Engine: 1.4 turbo/160 hp or 2.4 / 180 hp
Transmission: six-speed manual or nine-speed automatic
Price: $18,990 (including delivery)
EPA fuel economy: TBD
From the moment we first set eyes on the new baby Jeep, we wanted to know if it would really go off road.
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). That’s not difficult for a larger vehicle, but for a subcompact SUV like the Renegade? This we needed to experience first-hand. For the press preview, Jeep had us drive the Renegade to an off-road course in Hollister, Calif. so we could do just that.
Knowing we’d be attacking the rough stuff in a Renegade Trailhawk – that’s the model you’ll want if you plan on tackling serious terrain – we hopped into a mid-range Renegade Latitude for the hundred-something mile drive to Hollister. Our Renegade had a six-speed manual transmission, which meant there was a 160 horsepower 1.4 liter turbocharged four under the hood; automatic Renegades get a naturally-aspirated 180 hp 2.4 liter with a nine-speed transmission. Both powertrains can be had with front- or four-wheel-drive, though Trailhawks are limited to the 2.4/auto combination.
The idea of having two completely different engines for manual and auto versions seemed strange at first, but after a few miles our idle speculation was forgotten. The 1.4 turbo is great with a stick; it feels torquey and strong as it accelerates through the gears. It’s only if you demand hard acceleration at low revs (i.e. sixth gear at highway speeds) that the engine’s small displacement becomes apparent. Downshifting to fifth won’t work; one must drop to fourth or even third gear to get the rhythm back. We can live with that.
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 yakking their Chicken McNuggets. (Disclaimer: No actual children were nauseated in the making of this review).
Thumbs Up for Interior Quality
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 UConnect touch-screen stereo, which is one of our favorites for its clear graphics and easy-to-navigate menu system. Jeep’s designers festooned the Renegade’s interior with “Easter eggs” including the silhouette of an old CJ in the corner of the windshield, maps in the bottom of the storage bins and the Jeep “face” logo in the center of the headlights. Finding them will no doubt give Renegade owners something to do while stuck in traffic.
The Renegade’s driving position did take some getting used to. The seats have a lot of thigh bolstering, which could be an issue for shorter drivers. Our 5′ 6″ test driver found it unsettling each time he hopped in, but rather comfortable after a few miles. 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.
Strange Roof Configuration
One design feature that baffled us was the “My Sky” sunroof, which comes in two versions. The first is a power tilt-and-slide pattern, which makes perfect sense. The second has two removable fiberglass panels, one over the front seats and one over the back. The cumbersome panels must be removed manually and there’s no glass, so if it starts to rain, you’ve got to find shelter and rebuild the car. Jeep insists its owners are willing to go to the trouble; certainly, anyone who has ever wrestled a Wrangler soft top into submission will find removing two panels and then unpacking the trunk in order to store them under the floor a cinch, but it still seemed like an awful lot of trouble.
Having thoroughly critiqued the Renegade’s interiors — and having greatly enjoyed it’s on-road performance — we found ourselves at Hollister Hills where Jeep laid out a couple of off-road courses. Here we took the keys to a Trailhawk model, which has 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.
We were mindful of the fact that the off-road course on which we drove was constructed specifically with consideration to the Renegade’s measurements, but this wasn’t just a dirt road with a few rocks scattered about. We drove over moguls, traversed steep inclines on loose dirt, and forded through water that came pretty far up the Renegade’s grille — pretty hard-core stuff, especially for a compact SUV.
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. That’s difficult to do with the a fully-independent strut suspension and a compact all-wheel-drive system, so the Renegade relies on electronics to distribute power and braking as needed. Tricky ascents are best accomplished by starting out with a little momentum and waiting until the Renegade starts to struggle; then it’s just a matter of feeding it more throttle and letting the computers do their thing. They’ll apply power to the wheels that have traction and brake the ones that don’t, and up she goes.
Trailhawk Can Hack it on Pavement, Too
Having been as impressed as Jeep intended us to be, we grabbed one of the Trailhawks for the ride back to the hotel. This is the heaviest of the Renegades; its 3,573 lb curb weight is over 500 lbs more than the front-drive 1.4 liter Latitude we drove out to Hollister, but acceleration feels comparable. Jeep did not have EPA fuel economy estimates at the time of our test drive, but they said that all versions would get at least 30 MPG on the highway. We saw low- to mid-20s with both engines. The unique suspension setup and tires gave the Trailhawk a bouncier, more truck-like feel, but it clings in the corners nearly as well as other Renegades.
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.
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 joins the fray this year; and the Honda HR-V and Mazda CX-3 are on the way. None can offer the Renegade’s mix of on- and off-road ability, passenger comfort, and style, though the Mini Countryman comes the closest. And if you can do without all-wheel-drive, we’d suggest a look at the Kia Soul, which matches the Renegade on comfort, utility, and interior quality, and is pleasant, if not quite so engaging, to drive.
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 the segment’s benchmark if the quality is there.