Trying to guess which car, SUV and pickup will win their respective categories in the annual North American Car, Utility and Truck of the Year awards program can be more difficult some years than others, but most folks that keep their ear to the road had the 2020 lineup of winners picked out long before the big announcement this week.
The true name of the award is North American Car and Truck of the Year (NACTOY), in spite of having a third category covering SUVs added in 2017. The NACTOY awards were first presented in 1994.
A total of 50 automotive journalists made up the NACTOY jury this year, from print, online, radio and broadcast media in both the U.S. and Canada, with the nine finalists (three per category) presented in the fall and the eventual winners awarded each year at the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) in Detroit. This year’s announcement changed to a separate event at the TCF Center (previously called Cobo Hall/Cobo Center) in Detroit, however, due to the NAIAS rescheduling to June 7-20, 2020.
Notably, each year nominated vehicles need be completely new, totally redesigned, or significantly refreshed, or in other words the vehicle being nominated must be something most buyers would consider entirely new or wholly different from its predecessor. Additionally, each finalist earned its top-three placement via judgment of its segment leadership, innovation, design, safety, handling, driver satisfaction, and dollar value.
This year’s selection process began in June of 2019, with vehicle eligibility chosen after three voting rounds. NACTOY chose the independent accounting firm of Deloitte LLP for tallying up all votes and then kept them secret until the organization’s President, Lauren Fix, Vice President, Chris Paukert, and Secretary-Treasurer, Kirk Bell unsealed the envelopes on stage.
Finalists in this year’s “Car” category included Chevrolet’s Corvette, Hyundai’s Sonata and Toyota’s Supra, with the winner being the new seventh-generation mid-engine Corvette, a completely reimagined car that will totally upend the premium sports car segment. Of note, it has been six years since a sports car won the Car category, so hats off to General Motors’ Chevrolet brand and its Corvette team for designing something so sensational that it couldn’t be overlooked, while both Toyota and Hyundai should also be recognized for their superb finalists.
“A mid-engine Corvette was a huge risk for Chevy’s muscle-car icon. They nailed it. Stunning styling, interior, and performance for one-third of the cost of comparable European exotics,” said The Detroit News auto critic Henry Payne.
“Utility Vehicle” finalists were all entirely new to the SUV market, and included the Hyundai Palisade, Kia Telluride and Lincoln Aviator. Most industry commentators seemed to believe that one of the two Hyundai Motor Group entries would win (the Palisade and Telluride are basically the same SUV below the metal), and as many guessed the Kia Telluride took home the honours.
“The Telluride’s interior layout and design would meet luxury SUV standards, while its refined drivetrain, confident driving dynamics and advanced technology maintain the premium experience,” commented Cox Automotive Executive Publisher Karl Brauer. “Traditional SUV brands take note: there’s a new star player on the field.”
Finally, this year’s “Truck” of the year finalists included the Ford Ranger (new to us yet available in Asian markets for years), the completely new Jeep Gladiator, and the redesigned Ram HD (Heavy Duty)2500 and 3500, with the winner being the impressive new Gladiator. We’d have to look way back to 1999 in order to find a Jeep that won its category, incidentally, with that model being the Grand Cherokee.
“What’s not to like about a pickup truck with not only a soft-top removable roof but even removable doors? If you want massive cargo-hauling capability or the ability to tow 10,000 pounds, buy something else,” said John Voelcker, an experienced automotive journalist. “The eagerly awaited Gladiator is a one-of-a-kind truck, every bit the Jeep its Wrangler sibling is … but with a pickup bed. How could you possibly get more American than that?”
NACTOY is an independent, non-profit organization, for your information, run by elected officers and funded by dues-paying journalist members.
Learn about the 2020 Chevrolet Corvette, 2020 Kia Telluride and 2020 Jeep Gladiator right here on CarCostCanada, where you can access trim, package and individual option pricing, plus rebate information and dealer invoice pricing that could save you thousands during negotiations with your local retailer. Although info about the new Corvette is not available yet, at the time of writing you could get up to $1,000 in additional incentives on the new Kia Telluride, or factory leasing and financing rates from 4.09 percent for the new Jeep Gladiator.
