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2017 Jeep Compass first look: Where does the compact crossover fit?

Starting at $28,595, the off-road ready Jeep Compass Trailhawk is a 4×4 with a one-inch lift, 8.5-inch ground clearance, a disconnecting rear axle and a 9-speed automatic transmission. A six-speed manual is available.

The compact crossover is now the best-selling segment in the U.S. For the first time, the Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V, Nissan Rogue are the best-selling models in their respective brands. Automakers are making so many crossovers and SUVs, with at least four but up to six crossover models within a lineup, the market is oversaturated. Most of these tall hatchbacks don’t much standout from each other.

That’s why Jeep merged two compact crossovers in the Compass and Patriot into one all-new 2017 Jeep Compass.

The Compass is Jeep’s go-to global vehicle and as such, may be the most impactful crossover in their lineup. Manufactured in four countries and sold in 100, it uses parent company Fiat Chrysler Automobile’s small wide architecture shared by both the Jeep Renegade and the Fiat 500x, which are both considered subcompact crossovers. The Compass is 2.6 inches longer than the Renegade.

On the inside, it shares parts with the midsize Jeep Cherokee. It gets a new available 8.4-inch touch screen with hexagonal icons and clearer, sharper display. On the outside, it’s meant to look like a smaller Grand Cherokee, the brand’s best-seller that sits at the large end of the Jeep crossover spectrum.

While its goal is global, its target is millennials prepping for families or boomers ready to downsize, said Kim Japinga, Jeep brand manager, at a Thursday meeting with the Midwest Automotive Media Association.

We didn’t get to drive the Compasses on display but we did get to play with the controls and take a deeper dive than when it was launched at the 2016 Los Angeles Auto Show.

The four trim levels share the familiar seven slotted grille, though the slots have gotten wider, less vertical than the founding Jeep grille. It has the black cladding on the rockers and wheel wells like the Grand Cherokee (and Subaru Outback), and shares the same lighting, a deliberate attempt to separate it from the narrow, hawklike headlights of the midsize Jeep Cherokee.

It looks like a Jeep, which people like. Jeep has been in the right place at the right time during the global boom for crossovers. In 2016, Jeep sales were up 13 percent globally (6 percent in the U.S.), the seventh consecutive year of growth. It may be the brand keeping FCA afloat.

The iconic American brand known for rough-and-tumble Wranglers has retained the reputation of being off-road ready throughout its growing product line of crossovers, thanks in part to the trail-rated Trailhawk designation. The 2017 Compass gets Trailhawked, replete with red tow hooks front and rear, as well as a Gloss-black roof that complements the black cladding on the lower part of the car.

The Compass starts at $20,995, which is about $2,000 more than the Renegade and $2,000 less than the Cherokee. The Compass Trailhawk starts at $28,595.

All Compass get the underwhelming, puttering but efficient 2.4-liter Tigershark engine, but there are three available transmissions, including a 6-speed manual, and a 9-speed automatic available only on 4×4 models.

There are also two 4×4 systems available on all four models; Active Drive optimizes fuel economy and Active Drive Low best attacks off-road trails. All models comes with Selec-Speed Control, which is the dial on the console that lets you toggle between auto, snow, sand, and mud modes. Trailhawk gets rock mode as well.

The Trailhawk comes as a 4×4 only, and has a one-inch lift for more room in the wells of the standard 17-inch wheels, a ground clearance of 8.5 inches (8.2 inches in other Compass), and a disconnecting rear axle, which means that it will default to front drive for efficiency until the system notices slippage or some need for 4×4. The driver doesn’t need to do anything except drive. The 9-speed automatic is included in the Trailhawk. It can ford up to 19 inches of water and tow 2,000 pounds, according to Jeep, and rides higher than the Subaru Outback. Jeep calls it the most off-road capable compact crossover available.

Many compact crossovers pretend to some off-roading elements, but the Compass Trailhawk should deliver, based on our drive experiences with Trailhawk trims on other Jeeps. And the other Compass models have bona fide off-road design in their DNA for most off-road applications.

That’s enough to make it stand out and steamroll the homogenous compact crossover competition.