One of Jeep’s brand objectives is that all of its products must be capable off-roaders (or at least have a variant that is up to the task). But how to do you do that with a subcompact SUV like the Renegade? We set out for a week long test to find out if the new baby Jeep is up the task. While it may look the part, we wanted to find out if it had real Jeep capabilities. In terms of the competition, right now there isn’t much, as the subcompact SUV segment is just warming up. The Nissan Juke, Mini Countryman, and Buick Encore are the established entrants; the Chevrolet Trax just joinged the fray this year; and the Honda HR-V and Mazda CX-3 are starting off.
The Renegade starts off with a much different impression right from the get go. While most of the competition is using smooth curves and creases to win it’s buyers over, Jeep’s new Renegade is big, bold, and in your face. We, like most, seem to like the different design language, but those looking for a more carlike cute ‘ute might be put off. That’s ok with Jeep, and ok for us, because it looks unique in the marketplace and has capabilities the others can’t begin to match. From the 7-slotted grille, to the Jeep “face” logo in the center of the headlights and “gas can” imbued tail-lights, there are numerous “Easter eggs” to be found all over the exterior and interior for an owner to find for years. They definitely lend to a sense of these being something special.
We’ve been impressed by the interior quality of Chrysler’s latest vehicles and the Renegade is no exception. All the switches and dials felt good under our fingers, and the option list includes Chrysler’s great UConnect naviagation touch-screen stereo and incredible “My Sky” sunroof in either manual or power versions. Continuing with Jeep’s “Easter eggs” the designers festooned the Renegade’s interior including the silhouette of an old CJ in the corner of the windshield and maps in the bottom of the storage bins. The Renegade’s upright windshield is set far away from where you sit, with a deep dashboard and unusually thick windshield pillars that frame the outward view in the same way a Mini Cooper does. Between that and the broad, squared-off hood, the Renegade feels much bigger than it actually is. The same can be said for the back seat, which is set low and slightly back from the doors. It provides much better head- and leg-room than we expected given how small the Renegade is. The cargo area offers up 18.5 cubic feet of squared-off space with the rear seats in place and 50.8 with the back seats folded.
The Renegade comes with two completely different engines for auto and manual versions which seems strange at first until you realize they have completely different missions. Our week long tester had the nine-speed transmission, which meant there was a 180 horsepower naturally-aspirated 2.4 liter four under the hood. This proved to be a great powertrain in day-to-day driving, especially at freeway speeds. The 1.4 turbo is great with a stick; it feels torquey and strong as it accelerates through the gears, but if you demand hard acceleration at low revs (i.e. sixth gear at highway speeds) that the engine’s small displacement becomes apparent. With it’s manual control, this turbo stick combination is more inclined for the offroaders. EPA ratings range from 21 city/29 highway for the auto 2.4 with 4WD and climb to 24 city/31 highway with the manual 1.4 with 2WD. Both powertrains can be had with front- or four-wheel-drive, though Trailhawks are limited to the 2.4/auto combination.
Which leads us right into the unique Trailhawk version. This separate trim was designed for the offroad enthusiasts and includes 8.7 inches of ground clearance (0.8 more than other Renegade 4x4s), 8.1 inches of rear-axle articulation, Goodyear Wrangler SRA tires on 17-inch alloy wheels, underbody skid plates, and bright-red tow hooks. Trailhawks come exclusively with the 2.4 liter/automatic/all-wheel-drive combo, and while this setup doesn’t have a low range per se, it can emulate one by locking the nine-speed automatic in first; combined with its numerically higher final-drive ratio, this gives the Renegade a 20:1 crawling-gear ratio. The unique suspension setup and tires gives the Trailhawk a bouncier, more truck-like feel, but it clings in the corners nearly as well as other Renegades.
Old-school off-roaders work by locking the differentials so as to distribute power to all four wheels and allowing as much axle travel as possible, but in the Renegades case a fully-independent suspension and compact all-wheel-drive system, it relies on electronics to distribute power and braking as needed. It was when the roads turned curvy that the little Jeep really began to impress us. The Renegade bites into corners eagerly and while the steering may be a little numb, the suspension is anything but. Body roll is nearly nil and the grip is surprisingly strong. We kept pushing and the Jeep stubbornly refused to give up its hold on the pavement, even at speeds that would have the theoretical kiddies in back squeezing there juice boxes to hang on.
None of the competition can offer the Renegade’s mix of on- and off-road ability, passenger comfort, and style, though the Mini Countryman comes the closest. Jeep is building the Renegade in four versions: Entry-level Sport, volume-selling Latitude, luxury-oriented Limited and off-road-ready Trailhawk. Pricing starts at $18,990 ($17,995 plus a $995 destination charge), while a four-wheel-drive Renegade Trailhawk will set you back $26,990 before options, of course. We think Jeep has a winner on its hands. The Renegade delivers Jeep style and ability in a functional and smartly-sized package, and its high fun-to-drive factor is an added bonus. Build quality remains an unknown, but the Renegade could become one of the segment’s benchmarks if the quality is there.