Jeep redesigned its popular Wrangler 4×4 for 2018, so as is usually the case for the following model year this 2019 variant remains unchanged, although the upcoming 2020 model will get a significant powertrain upgrade that may cause some who’ve never considered it before to reconsider. Interested? Keep reading.
Jeep produced the Wrangler’s JK body style from 2007 to 2017, and it’s been one of the most successful models in the entire Chrysler/FCA group since then. Now, the new 2018 to present JL version features a bigger, bolder, broader seven-slot grille, plus new optional LED reflector headlights, an ATV-like front bumper (which looks a lot like the one used for the 2016 Wrangler 75th Anniversary Edition I covered way back then) with optional LED fog lights, a shapelier hood (although not pumped up with the Anniversary Edition’s muscular power dome and blackened vents or the Rubicon’s similarly awesome hood design), restyled front fenders with new wraparound turn signals, heavily sculpted front body panels with black engine vents, new integrated side steps, fresh new rear fender flares, new wraparound taillights with optional LEDs, a new side-swinging tailgate, and a redesigned rear bumper (that’s not as cool looking as 75th Anniversary Edition’s, but definitely more attractive than the block of metal and black plastic found on the old Sahara).
While those not following everything Jeep may want to park a new JL next to the old JK in order to see the subtler differences, such as the just-noted redesigned tailgate, it’s reasonable to surmise that most of the new Wrangler’s exterior panels have been changed in order to accommodate its longer regular and long Unlimited wheelbases. Specifically, the 2019 Unlimited on this page is 89 mm (3.5 inches) longer than the old JK model, with a 61-mm (2.4-inch) longer wheelbase, while the regular wheelbase version grows in length as well. Overall, the new Wrangler appears classic and contemporary simultaneously, and even more important, it looks good.
Also critical, the new Wrangler is considerably more refined inside, with doors that shut with a solid thunk, and pliable soft-touch composite surfaces used most everywhere above the waste. The dash top and instrument panel even use some padded and contrast-stitched leatherette that matches the leather-clad steering wheel rim, plus the leatherette shifter boot and armrests, and the genuine leather seat upholstery. All the buttons, knobs and switches used through the cabin are impressive too, specifically the big audio volume and dual-zone automatic climate control knobs on the centre stack, while Jeep has improved the general quality of most materials as well as the way everything fits together.
As good as all of these changes are, the Wrangler’s gauge cluster might generate the cabin’s biggest wow factor. First, let’s be clear that it’s not a fully digital instrument panel, which would’ve probably been easier and less expensive to create, considering how two-dimensionally flat the previous four-gauge design was, and how easy it would’ve been to merely install a 12.3-inch display, fill it with graphics (not that this is simple) and call it a day. Instead, Jeep shaped two motorcycle-style individually hooded primary dials, bookended by a large colour multi-information display (MID). It looks great, and provides most of the digital tech today’s buyers are looking for, even including army green background graphics highlighted by a WW2 (Willys) GP. The tach and speedometer dials look superb in their orange on black and white design, and everything functions well.
The outgoing 6.5-inch rectangular centre touchscreen has also been replaced, but this time with a fully digital design incorporating no buttons or knobs at either side of the display. Instead, the new 8.0-inch square touchscreen offers some quick-access analogue switchgear on a cluster of dials and buttons positioned underneath, these used mostly for controlling heating and ventilation. The big dial on the very right is for scrolling or browsing through infotainment functions, and while some might find this useful I mostly tapped, swiped and pinched the touchscreen as required (sounds more exciting than it was), only making use of external controls for heating the seats and steering wheel (although you can do this via the touchscreen too), adjusting cabin temperatures (ditto), and the audio system’s volume.
