an exclusive Rock mode — two things I got to try on the off-road course.
I took the Compass on a familiar route in the mountains above Malibu, California, but all of the recent rain in the area has done a number on the trail. Large erosion grooves had been worn into the road and there were mud and rocks in unfamiliar places. The Trailhawk did not care. The Crosstrek probably provides the closest competition to the Compass Trailhawk off-road (it even has 0.1 inch more ground clearance), but the Jeep's low range gives it a leg up that can't be ignored. In 4WD Low and with the Rock drive mode turned on, it makes it very, very easy to modulate the engine's power and has excellent throttle dexterity so moving the Compass slowly up over obstacles is a breeze.
Much like things are on-road, the Compass is a noisy off-roader. When using the hill descent control, you can hear the brakes and transmission grinding along, giving it a very mechanical feel that wouldn't be out of place in the Wrangler. But our trail run proved handily that the Compass is still the small SUV to beat once the pavement ends.
This year's updates include a jump up to a standard 10.1-inch touchscreen display that's mounted high on the dashboard, in easy reach of the driver. It also conveniently has a small lip below the screen so it's easy to anchor your hand when using the screen, something that other vehicles with floating screens usually lack. Wireless Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are also standard across the board, and a wireless charging pad is optional. The Compass' interior doesn't break any ground stylistically, though its easy functionality and proper physical controls make it easy to live with.
The overall dimensions put the Compass in a gray space between subcompact and compact SUVs, though its competition has exploded recently in a way that it almost occupies a new segment that needs some sort of catchy name (we won't come up with one right now). It goes head-to-head with the Subaru Crosstrek, Toyota Corolla Cross and Kia Seltos, among others.
One thing that's nice about not being a true subcompact: suitable backseat room for adults. There's both more leg- and headroom than you'd expect, and even though the back seat doesn't recline, it's locked in at a comfortable position so passengers won't feel too upright. Good sightlines complete the appeal. The cabin is a place you'd be fine in for even a longer road trip.
Cargo volume is measured at 27.2 cubic feet behind the rear seats, which compares favorably to the Crosstrek (20.8 cubic feet) and the Mazda CX-30 (20.2 cubic feet), putting the Compass near the top of the subcompact class in that regard.
Small SUV, big price tag
The multitude of improvements have made the Compass more drivable and easier to live with on a daily basis, with the line-topping Trailhawk giving it a wildcard that its rivals can't match. But the competitive edge comes at a cost.
We like that a big screen is standard across the lineup, but if you want a comprehensive set of safety features and more cabin comforts, the price climbs aggressively. The sticker prices on the vehicles I tested, a Trailhawk ($46,290 including destination charges) and a Compass (Red) Edition ($42,525), were eye-wateringly high and the (Red) Edition didn't even come with adaptive cruise control or a surround-view camera.
For some perspective, the Crosstrek tops out at $40,570 with its hybrid powertrain and all option packages added. The Toyota Corolla Cross? Try $32,465 with all-wheel drive and all of its packages as well. Those Compass prices are even higher than most of the vehicles a step up in size. The Honda CR-V's top trim level starts at $40,395 without accessories, and that powertrain is a hybrid, so it offers much better fuel efficiency than the Compass.
If you're stuck on something that is Compass-sized and plan to take it off-road with regularity, then there's a case to be made for the Trailhawk to find its way into your garage. Other Compass models are hard to recommend since rivals offer more utility and additional features for less money.
The Compass offers class-leading off-road ability with its Trailhawk model, and the new powertrain rights many of the wrongs of the old Compass. But its steeply climbing price tag will drive value-minded shoppers in other directions.