Jeep Compass - Fiat and Chrysler's best collaboration yet?

By Glenn Brooks | 14 June 2018

Compass is becoming one of FCAs most important models - sales are rising worldwide and it is built in Mexico, China, Brazil and India

Compass is becoming one of FCA's most important models - sales are rising worldwide and it is built in Mexico, China, Brazil and India

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It's bounding up the sales charts in the USA and selling briskly across Europe too. After several days spent in the company of the Jeep Compass, the reasons for its rising level of worldwide popularity become clear. Could the MP project be the best yet mix of Fiat and Chrysler strengths?

There were many who wondered if killing off the Patriot was the wisest move. FCA US had two models in the global Compact/C segment SUV class so why not replace them both? Instead, a decision was taken to bring to market a successor for the Compass and to eliminate the Patriot. Both were a decade old when production ceased in 2016. Each had its origins in a long ago deal between Mitsubishi Motors and the Chrysler Corporation. Their basis was MMC's C platform.

Towards 100,000 US sales per month

That was then and this is now. FCA is really still two companies which, like Renault and Nissan, pool resources when it makes sense to do so. The collaborative approach to the latest MP series Compass is a case in point. The architecture wasn't new for this model: it has been around in one form or another since 2012. That was when SUSW, a front-wheel drive platform, which has since been re-engineered for AWD applications, appeared with the Fiat 500L.

The W part of SUSW denotes that it is for Wide-body vehicles. As can be seen from Mercedes Benz USA's experience trying to sell smarts (and FCA's not so successful efforts with the 500L and 500), narrow vehicles can be a turn-off to many Americans. The well planted stance of the Compass is by contrast one of the many things which appeal, as booming US sales prove. For the year to the end of May, 72,368 units of this 4.4m long SUV have been delivered to US buyers, a year-on-year gain of 223 per cent.

On current trends, Jeep could overtake Toyota, Citroen and Opel, becoming the Italian market's No.6 brand.

The Compass has also played a not insignificant part in Jeep having just had its second best month yet. The high point was as recently as March, when 98,382 of the brand's vehicles were sold to US buyers. The total for May, 97,287, wasn't too shabby either. Who would bet against the first six-figure sales month happening later this year?

As Jeep rises, Fiat falls

By contrast, what looks like FCA's ongoing planned neglect of the Fiat marque is having a predictable result. Formerly the long-time number one in Brazil, the brand keeps on falling further behind Volkswagen and GM there.

It is also looking as though FCA Italy must want Fiat to drop into second position. Old cars and a shrinking range are making this a future reality. It might take until the 2020s for the Volkswagen brand to surpass Fiat but while this makes zero sense, it is looking increasingly likely.

If the plan is to let Fiat shrink further and further, then the flip side of this is already working, if that's what FCA's intention is for Jeep. In May, the SUV division sold more than 10,000 vehicles in Brazil while in Italy, as Fiat fell by 23 per cent to a market share of just 17.7 per cent (VW, in second place, was up to 9.0 percent, a gain of 21 per cent), Jeep surged. This wasn't a one-off either, as the Renegade has long been a popular model with Italians. Last month, the littlest Jeep grabbed third place behind the Clio and Panda but it was the Compass which really impressed.

Thanks to 4,493 registrations, the Compass became the Italian market's number seven best seller, not too far behind the VW Polo (4,523) and Fiat 500L (4,761). Year to date, sales have reached 18,655 units, while the Jeep brand has zoomed up the charts, taking seventh position. Might Citroen and even Opel be in danger? That could easily happen if current trends continue.

In May, Jeep's registrations total was 9,885, not too far behind Opel (10,096) and Peugeot (10,398) so it could certainly leapfrog both in June, taking fifth place behind Ford (which sold 12,761 vehicles in May). For the year to date, thought, Renault and Ford are a fair way ahead and both are probably safe to stay that way for CY2018. Toyota though, is vulnerable. It will be the next domino to fall, probably as soon as at 30 June (see below). Citroen, in turn, will likely lose seventh place to Jeep in a few months' time.

As Fiat sales keep on tumbling across the world, higher margin Jeep will take its place.

Year to date registrations by make for the Italian market are as follows:

  1. Fiat - 172,325 (-16%)
  2. Volkswagen - 80,196 (+16%)
  3. Ford - 65,604 (-3%)
  4. Renault - 60,818 (-4%)
  5. Peugeot - 53,843 (+7%)
  6. Opel - 46,470 (-7%)
  7. Citroen: 43,595 (+16%)
  8. Toyota - 40,976 (+1%)
  9. Jeep - 40,319 (+103%)
  10. Audi - 31,203 (flat)

Data source: UNRAE

Even the Germans, never big buyers of American brand cars unless you include Ford, are taking to Jeep. Numbers are much smaller than for Italy yet a 29 per cent gain in May helped the make to a YtD total of 6,635 vehicles.

Britain is another place where there has been a big rise in registrations although the 115 percent gain in May reflects a steep collapse in 2017. Which is also why the year-to-date total is a modest 2,857. Still, as long as numbers keep rising, FCA will be happy and the plants which make this model will continue to hum.

As Fiat sales keep on tumbling across the world, higher margin Jeep will take its place: this seems to be FCA's unannounced strategy. Throw in the 'Graduate', the rumoured name for a future A segment model based on the next Panda Trekking, and Jeep should be extending its lead over Haval as the world's number one SUV brand.