The bigger display area results in a much better backup camera, which once again uses active guidelines for slotting into parking spaces, while the ability to hook up Android Auto or Apple CarPlay is a bonus. The system incorporates most other functions available these days, like accurate navigation, easy phone setup and use, audio selection that includes satellite radio and wireless streaming, and a number of apps that come preloaded or can be downloaded. The display’s resolution is quite good, but it’s not as crisp and clear as you’ll find in the majority of premium brands, and a few new mainstream competitors like Chevrolet’s Blazer.
The car-based Blazer in mind, the new Wrangler delivers its best ride quality yet. In fact, it’s now something I’d brag about, rather than complain of while rubbing the small of back and nether regions. To be clear, the JK I tested on its initial 2005 Lake Tahoe/Rubicon Trail press launch showed major ride and handling improvements when compared to its 1997 to 2006 TJ predecessor, while that SUV was wholly more comfortable than the 1987 to 1995 YJ, and so on with respect to the many CJs (Civilian Jeeps) that came before (I used to drive a V8-powered CJ5 Renegade in the early ‘80s), but this new JL-bodied Wrangler is so much nicer to live with than any of its forebears that I’d now consider owning one, something I still wouldn’t have said about the JK. The reality is I’m aging, and therefore wouldn’t be willing to be discomforted by my daily commuter. The new Wrangler, however, completely changes everything with suspension compliancy that’s matched by much-improved cornering capability, better high-speed tracking, easier manoeuvrability around town and in tight parking lots, etc. All around, this Wrangler is a much, much better SUV to live with.
This new livability includes improved rear seating, with deeper sculpted outboard positions that offer up more lower back support, while the increased wheelbase provides more second-row legroom. Three passengers continue to fit across the rear seat, although I’m going to guess only smaller folks will truly be comfortable in the middle. Also, with only two in back the centre folding armrest, incorporating two big rubberized cupholders and a personal device holder, can be lowered for even more comfort and convenience.
This said, not hollowing out a section behind that armrest for a rear-seat pass-through was an opportunity missed by Jeep, because now you’ll need to expend money for a lockable rooftop compartment for stowing longer items such as skis and snowboards, if you want two rear passengers to enjoy as much comfort as possible. This is doable, but it’s not the best solution, although this is also true for the majority of Jeep competitors.
Another complaint is the Wrangler’s swinging rear door, which remains hinged on the wrong side for North American, and most global markets. A conventional liftgate is out of the question for two reasons, 1) the removable roof, and 2) the 4×4 requirement of a full-size spare tire on its backside. What’s not required is a set of hinges on the passenger side, which means that loading the rear cargo compartment from curbside becomes awkward at best, potentially causing you to step in traffic to do so. Me complaining about this issue won’t be anything new to regular readers or those in charge of Jeep (that are listening), but it may be important to newbies considering a Wrangler for the first time.
A more positive cargo compartment issue is increased volume, the long-wheelbase Unlimited’s dedicated luggage area now increased by 18 litres (0.6 cubic feet) to 898 litres (31.7 cu ft), while maximum capacity has grown by 70 litres (2.5 cu ft) to a new grand total of 2,050 litres (72.4 cu ft) with both seatbacks laid flat. Laid flat is probably a misrepresentation, however, as there’s now an incline from the base of the seatbacks to the front portion of the extended cargo area, although another positive is the ease in which they’re now lowered, plus new panels that hide the previously exposed seat frames and other mechanical bits when laid down. These panels stop smaller items from rolling below, but these conveniences have been taken for granted by crossover SUV owners for years. Still, it’s a serious upgrade for the Wrangler, and, in my opinion, well worth the slightly uneven load floor.
At the other end of my 2019 Wrangler Unlimited Sahara tester was FCA’s 3.6-litre Pentastar V6, conjoined to an eight-speed automatic transmission and part-time four-wheel drive. While not quite as sonorous as my old CJ5’s 304 cubic-inch V8 (that included a rather loud set of aftermarket headers), the V6 produces a nice soundtrack of its own, and provides plenty of forward energy thanks to 285 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque, while the automatic transmission’s shift increments are quick and smooth.
