2018 Jeep Compass Trailhawk Review: From Rental Car to Off-Road Star

The Jeep Compass gets a lot of flak for not being a "real" Jeep. The Trailhawk is here for the haters.

Welcome to Critic's Notebook, a quick and off-the-cuff car review of whatever The Drive staff happens to be driving. Today's edition: the 2018 Jeep Compass Trailhawk.

The 2018 Jeep Compass Trailhawk, By the Numbers

  • Base Price (as Tested): $28,695 ($35,110)
  • Powertrain: 2.4-liter inline-four cylinder engine; 180 horsepower, 175 pound-feet of torque; nine-speed automatic transmission; all-wheel-drive
  • Ground Clearance: 8.5 inches
  • Off-Road Angles: 30.3° approach / 24.4° breakover / 33.6° departure
  • EPA Fuel Economy: 22 mpg city / 30 mpg highway
  • 0-60 MPH: 8.9 seconds (Car & Driver testing)
  • Cargo Space: 27 cubic feet, 60 cubes with the rear seats folded
  • Quick Take: The diminutive Compass Trailhawk wants desperately to be a real Jeep—and surprisingly, it's damn close.
Kyle Cheromcha

One Big Question: Can the Jeep Compass Trailhawk live up to the brand's high off-road expectations?

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I forgot about the rut. I'd done this hill at California's Hungry Valley off-road park before, most recently in a galumphing Toyota Land Cruiser, but the axle-swallowing hole just over its tilted crest is out of sight and out of mind as I nose the 2018 Jeep Compass Trailhawk to the mound's crumbling base. The ascent is pockmarked with rocks and small craters; it's not what anyone would call a steep climb, but the degraded surface requires consistent forward progress and a steady hand in something small like the Compass.

I start up, the little Jeep devouring the moonscape as it had done all day. But near the top, its limited articulation forces an angry wheel into the air several times, each carry costing precious momentum as the trucklet's all-wheel-drive system halts power to the flying Falkens and sorts itself out. There's no backing off the throttle in these moments. Eventually, the Trailhawk manages to put four patches of rubber on the ground near the top and claw its way to glory. I'm feeling good...except, I'm also feeling the cabin tipping more than it shou—WHAM!!

Kyle Cheromcha

When I came over the crest, I had inadvertently lined up my passenger-side tire with the miniature black hole lying in wait, and I didn't let off the gas in time to stop. Fortunately it wasn't big enough to catch the entire front end of the Compass—but it sucked up the whole 17-inch front wheel, which dangled freely in the pit for a split second as the full weight of the Jeep came down on the underside of its front bumper and the rocker panel behind it. That would be the earth-tilting WHAM.

But before I can process any of that (let alone my poor passengers, whom I had assured not two minutes ago that the Jeep could totally manage this climb), our momentum forces the front wheel out of its apparent grave and carries us to a level finish. I'm convinced something must be broken, but there are no warning lights on the dash, and the Trailhawk feels as normal as anything can off-piste. When we pull off the path and get out to double check, I'm amazed to find the sum total of the damage: a quarter-inch chip on the bumper's plastic underside. This thing can, in fact, take a beating.

The Jeep Compass is not the first name in off-roading, nor the second, nor even the tenth. Its mere existence deeply bothers Jeep loyalists, who see its car-based platform and soft edges and front-wheel-drive (on lesser models) as heretical to their creed. They had a point with the mediocre first version—despite the fact that the Compass has always been a volume seller whose market success has helped Jeep tremendously from a financial standpoint. But there's less to complain about with the recently-launched second generation, especially when it comes to the off-road-focused Compass Trailhawk.

You'll notice the name "Rubicon" appears nowhere here, since the Compass would fail spectacularly on the famed rock-crawling trail that Jeep uses to pump up stock Wranglers. It's still a unibody crossover with independent suspension and limited articulation. However, the Jeep Compass Trailhawk pushes its platform to the edge, with a factory lift kit, four skid plates, off-road bumpers and tires, and a terrain-adjustable AWD system with a "low range" crawling gear. It's one of the few small crossovers out there that offers any sort of real 4x4 capability. Does that make it a real Jeep? And at $35,000, does it make sense to buy one over, y'know...a real Jeep?

