The next generation of Fiat Chrysler's (FCAU) - Get Fiat Chrysler Automobiles N.V. Report Jeep Compass arrives at U.S. dealers in late March, the next step in the automaker's four-year campaign to double Jeep sales worldwide.
Jeep's goal for 2 million in sales 2018, set in 2014 by the automaker's CEO Sergio Marchionne, could be difficult to accomplish. After five straight years of increases, Jeep sales reached 1.4 million last year.
But Fiat Chrysler has been juggling assembly lines and adding factory capacity around the world, including a massive plant in Brazil and a small one about to open in India. The idea has been to optimize Jeep, taking advantage of the worldwide SUV trend and strengthening the brand's already substantial image.
The new Compass is being built at an Fiat Chrysler plant in Toluca, Mexico. Marchionne has attended auto industry meetings with President Donald Trump, who has criticized Mexican vehicle exports to the U.S., and presumably explained the critical interdependency of operations in several countries.
"The reality is the Mexican automotive industry has now for a number of years been tooled-up to try and deal with the U.S. market. If the U.S. market were not to be there, the reasons for its existence are on the line," Marchionne told Reuters in early January.
Journalists have been driving Compass in Texas and have awarded it respectful reviews. Erick Ayapana of Motor Trend concluded that it will be a "standout" in the compact SUV segment that includes Honda's (HMC) - Get Honda Motor Co., Ltd. Sponsored ADR Report CR-V, Toyota's (TM) - Get Toyota Motor Corp. Sponsored ADR Report RAV4, General Motors' (GM) - Get General Motors Company (GM) Report Chevrolet Equinox and Ford's (F) - Get Ford Motor Company Report Escape -- as well as Jeep Cherokee, Jeep Wrangler and the soon-to-be discontinued Jeep Patriot.
Slightly larger than the Jeep Renegade, Compass, starting at $22,000, is built on the same architecture, shared with the Fiat 500X as well. The vehicle is powered by a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine, with a choice of three transmissions, including a nine-speed used for the all-wheel-drive version.
The Compass 44 with the nine-speed automatic achieves fairly good fuel economy with an EPA rating of 22/30 mpg city/highway, about 1 mpg better than a similar Renegade.
The vehicle is deliberately styled to look like a junior version of Jeep's larger and fancier Grand Cherokee, and can be ordered with a black roof that sends hints of the much more expensive Land Rover brand. One of the coolest tech features is a new generation of FCA's Uconnect infotainment system with a pinch-and-expand screen that gives it the feel of a smartphone.
Few CEOS could have pulled off what Marchionne has done so far, growing a highly leveraged global automaker comprised of a few weak brands and one magnificently powerful one: Jeep.
Doron Levin is the host of "In the Driver Seat," broadcast on SiriusXM Insight 121, Saturday at noon, encore Sunday at 9 a.m.
This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.