It's one of the oldest jokes around. Brainy but ugly old university professor to pretty young blonde: “Why don't we make babies together? With my brains and your looks, they'd conquer the world one day.” Pretty young (and obviously not so dumb) blonde to university professor: “But what happens if they end up with my brains and your looks?”.
That's the thing about unlikely liaisons between two dissimilar parties – you never quite know what the results are going to be like. I was reminded of that when I received an invitation from Fiat's UK operation to try the latest version of the Compass, the smallest car to carry a Jeep badge. The Italian company has been the strategic partner of Jeep's parent company Chrysler since it took part in the faded US giant's rescue from Chapter 11 almost two years ago but it's still quite difficult to get used to the idea that these two rather different groups are now on the same team. Fiat stands for appealing small cars, and, through its other brands, which include Lancia and Alfa, Italian style. Chrysler though, represents the American mainstream, while Jeep is the longest-established name in the off-road business. It doesn't take a genius to work out that combining these Italian and American companies' characteristics could produce some very capable and interesting cars on the one hand or some complete duffers on the other, depending on how well the process is managed.
Given the long gestation period of the average new car programme, though, that's an issue for the future. The changes to the revised Compass don't show much in the way of Fiatisation at all. In fact there's more evidence in this car of continuing links to Chrysler's former partner and parent, Daimler, because the Compass' diesel engines come from Mercedes, which is no bad thing – although Fiat played a big role in developing the common rail technology that makes them such effective performers.
So how exactly has the Compass been changed? Most obviously in terms of its frontal styling, which is now completely different. In place of the odd bug-eyed, round-headlamped look of the old Compass, this one has a handsome face that resembles that of the latest Grand Cherokee. It looks infinitely better. There are smaller styling tweaks all around the car as well, but it's the new nose that represents the main story. Another big change; the Compass is available in two-wheel drive form in Europe for the first time. Several manufacturers such as BMW and Kia have been offering versions of their SUVs without all-wheel drive for some time now but that's a step that's been far harder to take for Land Rover and Jeep, which built their reputations on extreme off-road performance. Land Rover recently finally decided to offer the Freelander in front-wheel drive form and now Jeep has followed suit with the Compass. Like Land Rover, Jeep is insisting that its 2WD cars still retain a good measure of off-road ability; I didn't have a chance to put this to the test, but it seems plausible as cross-country performance doesn't just rely on four-wheel drive but also on other factors such as ground clearance, the right choice of tyres and the toughening up or water-proofing of certain components.
I tried the 2.2 litre CRD diesel with four-wheel drive and a manual gearbox. The other options are a 2-litre 2WD manual petrol, a 2.2 CRD with 134 horsepower and 2WD (the diesel fitted to 4WD versions has 161 horsepower) and a 2.4 litre 4x4 petrol with a continuously variable automatic transmission. Prices range from £16,995 to £23,995 for a special limited edition 2.2 diesel 4x4 model intended to cash in on Jeep's seventieth birthday this year. That's pretty keen compared with rivals such as Ford's Kuga or Volkswagen's Tiguan, especially when you consider that the Compass is also pretty well equipped.
On the road, the Compass does OK – the diesel gives strong and refined performance, with perhaps just a little less polish than some others, and this car feels much more like its wieldy European rivals than the American off-road barges of old. What really lifts the Compass from the pack, though, isn't, frankly, the way it goes, but the unbeatable prestige, for an off-roader at least, of its Jeep badge and all that goes with it. The latest styling changes, by identifying the baby of the range more strongly in visual terms with Jeep's biggest, toughest models, only amplify the effect. It seems to work. Perhaps that's the lesson of the Compass. Don't make a Jeep more like a Fiat - just make a Jeep more like a Jeep.
Top speed: 125 mph
Acceleration: 0-62 mph in 9.8 seconds
Fuel consumption: 47.9 mpg
CO2 emissions: 172g/km
Price: Compass range from £16,995, 2.2 CRD £23,595