As more and more consumers gobble up crossovers, Jeep's new Compass is a huge step in the right direction.
This Brazilian-made, small, global crossover is a glimpse at America’s automotive future, like it or not. We are a truck nation despite every automotive journalist wanting to put people behind the wheel of a diesel Golf wagon. Let’s face facts, diesels are done.
Meanwhile, Americans continue to pass over passenger cars, instead picking things just like this new Compass. (Car sales are down 12.4 percent this year even though total vehicle sales are flat.) It’s a long slog to the complete conversion of crossovers and SUVs but one that will continue even after gas prices begin to climb again after the U.S. presidential election. (It will, it always does.)
The reasoning for this conversion is our love of open cabin spaces; that higher riding position, allowing drivers to see the rear of other SUVs; and the general dislike of minivans – by far the most utilitarian vehicle ever created. Perhaps there’s even a correlation between America’s general obesity rate and the need for bigger vehicles, but I couldn’t find data to support that idea.
This Brazilian-made, small, global crossover is a glimpse at America’s automotive future, like it or not.
Furthermore, car buyers don’t care about performance. Enthusiasts do, but they are such a small chunk of the car buying world, they wouldn’t make a dent in sales even if every one of them bought a Subaru WRX STI.
Most people only think about their car when they are looking for the keys. They want it to start, get to wherever they’re going, and turn it off. That’s it. Vehicles are just a modern day convenience that should operate when it needs to and sit quietly the rest of the time. People are more concerned with how much stuff they can put in the back than they are over what engine is up front. Three, four, five cylinders, whatever it takes.
In years past, the biggest problem with SUV ownership was fuel economy. When gas prices spiked eight years ago, SUV sales were already on the decline and the automotive death spiral was already underway. Carmakers have addressed some fuel concerns allowing small crossovers to clear 30 miles per gallon. Expect those numbers to continue to increase.
Of course every carmaker understands people’s crossover desires. They created this market and will continue to roll out more of them in the coming years. Why not? Sixteen nameplates have their top selling crossover beating out their top selling car. Acura, Audi, Buick, Cadillac, Dodge, Ford, Honda, Jeep, Lexus, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Porsche, Subaru, Toyota, and Volvo all have a crossover outperforming their cars by volume.
Crossovers have proven more profitable than cars – especially small cars – even as most CUVs are built on car platforms.
That is particularly good news, as crossovers have proven more profitable than cars – especially small cars – even as most CUVs are built on car platforms. If carmakers see a profitable path ahead of them, they’re certainly not going to let off the accelerator. No, more of these vehicles will come out, making my prophecy self-fulfilling. But look at the silver lining, the Porsche Cayenne helps pay for the 911. The Toyota RAV4 underwrites the 86.
All of this brings us back to the Jeep Compass.
While details are few about the new Compass (we’ll learn more about it during that annoying automotive dribble of information over the coming months as Jeep continues to tease us), for now, we know its exterior is more like a small Grand Cherokee and it will arrive with 17 powertrains worldwide.
That mix of engines will meet the Compass’ global demands. Most likely in America we’ll see the base model with a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine mated to a nine-speed automatic transmission. As it’s built on a stretched Jeep Renegade platform, we’ll also likely see a similar four-wheel-drive system to the one on the Renegade, meaning the base model will be front-wheel-drive only and there could be two grades of four-wheel drive that allow the rear wheels to disconnect from the drive system when not needed and provide more efficient driving.
The Jeep brand is about to get its most important vehicle.
The higher-end models will likely be quite capable off road, and there will probably be a Trail-Rated version. Like the Renegade, there’s no reason the Compass won’t have more than eight inches of ground clearance and all of the luxury amenities found in a Grand Cherokee.
Unlike the original Compass and Jeep Patriot it replaces, this Jeep should be much better at the start of production. The first Compass was disoriented, poorly built, and underpowered. It didn’t know what it wanted to be and the plastic molding inside the cabin could cut you if you looked at it wrong. This one already looks more promising.
More important to the bosses at Fiat-Chrysler, the Compass will become the top selling Jeep in America. It will be priced below the Cherokee and above the Renegade, giving it the potential to be the first new Jeep someone buys. The Jeep brand, which has basically paid the bills at Chrysler’s Auburn Hills, Michigan, headquarters, is about to get its most important vehicle.
The future is the Compass and the vehicles that will follow. Not only for Jeep, but for America.
Scott Burgess has covered the auto industry for more than a decade as The Detroit News' auto critic and as Detroit Editor at Motor Trend. Before writing about cars and the people who make them, he was a newspaper journalist, where he covered everything from small town politics to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.