FIRST DRIVE

Modern, high-tech Jeep Renegade takes on track and trail review

Petite, Italian-bred SUV proves solid entry point into storied brand

Published: January 23, 2015 12:01 AM

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Close your ears, 4x4 hard-liners. The newest Jeep, the small Renegade, is an Italian job, and a pretty clever heist. What we have here is essentially a front- or all-wheel-drive, unit-body subcompact SUV made in Italy by the Fiat/Chrysler syndicate. The platform is shared with a new bite-sized Fiat SUV, the 500X. Both vehicles will be peddled around the world, to kids, women, you name it. Guys even.

Existing competition includes the Nissan Juke, Mini Countryman, and Subaru XV Crosstrek, but several more junior-size crossovers are jumping on this wave: the Chevrolet Trax, a cousin of the more upscale Buick Encore; the Honda HR-V, derived from the Honda Fit; and the Mazda CX-3, based on the Mazda 2.

Putting aside the heresy of a foreign-made Jeep, the Renegade is one of the most intriguing of the new mini-SUVs. For one thing, it’s loaded with sophisticated electronics. For another, it will come in endless permutations. The any-way-you-want-it opportunity could make the Renegade less of a small-niche vehicle than most others in the segment.

You can choose from four distinct trim levels: the base Sport, intermediate Latitude, and two loaded top-tick versions, Limited and Trailhawk, the latter posing as the off-road guardian of Jeep heritage. Buyers will have a choice of two engines, two transmissions, and either front- or two types of all-wheel drive.

While Jeep folks call this a “4x4”, we would use the term all-wheel drive since it works like other car-based SUV systems. Most of the time all the power is directed to the front wheels, and the rear wheels are totally disengaged. If sensors detect wheel-slip up front, power is routed toward one or both rear wheels. Unusual here is that all of the power can be shunted aft. A “lock” button even lets you engage four-wheel-drive mode manually.

Most buyers will choose an all-wheel-drive, mid-trim Latitude, powered by the larger of the two engines, a 184-hp, 2.4-liter four-cylinder, served by a nine-speed automatic. The base engine is a 160-hp, 1.4-liter turbo four-cylinder, which can use either the nine-speed automatic or a six-speed manual.

Funny thing about that nine-speed gearbox, which, in the last year, we’ve experienced in a couple of Cherokees: Try as you might, you almost never find yourself in the final gear. Maybe that ninth ratio is like a bellybutton—cute, but just for show.

Pricing starts at $19,995 plus shipping for a stripped-down all-wheel-drive model, but you’ll pay somewhere between $25,000 and $29,000 for a decently equipped version.

Styling consciously evokes echoes of the iconic Wrangler: small, square, and upright, with round headlights, a seven-slat grille opening, and a Wrangler-esque removable two-panel plastic sunroof. It’s a way of coating the import with some made-in-the-USA Wrangler credibility.

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The driving experience

We were able to spend just a few hours with various Renegade versions at our Connecticut test track and came away more impressed than not. Though few people will buy it this way, we found the six-speed stick and 1.4-liter turbo a fairly potent combination.

The more mainstream Latitude model, with all-wheel drive and the 2.4-liter, made a good first impression. Power delivery was ample, and the nine-speed seems to have been improved. The ride was tolerably absorbent, which can’t be said for most vehicles of this size. Noise, too, was fairy well repressed for a small vehicle.

The up-level Trailhawk, which has tons of electronics to govern its various rough-country driving modes, was a bit noisier than the others on pavement, thanks to its 17-inch all-terrain tires. Its enhanced all-wheel drive system, called Active Drive Low, can simulate low-range gearing to crawl up and down hills. It scaled our steep rock hill without much difficulty, aided by its standard skid plates and 8.7-inch ground clearance.  

Steering in all versions responded promptly to the helm in our short drives. While it didn’t wow us with its responsiveness, it still felt confident.

Photo: Jeep

Inside the cabin

Although the doorsills are a bit high, getting in and out posed no special problems, and the front cabin offers plenty of headroom and legroom, with abundant fore-and-aft seat adjustment. The front seats are narrow, as you might expect, but fairly well shaped. The rear seats aren’t bad for two adults. Even with average-tall people up front, knee room in the rear is at least adequate, and there’s decent toe room beneath the front seats. Thanks to the squared-off roof design, few will find rear-seat headroom lacking.

From the outside it looks like the fat rear roof pillars would seriously impede the view out, but from the driver’s seat visibility turned out to be pretty good.

The optional “MySky” sunroof is a bit of whimsy. It consists of two large black plastic panels, mounted fore and aft. The front portion retracts electrically, giving access to the great outdoors. It’s fairly easy to snap out both of these lightweight panels, essentially opening up the whole passenger area; they can stow in the cargo bay. But what you don’t have up there is glass. If it starts to rain, you better hustle to get those rooflets back on.

We found the controls easy to locate and quite simple to use, thanks to the easy-to-reach knobs, buttons, and touch-screen infotainment system. A driving-mode selector knob has settings for auto, snow, sand, mud, and rock, which summon up powertrain electronics to adjust transmission shift points and throttle settings.

Photo: Jeep

All versions except the base Sport have a standard backup camera. The center stack is too narrow for Chrysler’s full-sized 8.4-inch UConnect touch screen, so all versions get the smaller five-inch UConnect system. It comes with a modern suite of connectivity options including voice-command with Bluetooth audio streaming and iPod mobile device integration.

Available safety gear includes a raft of high-tech crash-avoidance technologies, including forward-collision warning with full autobrake capability, and lane-departure warning and assist systems. We like to see advanced safety gear made available, especially on small cars like the Renegade. Unfortunately, Chrysler makes you have to climb way up the options ladder before you can get them.

The Renegade is a stylish, modern, high-tech little SUV—but it’s not a screaming bargain. We’ll be testing the Renegade as soon as it hits the streets this March. But as with any all-new car, it’s probably wise for you to wait at least a year after introduction before buying your own.

—Gordon Hard

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