Compass for Europe - built in two countries

FCA has an Indian manufacturing JV with Tata Motors. RHD variants of the Compass are built at a factory in Ranjangaon, some 50km from Pune, since June last year. The equivalent of US$280m was spent lifting the capacity of this plant and the Compass was the first Jeep to be made there. It's doing well, with Indian market deliveries having reached 9,645 units over the first five months.

LHD European countries source their vehicles from Mexico, FCA building the Compass there for North America as well. There is production in Brazil too, this taking place at Goiana, while China's GAC-FCA joint venture makes the Compass in Guangzhou. The Brazilian factory was in fact the first of the four to make this model, followed by Toluca, then Guangzhou and Ranjangaon.

What happens when FCA stops making diesels?

There are multiple engine options in the Americas, including a 2.4-litre four-cylinder unit which is the standard powertrain in the US. Front-wheel drive variants are available with a six-speed manual transmission and there are two four-wheel drive systems. For AWD vehicles, the six-speed gearbox is joined by a nine-speed ZF automatic transmission.

There is a precision to this vehicle which hasn't been present in any previous Jeep.

The Compass 4x4 Limited (GBP34,295 plus options) supplied by Fiat Chrysler UK came with a 1,956cc diesel engine. It develops 125kW (170hp) at 3,750rpm and 380Nm at 1,750rpm. The quoted 0-62mph time is 9.5 seconds and top speed, at 122mph, is just shy of 200km/h. CO2 is a competitive 148g/km and the Combined consumption is 49.6mpg. The real world instead delivered an average of 39mpg over some 400 miles in a mix of conditions.

FCA refers to this diesel as a Multijet II (the plastic protection plate on its head says multijet 2). Various under-bonnet components are visibly branded with FPT, MOPAR or Bosch logos.

What will power the Compass in a few years' time in countries where diesel is the default choice isn't yet clear: only days ago FCA announced the end of all such engines in its passenger vehicles worldwide. This will be an enormous shift in Europe and throws up many questions. One of which would be, how can the brand's sales stay strong if there is to be a compulsory shift to petrol power? Perhaps that position will change.

Nessie and Lizzie

As a vehicle, there is much to like about the Compass. It looks great and like nothing else in its segment. The seven-slot grille's image is embossed into a couple of plastic parts here and there as part of what some call 'Easter Eggs'. I also found a tiny loch ness monster inside the back window. You only see it when looking in the rear-view mirror. It's a small touch and it will no doubt endear many to the brand as a sign that FCA has a sense of humour. Like Volvo, Opel-Vauxhall and others, Jeep makes owners search a little bit harder for another Easter Egg in the Compass: there is a lizard partially obscured by the base of the driver's side windscreen wiper (see pics).

American. But Italian too. Like the Elkann siblings.

Some might think of Jeep as a crossover brand but FCA insists that it is a 4x4 specialist. You have to pay GBP150 for it but the SUV credibility is there in the form of a spare tyre under the boot floor. The four-wheel drive system coped perfectly with all conditions, although the most extreme weather which the south of England could produce was some rain. At motorway legal speeds and beyond, wind noise was minimal and stability light years ahead of some US-built Jeeps of recent memory. There's that FCA Italy connection again, and another reason why more and more Europeans are seeing that high-speed lane changes in American SUVs are no longer unsettling.

Overall, there is a precision to this vehicle which hasn't been present in any Jeep which I have driven. The Renegade is a good car but it's been in need of the engineering update which was announced a few days ago as part of a mid-cycle update for the powertrains and styling. Not so its larger sibling which feels as though it can compete with the best in the non-premium segment. No wonder Honda (CR-V), Toyota (RAV4), Nissan (Rogue and Rogue Sport), Ford (Escape) and GM (Chevy Equinox) are losing sales to this Jeep in the giant US market. In China, GWM should also be worried as this similarly sized model is a better vehicle than the best selling Haval H6.

Towards an eventual premium status

Overall, the Compass impresses, which augers well for future Jeeps such as next year's Giorgio-based Grand Cherokee.

The Compass doesn't assail you with loud bonging as all Jeeps used to, the plastics have no sharp edges and you can slide a finger under the driver's seat to test the finish and find that yes, here too there is good attention to detail. Doors unlock and lock with a simple, satisfying clunk rather than noisy beeping and even though the infotainment system was found wanting in some ways by Cat in her recent deep dive into connectivity, I would agree that the Beats audio system is great. And it's standard with the Limited model grade.

Overall, this was one of the most impressive vehicles I have driven during the last six months or so. Impressive in that it was much better than what Jeep has served up in the past. A handful of brands which needed to seem to be greatly improving. My personal list would include SsangYong, Peugeot and Mitsubishi and now Jeep has joined these three due to how thoroughly engineered the Compass appears to be.

No longer is Chrysler creating vehicles which don't always feel to be at their best outside the US and on an equal footing with what is produced by Volkswagen, Honda, Toyota, Ford, Nissan and HMG. That augurs well for future Jeeps such as the WL project, which is next year's Giorgio-based Grand Cherokee. If FCA can develop a model as well honed as the MP Compass is using Fiat's SUSW architecture, then a premium RWD-AWD platform derived from that of the Alfa Stelvio might even give Jeep its best handling model yet.