A Week with the 2017 Jeep Compass Trailhawk

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JK-Forum takes the most hardcore version of the all-new 2017 Jeep Compass down the roads and up the trails of the Texas Hill Country.

If you take a look around you on a Saturday morning at the Hidden Falls Adventure Park in Marble Falls, Texas, you’d think it’s exclusively visited by Jeep Wrangler owners. Convoys of them are common sights on the tree-lined paths that wind through the 3,000-acre off-road playground. But if you looked closely one Saturday morning in June, you would’ve seen a small group of Jeeps that were definitely not Wranglers climbing its way over the challenges of the sunlit terrain. One of them was the redesigned and re-engineered 2017 Jeep Compass Trailhawk.

I had driven a 2017 Compass Limited and Trailhawk for a few hours on- and off-road during the Compass media launch back in February. It was an educational experience and motivated me to lock down a Compass Trailhawk to test for an entire week for two reasons. I wanted to shake it down on the highway for as many miles as possible. Most importantly, I wanted to see what the Trailhawk could do in a natural, random off-road environment that Jeep didn’t carefully plan and design to make it look its absolute calculated best. A few of the members of Austin JeepPeople (AJP) were kind enough to meet me out at the park to go wheeling with me. One of them brought his wife and a white Hemi-powered Grand Cherokee Overland with a front winch and knobby tires, another guy showed up in his black and white Renegade Trailhawk equipped with a winch/stinger combo, and the third Jeep owner was ready to go in his Anvil gray Renegade Trailhawk with upgraded rubber. We were in command of a small group of Jeeps, none of which were a Wrangler or XJ Cherokee. In my mind, we were the “Other Guys.”

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My new friends familiarized themselves with the Compass Trailhawk, walking around it, peering inside, drawing comparisons between its interior layout and that of the Renegade. My test vehicle was fitted with thousands of dollars of options, including the rain-sensing wipers, rear parking sensors, and blind spot and cross path detection of the $795 Safety and Security Group; the leather seats (8-way power for the driver and heat and 4-way power lumbar adjustment for both front seats) and heated steering wheel of the $1,295 Leather Interior Group; and the 8.4-inch touchscreen, GPS, fourth-generation Uconnect, and SiriusXM Travel Link/Traffic Plus of the $895 Navigation Group. Just as the Trailhawk name did, the interior’s design did a great job of unifying the Compass with some of its Jeep siblings, making the Compass into another model that shows the new look of Jeep to the world. Road and wind noise were at noticeable but not excessive levels. Rear seat room was surprisingly abundant.

That was definitely not the case with power from the Compass’ 2.4-liter Tigershark Multiair I4. I gave it every chance I could think of during its media launch to show me the faintest sign of enthusiasm. It blew every one of them – from a dead stop, from a rolling stop, in manual mode. It didn’t matter. During my week with the Compass Trailhawk, I gave the 180-horsepower/175-lb-ft power plant even more opportunities to show me it could do more than just groan and drag its rubber feet. Power delivery was linear and as smooth as the shifts from the 9-speed automatic, but it never built to any satisfying conclusion. Picture waiting in line at a poorly run and staffed business. No matter how much of a hurry you’re in, the employees will assist you when they’re good and ready – which is not any time soon. When you finally get to the counter, the sloth in a polo behind it can barely disguise their boredom and disregard for your plight when they tell you you need a form that you left at your house. That’s what it’s like putting your foot down in the Compass Trailhawk.

It was a disappointment for more than just the obvious reasons. The Tigershark was also a letdown because it was such a glaring inadequacy – a major one – in what was otherwise an attractive package. The Compass Trailhawk is a handsome vehicle with decent fuel economy (30 highway mpg) and a great range of available equipment (including the Advanced Brake Assist and Full-Speed Forward Collision Warning with Active Braking+ of the Advanced Safety & Lighting Group). I can see the Compass appealing to a lot of people. Jeep got so many things right with it. The engine is not one of them.