A six-speed manual comes standard, incidentally, with the eight-speed auto tacking $1,595 onto the 2019 Wrangler Unlimited Sport S’ $40,745 (plus freight and fees) price tag, while this Unlimited Sahara starts at $44,745, and the top-line Unlimited Rubicon can be had for a retail price of $47,745 (a base two-door Wrangler S starts at $33,695). Alternatively, Wrangler buyers can pay $2,590 for a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine featuring electric assist, which makes 15 horsepower less at 270, although 35 lb-ft of torque more at 295. This upgrade is standard with the eight-speed automatic, and is claimed to achieve much better fuel economy than the V6 (see all 2018, 2019 and 2020 Jeep Wrangler prices, including trims, packages and individual options, plus manufacturer rebates and dealer invoice pricing right here on CarCostCanada, where you can now save up to $3,500 in additional incentives on a 2020, or $4,000 on a 2019).
By the numbers, the base Wrangler Unlimited’s V6 and six-speed manual combo is rated at 13.8 L/100km city, 10.1 highway and 12.2 combined, whereas the same engine with the eight-speed auto uses a claimed 12.9 city, 10.2 highway and 11.7 combined. As for the four-cylinder turbo, its 10.9 city, 10.0 highway and 10.5 combined rating is by far the best right now, but it may only hold this title for a short duration as the upcoming 2020 Wrangler will soon offer FCA’s ultra-efficient 3.0-litre V6 turbo-diesel, while it will hardly be short on output thanks to 260 horsepower and 442 pound-feet of torque. I can imagine the Wrangler’s many dedicated 4×4 fans salivating at the prospect of this engine right now, diesels long being optimal off-road, but take note it will only be available in the long-wheelbase Unlimited body, while the more off-pavement capable regular-wheelbase Wrangler will continue to only be powered by gasoline engines.
Off-roading in mind, today’s more refined Wrangler still has few direct competitors. In fact, pickup trucks aside, the Wrangler is the only serious off-roader available in the mainstream volume-branded compact class, and will likely remain so until the all-new Ford Bronco arrives on the scene. The General’s compact pickup-based Chevy Blazer and GMC Jimmy duo was killed off in 2005, while Toyota’s Land Cruiser Prado-based FJ Cruiser hightailed it out of our market in 2014. Following suit, the very capable Nissan Xterra departed in 2015, leaving the popular Wrangler alone in its unique segment.
As is only right, I tested the Wrangler Unlimited Sahara at a favourite 4×4 haunt and it performed as ideally as you might expect. In fact, all the thick mud and big pools of standing water were easy for this capable utility to muck and wade through, making me wonder if the ultra-rugged Rubicon is more than most Wrangler buyers require. Once off-pavement I slotted the secondary low gear lever into its 4H Part Time position to tackle the semi-rough stuff, which provided quick travel over less challenging terrain.
Diving deep into the big puddles and digging into some of the more abyss-like ruts caused me to stop and engage 4L (four-low), however, which made traversing all of the truly difficult terrain a breeze as well. While a decent test track considering its close proximity to my home, I’ve driven the old JK on the Rubicon Trail and other difficult courses and enjoyed both the challenge of negotiating trails I’d likely never try on my own, and doing so in such an amazingly agile 4×4, while I can only imagine how much more enjoyable it would be to scale Cadillac Hill atop the new Wrangler’s improved suspension, let alone doing so while being pushed via a turbo-diesel V6.
If all the improvements already mentioned aren’t enough to get you into the driver’s seat of a new Wrangler, this SUV makes smart business sense too. According to ALG, the Wrangler has the highest residual value of any model in Canada, with the four-door Unlimited version only dropping by an average of 30-percent after three years of use, and the two-door model only losing 31.5 percent. What’s more, the Wrangler also earned the Canadian Black Book’s 2019 Best Retained Value Award in the Compact SUV category for the ninth year in a row, while it achieved a new retained value record of 91 percent for 2019 (Jeep’s smaller car-based Renegade placed first in its Sub-Compact Crossover segment too).
