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At Zion National Park in Utah, the day had dawned grisly with howling winds, blowing snow and icy roads. But Mrs. Payne and I had planned a day trip to Bryce Canyon on the other side of Zion canyon’s snowy cliff tops.

“What’s Route 9 like over to Bryce?” I asked a snowplow driver after rolling down my window. The twisted, mountainous two-lane is the only way to get there.

“No problem. You’ve got a Jeep,” came the reply.

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On that kind of confidence Jeep has built one of the most recognized brands on the planet. Beginning with the rock-climbing, terrain-shredding Wrangler, Jeep fields a juggernaut of SUVs perfectly timed for the market’s embrace of all things ute. Every Jeep carries the Wrangler’s DNA, right down to the compact Compass Trailhawk I had acquired for a weekend trip from Vegas into the rocky outback of southern Utah.

The Compass, new in 2017, is part of a Jeep strategy to expand its empire beyond the core Wrangler and Grand Cherokee fan base and into entry-level buyers. Much like Honda hooks customers with  the Fit, Civic and HR-V starters, Jeep has flooded the market with its own compact trifecta — the Renegade, Compass and Cherokee.

My trip from the valley of sin to the summit of snow would be a test of whether Compass is a worthy gateway drug.

First impressions are dynamite.

I like the rebellious Jeep Renegade, but at some point you’ll grow out of it. Eventually your tastes lean from your baseball card collection to grown-up things like art galleries and nice cafes and Grand Cherokees. The Compass’ conservative body, thin headlights and seven-slot grille echo the family patriarch Grand Cherokee.

Budget-conscious shoppers will opt for the Latitude trim. It comes with the typically robust Jeep all-wheel drive that throws torque to whichever wheel needs it most and handles all the nasty weather you'll find. But the heart isn’t always sensible.

I am a sucker for the Trailhawk trim with its blacked-out hood and roof, two-inch suspension lift, front-and-aft tow hooks and knobby Falken tires. Dress it in Spitfire Orange and my knees turn to jelly.

This beast oozes Jeep authenticity and vaults it above mere-mortal brands. Never mind that the Compass is tattooed with non-functional design touches like a fake seven-slot grille (for enhanced aerodynamics, the engine is fed by a lower intake).

This is the Jeep Wrangler that everyone always wanted as their first car — but without the compromises of rough, noisy ride.

The Trailhawk can go just about anywhere with its impressive front departure-angle, four skid plate and four-wheel drive lock and crawl modes. And I rarely resisted the temptation.

I turned off Interstate 15 from Vegas-to-Zion to test the Jeep’s capabilities in deep snow, dirt and rocky terrain until my wife finally told me to stick to the asphalt if we were going to arrive at the hotel before next week.

I relented, but not before discovering that wet sand (the Southwest is essentially a big, red sandbox) is the most diabolical terrain. Stop moving and it would swallow the tires like quicksand.

Back on asphalt, the Compass is at its most mediocre.

Despite its marriage to a modern nine-speed tranny, the 2.4-liter engine is a dog. Mash the pedal to the floor to pass traffic, and the world seems to slow down as the four-banger labors to pick up steam. Snails have better acceleration. I raced a desert tortoise out of a Utah stoplight and the tortoise won.

Once up to speed I longed for adaptive cruise-control that is common now on competitors like Subaru, Honda and Toyota. My wife’s $28,000 Subaru Impreza hatchback, for example, comes standard with adaptive cruise and blind-spot assist. As does a $20,000 Toyota Corolla. Not my $35,000 Compass.

Happily, there are cabin features to forgive these shortcomings. Beginning with the best-in-auto uConnect touchscreen infotainment system which benefits most Fiat Chrysler products including Ram, Dodge, even Maserati.

It’s intuitive, quick, easy to navigate — and works with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone apps. In the vast Southwest, navigation is essential, yet the apps mean you get Google Maps navigation that you know and love without having to pay $1,195 for Fiat Chrysler's inferior navigation system. Within moments of climbing aboard, Mrs. Payne had our route mapped.

Forgiveness abounds. The console is tight on storage, in part because of the unique terrain mode dial with settings for snow, sand, mud, rock and Mars (I made that last one up).

The automatic door locks make a violent sound — WHAP! — when the gearshift moves from park to drive. But inside, accommodations are roomy and your giraffe-sized reviewer could comfortably sit behind himself in the rear seat.

Even the milquetoast engine is forgiven when churning across Route 9 to Bryce in near white-out conditions.

The Compass clawed up Zion’s ice-caked roads without putting a foot wrong. Such competence makes you acutely aware that the danger is not the road but other people on it. States might consider requiring driver’s license tests be conducted in the winter, because I swear many of us have no idea how to drive in snow.

Our path was littered with creative ways to crash at 30 miles per hour and less. In Zion Park, a Cadillac CTS zigged when he should have zagged and T-boned a hapless Toyota Camry that had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In a Route 9 tunnel, a Honda CR-Z pinballed from one wall to the other, breaking its front suspension. In Bryce, a Chevy Cruze pilot miscalculated a 15-mile-per-hour left turn and beached himself in a snowbank.

Common to all these accidents was the drivers’ faith that a car will steer on slick roads as it does on dry. It won’t. It will plow straight ahead. The Compass is no exception. But steer gingerly into a slick bend, then apply throttle on exit and the ute grips like a Rottweiler on a postman’s leg.

Should any of the aforementioned projectiles have come the Compass’ way, I’m confident its traction and brakes would have been up to the task of avoiding them.

Fortunately, about half the vehicles in Utah are capable pickups. And half of the other 50 percent are Jeeps.

A wise choice. Just ask a snowplow driver.

Jeep Compass 

Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel drive, five-passenger crossover

Price: $23,340 base, including $1,495 destination fee ($35,160 Trailhawk 4x4 as tested) 

Powerplant: 2.4-liter, inline 4-cylinder 

Power: 180 horsepower, 175 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 6-speed manual (4x2 and 4x4 models); 6-speed automatic (4x2 only); 9-speed automatic (4x4)

Performance: 0-60 mph, 9.3 seconds (Car and Driver); towing, 2,000 pounds (4x4 recommended)

Weight: 3,633 pounds (Trailhawk 4x4 as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA: 22 city/30 highway/25 combined (24 mpg observed on Utah trip, Trailhawk 4x4)

Report card

Highs: Go-anywhere ruggedness; mature looks

Lows: Milquetoast engine; lacks standard features of competitors 

Overall: 3 stars

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.

 

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