Fortunately, the Compass matched its engine’s weakness with the strength of its off-road abilities. Given the facts that I was in a press vehicle with less-than-Wrangler capabilities and that all but one of my new friends was in a Renegade, I made sure that we took trails that were within the first three difficulty levels of the five that Hidden Falls offers. I knew it was going to be fun, though. The AJP guys drove to parts of the park that I had never taken on before. One of those was a collection of uphill runs separated by strips of greenery. It was time to put the Jeep Active Drive Low system into action. With one of the Renegade Trailhawk drivers riding shotgun, I pushed the 4WD LOW button and turned a dial to engage the Selec-Terrain system’s Rock mode. I approached the bottom of the incline, straightened the wheel, and gassed it. Near the peak, the right pedal almost flattened against the floor, I could feel the Tigershark running out of steam. I pictured having to slide to a rest a few feet below and trying to get to the top again. My unmoving right foot eventually got the two of us to the summit. The Tigershark may have been a disappointment on pavement, but it pulled through for me on dirt.

Given that the rest of the people in my group had lived with and learned from their vehicles for several months, if not years, I knew they were going to be more adventurous than I was in the Jeep that FCA loaned me. Because of that, I had a feeling we would encounter an obstacle the Compass couldn’t overcome in its first attempt, a dip that would use up all of its 30.3-degree approach or 33.6-degree departure angle, or a rock that would cause one of the Trailhawk’s four underbody skid plates to metallically shriek in pain. My gut was wrong. The Trailhawk flew over everything. At one point during the day, I pointed the nose of the Compass toward a muddy valley, determined to make the descent, force the Trailhawk to claw through the muck, and climb to the top of the other side. One of the Other Guys had concerns about the Trailhawk making it up. He wasn’t the only one. My momentum was going to be everything, so I gave it everything. Mud mode engaged, I kept my right foot down on the gas. A little wiggle and earth spray later and I reached my destination.

Before we headed to a campground area for lunch, we ventured to another part of the park I had never treaded on. One of the Renegade owners got out of his Jeep and motioned to me to creep closer and closer to him. Once I got the signal to stop, I jumped out of the Compass. All of us had parked right at the rocky edge of a waterfall. We walked down a curved path on the right and eventually got to flat land. We looked at the vehicles above us, their 7-slot grilles jutting proudly forward as the water trickled into the pool below them. They looked heroic up there, having cleared, clambered, and conquered their ways to those glorious spots on that sunlit natural podium.

The Compass Trailhawk’s lack of under-the-hood power didn’t keep me from running with the rest of the group and getting up and over the obstacles we encountered. It was hard to be disappointed with the well-equipped junior Jeep after the fun I’d had in it. I may have been one of the Other Guys, but I didn’t think that my experience that day was different from that of anyone else at Hidden Falls. I had great company around, a blue sky above, a Jeep badge in front of, and miles of unforgettable times behind me.

*Photography assistance provided by Bryan from New Car Spin.

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Derek Shiekhi's father raised him on cars. As a boy, Derek accompanied his dad as he bought classics such as post-WWII GM trucks and early Ford Mustang convertibles.

After loving cars for years and getting a bachelor's degree in Business Management, Derek decided to get an associate degree in journalism. His networking put him in contact with the editor of the Austin-American Statesman newspaper, who hired him to write freelance about automotive culture and events in Austin, Texas in 2013. One particular story led to him getting a certificate for learning the foundations of road racing.

While watching TV with his parents one fateful evening, he saw a commercial that changed his life. In it, Jeep touted the Wrangler as the Texas Auto Writers Association's "SUV of Texas." Derek knew he had to join the organization if he was going to advance as an automotive writer. He joined the Texas Auto Writers Association (TAWA) in 2014 and was fortunate to meet several nice people who connected him to the representatives of several automakers and the people who could give him access to press vehicles (the first one he ever got the keys to was a Lexus LX 570). He's now a regular at TAWA's two main events: the Texas Auto Roundup in the spring and the Texas Truck Rodeo in the fall.

Over the past several years, Derek has learned how to drive off-road in various four-wheel-drive SUVs (he even camped out for two nights in a Land Rover), and driven around various tracks in hot hatches, muscle cars, and exotics. Several of his pieces, including his article about the 2015 Ford F-150 being crowned TAWA's 2014 "Truck of Texas" and his review of the Alfa Romeo 4C Spider, have won awards in TAWA's annual Excellence in Craft Competition. Last year, his JK Forum profile of Wagonmaster, a business that restores Jeep Wagoneers, won prizes in TAWA’s signature writing contest and its pickup- and SUV-focused Texas Truck Invitational.

In addition to writing for a variety of Internet Brands sites, including JK Forum, H-D Forums, The Mustang Source, Mustang Forums, LS1Tech, HondaTech, Jaguar Forums, YotaTech, and Ford Truck Enthusiasts. Derek also started There Will Be Cars on Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube.

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