What this means for those still sitting on the fence, is that Jeep’s Wrangler no longer needs any justification. It’s about having your cake and eating it too, or in other words getting what you want and making the smartest choice simultaneously. Don’t you wish all decisions were so easy?
When first hearing news that Jeep would be cancelling its boxy Patriot and keeping its somewhat sleeker Compass, I wasn’t happy. It’s not that I loved the Patriot in any great way, but it was a lot more intriguing than the first-gen Compass, at least to me, plus it provided a bit of off-road capability. In spite of my silent opposition, Jeep followed through by discontinuing the Patriot in 2017, but the totally new second-generation Compass that followed that year as a 2018 model quickly made up for any concern, thanks to much more appealing lines, a wholly upgraded interior and a significant improvement in drivetrain specs.
The first-generation Compass was actually available for a full decade, from 2006 to 2016, with just one major facelift in 2011. That’s when Jeep transformed it from its Liberty/Wrangler-esque styling roots to a much classier Grand Cherokee wannabe, at least up front, but this entirely new second-gen Compass adopts even more design cues from the since-revised and very attractive Grand Cherokee, resulting in a great looking compact crossover SUV. I can’t continue one without noting how much the rear end of this SUV looks like the new Volvo XC40, but in fairness to Jeep the shapely Compass arrived a full year before the new entry-level XC40, so therefore it’s more likely that Jeep influenced Volvo instead.
Of course, Jeep has made impressions on luxury brands before. Anyone claiming Mercedes’ G-Class (Gelandewagen) paid no homage to Jeep’s iconic CJ/Wrangler (plus Land Rover’s Series 1/11/111/Defender and Toyota’s Land Cruiser J40/70) when it arrived in 1979 isn’t being fully honest, and with respect to this new Compass, it’s not only premium in styling, but does a decent job of mimicking a compact luxury utility inside as well.
You’ll want to move up from my tester’s just-above-base North trim to a Trailhawk, Limited or High Altitude model in order to get some of the more luxurious finishings, but this second-rung example has a nicely finished cabin nonetheless. Its dash top and most of the instrument panel is soft to the touch, wrapping all the way around the infotainment touchscreen before spanning the front door uppers. The door inserts get a nice supple padded leatherette treatment too, similar to the armrests that also boast attractive cream and copper dual-tone contrast stitching to match the same on the leather-wrapped steering wheel, shifter boot, and seat upholstery.
Those seats include stylish hexagonal-pattern black fabric inserts and leatherette bolsters, plus are quite comfortable due to a good inherent design and four-way power lumbar support. Yes, you heard me right, this hardly loaded compact Jeep gets an eight-way powered driver’s seat with four-way lumbar, this latter feature not always included with some premium brands’ offerings.
The little Jeep also gets high-quality switchgear, with the standard two-zone automatic climate control system’s main dials trimmed in chrome with rubber grips, while my Compass tester included a separate HVAC interface within its upgraded 8.4-inch touchscreen that allowed me to swipe up and down for temperature settings, not to mention adjust the two-way front seat heaters and super-hot heated steering wheel rim.
The centre touchscreen provides many more functions, including plenty of entertainment choices from the usual AM/FM radio bands to HD as well as satellite radio, not to mention Bluetooth streaming audio, while the optional navigation system provided accurate route guidance and nicely detailed mapping, the standard Android Auto smartphone integration hooked up to my Samsung S9 easily (Apple CarPlay is standard too), a nice big reverse camera with active guidelines made parking a breeze, etcetera.
Yet more $29,645 Compass North trim features include 17-inch aluminum wheels wrapped in 225/60 all-season tires, automatic headlamps, fog lamps with cornering capability, body-coloured side mirrors and door handles, bright daylight opening mouldings, black roof rails, deep-tint sunscreen glass, proximity keyless entry, LED ambient interior lighting, and illuminated vanity mirrors, while features pulled up from the $26,150 base Sport model just below include an electric parking brake, pushbutton start/stop, heated and powered side mirrors, powered windows, tilt and telescopic steering, cruise control, a six-speaker audio system, an aux input and USB connectivity/charging port, a second-row USB charger, a 115-volt household-style power outlet, two 12-volt chargers, a forward folding front passenger seat, a capless fuel filler, hill start assist, tire pressure monitoring, a block heater, and the list goes on.