2018 Jeep Compass Trailhawk: The Pros

  • Let's get right to the good stuff. Outside of situations where the sheer physics of a boulder-strewn trail or deep mud bog defeat the Compass Trailhawk before it even starts, the little CUV is nigh-unstoppable off-road thanks to its excellent AWD system, generous ground clearance, and yawning approach and departure angles. (Those skid plates, protecting the engine, transmission, and fuel tank, certainly come in handy.) Thrown into a variety of tilting descents, desert washes, and yes, even a little mud at Hungry Valley, the Jeep proved its rugged guise is more than an act. It's the eager kid to the Wrangler's mountain goat—not as strong or graceful, but more than able to clamber along with a determined attitude and a good head of steam. 
  • The "Jeep Active Drive Low" AWD on the Trailhawk is about as close as you can get to a real four-wheel-drive system in any crossover short of maybe the Range Rover Velar. It primarily runs in front-wheel drive mode on pavement, but depending on the Selec-Terrain mode you choose, it can send 100 percent of the engine's power to any single wheel. There's also brake-based torque vectoring, and a lock button to hold the power split at 50/50 front-to-back. But Active Drive Low has one more trick up its sleeve: First gear in the nine-speed transmission has been reprogrammed to act like proper low-range and boasts a 20:1 crawl ratio (the gearbox starts in second under normal driving). It's the rare front-drive-biased system that's invisible on the road, yet unstoppable off it.
Kyle Cheromcha
  • Jeep's finally developed its modern design language to a comfortable place, and this generation of the Compass is leagues above the late-Aughts stagnation seen everywhere on its predecessor. It still carries a whiff of compromise on lower trims—the low air dam is a personal bugaboo—but the Compass Trailhawk finally makes the little guy look like a proper Jeep. The half-inch suspension lift is enough to give it an noticeably tall stance, and the front off-road bumper and red tow hooks are a fine statement of purpose. And as I discovered, that plastic cladding isn't just for show. 
  • The raised suspension coupled with the grippy all-terrain Falken tires gives the Compass Trailhawk a decidedly trucky ride on pavement, something I genuinely appreciated. There's a bit of bounce on crumbling roads, enough to give it character but not enough to detract from the driving experience—consider its rougher feel the SUV equivalent of engineers programming old-school crackles into a new sports car's exhaust. It helps that as optioned, the inside was surprisingly comfortable for a cheap(er) Jeep; the leather seats, panoramic sunroof, and 8.4-inch Uconnect screen were all appreciated.
Kyle Cheromcha
  • This Jeep might not be for the every-weekend off-roader, but it still belongs to that special class of vehicles capable of launching you headfirst into this great, wild country of ours. I'll do my best to dance around car commercial cliches here; the Compass Trailhawk is an excellent tool for casual exploration, the kind of let's-see-where-this-dirt-road-heads spontaneity that can open the door to a greater appreciation of the natural world around us. It's true that there are plenty of decent 4x4s out there, yet few offer the combo of small car convenience and remarkable capability found here.

