For a carmaker that could realistically claim to have pioneered the go-anywhere spirit that lies at the heart of the soaring sports utility vehicle sector, this car has been a long time coming.

Jeep has built its reputation on big beefy vehicles marrying serious on-road presence and awesome off-road capability, but the success of the trendy smaller Renegade hinted at a gentle shift in emphasis and an opportunity to win more sales.

With the Compass, Jeep is pitching into the heart of the compact SUV sector with an upmarket car designed to appeal to drivers looking for butch looks, serious 4x4 ability and good day-to-day comfort.

Prices from about £23,500, the Compass neatly treads the line between rugged off-roader and relaxed family vehicle.

On the move, the steering weight is noticeably heftier than some other crossovers, and while this is no car to be hurled around bends, the ride is calm and relaxed and entirely consistent with the Jeep brand’s rugged good looks and overall air of solidity.

The cabin design veers towards the conservative but there is plenty of space and the driver’s seat and steering has a lot of adjustment, so finding a comfortable driving position is easy.

Unlike some manufacturers who have opted to clear away all switches and buttons in favour of touchscreen controls, the Compass still has no fewer than 16 buttons and three dials beneath the touchscreen, looking after everything from heating and ventilation, to audio and parking sensors.

Jeep has upped its game in fitting equipment to the Compass to match the level of sophistication expected by compact SUV buyers and upmarket touches on the test car included a power-operated tailgate that comes as part of a £1,000 premium pack with adaptive cruise control and engine stop and start. Heated and ventilated front seats cost an extra £350.

The dashboard on the high-specification Limited model driven here is dominated by an 8-4-inch touchscreen that looks after a mass of functions from satellite navigation, audio and Bluetooth telephone connection to downloaded apps.

The system also offers Apple CarPlay or Android Auto links by plugging your phone into a USB port mounted at the bottom of the dashboard. But with nowhere handy to park a large smartphone near the port you end up dropping the phone into the lidded box between the front seats with the cable trailing past the gearshift.

A £700 optional set of elegant 19-inch alloy wheels fitted to the test car are clearly designed for round-town glitz, not rough road use. The Compass does, however, have towing ability if you go for the £650 towing pack.

And that’s part of the point as the Compass can be carefully configured to suit a variety of uses. The range includes a variety of 4x4 and front-wheel-drive models, with the option of both diesel and petrol engines of varying power outputs.

Power on the 4x4 test car came from a remarkably zippy 1.4-litre petrol engine that delivers 170 horsepower, mated to a nine-speed automatic gearbox. Over the course of more than 500 miles I managed average fuel consumption of 31mpg, according to the car’s on-board computer.

The four-wheel-drive system operates by normally delivering all the power to the front wheels only bringing grip on the rear axle when needed. It can also be locked into four-wheel-drive with a rotary dial giving four custom modes: auto, sand, snow and mud.

The importance of the expanding compact SUV segment is hard to overstate and Jeep believes it will continue to grow by almost 20 per cent to 7.5 million sales worldwide in 2020. In Europe alone, this segment counts more than 1.6 million sales today and is expected to achieve more than two million by 2020.

Auto facts

Model: Jeep Compass 1.4 4WD Auto Limited

Price: £36,745 as tested

Insurance group: 21 (1-50)

Fuel consumption (combined): 40.9mpg

Top speed: 124mph

Length: 439.4cm/173in

Width: 203.3cm/80in

Luggage capacity: 13 cu ft

Fuel tank capacity: 13.2 gallons/60 litres

CO2 emissions: 160g/km

Warranty: Three years/ 60,000 miles