The previously noted eight-way powered driver’s seat is optional, as are the heated front seats and steering wheel rim, and the 1.4-inch larger 8.4-inch infotainment touchscreen with navigation, while my test model also boasted a really impressive, fully featured, high-resolution 7.0-inch digital gauge cluster between the otherwise analogue dials, a windshield wiper de-icer, rain-sensing wipers, an auto-dimming centre mirror, rear parking sonar, blindspot monitoring with rear cross-traffic warning, remote start, heavy-duty all-weather floor mats, a full-size spare tire, a Class III tow package, and more.
The standard quad-halogen headlamps can be upgraded to bi-xenon HIDs with LED signatures, while LED taillights can also be added, as can a set of 18-inch alloys on 225/55 all-season tires, an upgraded audio system with Alpine speakers, a two-pane panoramic sunroof, plus a powered liftgate, while the Compass’ convenience and safety can be enhanced by opting for adaptive cruise control with stop and go, automatic high-beam headlamp control, forward collision warning with active braking, advanced brake assist, and lane departure warning with lane keeping assist, and this is merely North trim.
You can also get the Compass in $30,940 Altitude trim, which ups the ante with glossed black 18-inch alloy wheels, yet more glossy black exterior trim including a black-painted roof, plus auto on/off headlights, nicer upholstery, a set of dual exhaust tips, and additional changes, while the $31,640 Upland model includes the 17-inch off-road alloy wheels found on the aforementioned Trailhawk model, as well as its unique front fascia, front skid plate, tow hooks, and other styling upgrades.
The full $34,145 Trailhawk model includes an off-road package with a unique raised uprated suspension setup, plus off-road tires encircling the just-mentioned 17-inch alloys, underbody skid plates, hill descent control, the previously noted 7.0-inch digital gauge cluster display and 8.4-inch centre touchscreen as standard, rain-sensing wipers, ambient-lighted cupholders, and leather upholstery.
Limited trim, which starts at $36,145, builds on the more car-like Altitude trim, adding the aforementioned remote start system, the windshield wiper de-icer, heated front seats, and heated steering wheel as standard equipment, plus it includes a 12-way power driver’s seat, whereas the top-line $38,340 High Altitude model features the HID headlights, LED taillights and navigation system as standard equipment, while also adding 19-inch wheels and tires, plus perforated leather upholstery (learn more about 2020 Jeep Compass pricing, including trims, packages and options, plus make sure to research available rebates and dealer invoice pricing that could save you thousands, right here on CarCostCanada).
No matter which trim line you choose, the 2020 Compass is quite spacious for its subcompact crossover SUV designation. It provides lots of room in the front, plus plenty of driver’s seat adjustability, with good reach from the telescopic steering column, providing me with an ideal driving position, while there’s more headroom than most anyone should ever require.
Once I’d set my driver’s seat up for my long-legged, short-torso body type, a process that forced me to slide it further back than most people measuring my five-foot-eight height would normally need to, I nevertheless had approximately six inches in front of my knees when seated directly behind in the second row. I also had about four inches above my head, plus another four next to my hips and shoulders, while the Compass includes a comfortably wide folding armrest in the middle. The window seats are comfortable with decent lower back support, and the aforementioned rear seat amenities, which also included good air circulation through vents on the backside of the front console, aided rear seat relaxation.
The luggage compartment features the usual carpeting on the floor and seatbacks, plus four chrome tie-down rings, and the usual 60/40 split-folding rear seats that grow cargo capacity from 770 litres (27.2 cubic feet) to 1,693 litres (39.8 cu ft). This is up 127 litres (4.5 cu ft) from the old version of this SUV when the seats are left in place, yet it’s 82 litres (2.9 cu ft) less accommodating when they’re laid flat.