2018 Jeep Compass Trailhawk: The Cons

  • As impressive as the Jeep Compass Trailhawk can be off-road, its on-pavement manners are equally miserable at points. The handling isn't the issue, even though some may not find its wandering ways on the highway as endearing as I did. No, it's the fact that the 3,600-pound Compass only comes with the same 2.4-liter four-cylinder available the smaller Renegade. Acceleration from 0-60 miles per hour clocks in at a pokey 8.9 seconds, and the 19 mpg I scored over a week of mixed driving confirms that naturally-aspirated engine is overworked most of the time. The nine-speed transmission is a common source of complaints in other reviews; I found it fine, if I could bring myself to be patient, but it was easily confused with an aggressive poke. 
  • I can write that the Compass Trailhawk is a real Jeep a thousand times like I'm Bart Simpson at the chalkboard, but there are some sticking points that will forever define it in the eyes of some loyalists. The idea that a tall hatchback like this would ever ride on solid axles is laughable. Yet articulation is severely limited; observe the painful flex photos below. I'd like to see more suspension travel in a model that's ostensibly supposed to represent all Jeep can do with the platform—which again, is simply a stretched Renegade one. 
  • Size-wise, the Compass occupies an odd place in the market. It's about nine inches shorter than the Jeep Cherokee tip to tail, which means it falls below the mainstream compact SUV market and doesn't really compete with family haulers like the Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V, or Subaru Forester. Honestly, its closest analog might be the Subaru Crosstrek—a lifted, hatchback-looking thing with cool wheels and a sense of adventure. Its in-betweener size apparently hasn't slowed sales, but it does slow things down on the trail. It's a little too big to really scamper around (it's actually a couple inches longer than an old XJ Cherokee), but too small and too low to conquer crazier obstacles.
  • And let's face it: Most of those Compass sales haven't been Trailhawks. Jeep doesn't release numbers for individual trims, but I have to imagine the Trailhawk represents a small fraction of those multitudes sold. The idea of a capable off-road truck isn't niche; building one out of a small crossover, however, is. If a weekend adventurer plans to drop $35,000 on their trusty steed, why not get something bigger and tougher like a Toyota 4Runner or a Chevrolet Colorado for the same money? Or to bring the fight closer to home: Why not just get a Jeep Wrangler, which at $28,045 actually starts below the base Compass Trailhawk?

2018 Jeep Compass Trailhawk: Value

Ultimately, the Jeep Compass Trailhawk delivers on its promise to elevate the model from rental car status to a legit off-roader that can carry the Jeep name with confidence. But that last question sticks in my mind. When you can buy a 2018 Jeep Wrangler Sport S that offers much of the same equipment in a far more capable (and let's face it, cooler) package at $35K, it's hard to recommend the Compass Trailhawk as a tool for exploration unless you're desperately seeking that four-door, car-based-SUV form.

Further complicating things is the fact that the Subaru Crosstrek starts way down in the low-$20,000 range, though it can't be spec'd out to the same level of off-road preparation as the Jeep. Those accoutrements do make it a better choice than the Subie off-road, but if all you're looking for is all-wheel-drive and a little lift, you might want to consider sliding down the model range to a Compass Latitude, starting at under $25,000. No red tow hooks for you, though.

Kyle Cheromcha

2018 Jeep Compass Trailhawk: The Bottom Line

I happened to be at Hungry Valley on the same day as a large Jeep gathering put on by 4 Wheel Parts, a big off-road parts retailer. Thankfully none of them were watching as I slammed the Jeep's front end into the dusty earth, and afterwards, I wondered how that crowd would have reacted to the sight of the Compass Trailhawk meeting its match. Would there be peals of laughter at the dumb little Fiat getting briefly hung up? Or would they have cheered on someone actually pushing the capable crossover to its max? Tough to say, really. 

It speaks to the confusion I felt as I tried to settle on a verdict for the Jeep Compass Trailhawk. It offers everything that "Trail Rated" badge purports to represent off road...right up until the point where its physical limitations become painfully clear. I really liked it, but I'm not sure who's supposed to buy it. It's certainly not for hardcore Jeepers, and as equipped, it's not quite the bargain adventurer when stacked up against the competition. If the regular Compass model exists to lure in casual buyers with a seven-slat grille and the brand's strong heritage, then the Trailhawk mainly exists to show them that yes, their new Jeep is spiritually a real Jeep.

But hey, you'd hear more complaints from me if a company that stakes its name on off-road capability didn't even try something like this with every model they've got. The Jeep Compass Trailhawk doesn't need to make much sense—it just needs to exist, and I'm mighty glad it does.

Kyle Cheromcha
Kyle Cheromcha
Kyle Cheromcha
Kyle Cheromcha