Repositioning myself in the driver’s seat, I saw no Eco or Sport driving modes to eke out better mileage or drive the most performance from the Compass’ standard 2.4-litre Tigershark MultiAir four-cylinder engine, or for that matter its three drivetrains. The engine makes 180 horsepower and 175 lb-ft of torque, potent for its subcompact SUV segment, while fuel consumption depends on whether it’s mated up to the base front-wheel drive, six-speed manual combination (10.4 L/100km city, 7.3 highway and 9.0 combined), front-wheel drive with the six-speed auto (10.6 city, 7.6 highway and 9.3 combined), which also features auto stop/start that automatically shuts the engine off when it would otherwise be idling, or four-wheel drive with its nine-speed auto (10.8 city, 7.8 highway and 9.5 combined) that also boasts idle stop/start. Only Sport trim offers the manual, with the Sport, North and Altitude models allowing for the option of front-wheel drive with the six-speed automatic, while all trims can be had with the 4WD, nine-speed configuration, which is standard on Upland models and above.
The Compass is wonderfully fun to drive, especially when equipped with my tester’s steering wheel paddle-actuated nine-speed automatic. It’s plenty quick off the line, the little turbocharged four providing loads of torque for a good kick in the pants at launch and no slowing as speed ramps up. Fast-paced cornering is good too, while the little Compass provides a nice compliant ride even over imperfect pavement. It boasts a fully independent suspension with rear struts instead of a multi-link setup (or trailing arm), so as to allow for more travel while 4x4ing.
And it’s true, the little Compass is a reasonably good off-roader. Jeep’s Selec-Terrain drive mode system comes standard, providing Auto, Snow, Sand and Mud settings, the latter proving to be quite capable when put through its paces in a dirty, muddy, watery off-road playground near my home. I would’ve rather had a Trailhawk for such activities, its slight suspension lift and more suitable tires no doubt aiding grip while traversing more challenging obstacles, but nevertheless the Compass North crawled over some fairly difficult medium-duty trails including ankle-deep wading through a number of sizeable mud puddles, allowing me to bring it back home in one piece.
The only problem I experienced during my weeklong test had to do with its highly advanced optional nine-speed automatic gearbox, which while very smooth and quite refined in its taller ratios, plus enjoyable thanks to its sporty rev-matching capability, was sometimes far from smooth when starting out. When pressing the throttle it hesitated slightly, resulting in an uncomfortable slap in the back that was followed by a mechanical clunk when taking off.
Even worse, the Compass was my first and only test vehicle to stall when restarting from its idle stop/start mode. I was waiting at a stoplight with the engine automatically shut down, when the light turned green and, upon taking my foot off the brake nothing happened. I immediately dabbed the gas pedal to get things going, yet the engine only attempted a start before petering out while in Drive. After looking at the controls in dumbfounded dismay, I returned my foot to the brake, shifted back into Park, pushed the start button, once again shifted into Drive, and then waited too long (as if the transmission was slipping) for it to clunk into first gear before moving again. I wasn’t happy. In fact, a line of thankfully patient drivers was behind me, no doubt all wondering how this pathetic person purchased their driver’s license.
After some digging online, I learned that Jeep’s ZF-sourced nine-speed automatic has been causing myriad problems for the brand in this Compass and other models, particularly the Cherokee, going back years, and the near exact story I just told you was reiterated by a number of frustrated Compass customers on the U.S. NHTSA website, even as recently as August 2019.
The sad thing is I truly like this SUV, so therefore I don’t want to end the story with such a dire problem. After all, it’s a great looking little unit, offers up an attractive, well-made interior that’s stock full of upscale features, is priced quite well, is wonderfully practical, and thoroughly enjoyable to drive (when the transmission works properly). I can easily recommend its manual and six-speed automatic front-wheel drive trims, but until I’ve spent some time in a couple of trouble-free testers I hesitate as much as this test car’s nine-speed automatic when recommending one of its pricier models.