Jeep Renegade is the newest entry in the burgeoning small compact crossover utility market. Renegade is built in Italy and comes imbued with the emotion and characteristics you might expect. It has a unique look, as do the Nissan Juke, Kia Soul, and Mini Countryman it matches up with, and infectious let’s-go-for-a-drive manners. But it also has room for real people front and back, decent cargo space and attractive pricing and fuel economy.
Upright styling pays dividends in outward visibility, cargo space and ease of entry/egress, all in a footprint less than 14 feet long. And all that space is filled with shapes and features, large and small, to evoke memories of the original Jeep. It borders on getting carried away, but Mini does the same with ellipses and such.
Renegade’s cabin fits four adults or a couple and three kids or midsize canines across the back. Removable roof panels cover both rows of seats and stow under the cargo floor. Luggage space compares to that behind the third row in many crossovers, while there’s more than 50 cubic feet behind the front seats and the right-front folds for longer items.
Materials and finishes fit the class, except the Jeep Renegade covers the range from entry-level (cloth seats, no AC) to luxury more like a Buick Encore: heated leather seats and steering wheel, dual-zone climate control, reconfigurable dash display, and so on. Some Renegade interiors offer multi-color leather and brightly finished trim pieces.
Electronics are up to date, the top level employing your smartphone for Yelp search, on-demand Wi-Fi and so on, in Fiat Chrysler Automobile’s easy-to-use Uconnect system. Renegade also offers safety systems not available on some vehicles a class larger, including forward collision warning with automatic braking and lane-departure warning with correction. Better yet, you don’t have to buy the most expensive model to have the option.
Two powertrains are offered, a 1.4-liter turbo with 6-speed manual and a 2.4-liter four-cylinder with a 9-speed automatic. Upper trims get the 2.4 and it’s offered on lower trim, but the 1.4 manual is arguably more entertaining and quieter, and probably more efficient. Renegade isn’t fast but it’ll keep up with traffic, hills and on-ramps.
Ride comfort is acceptable and the handling quite good. From big heaves to hairpins the Renegade was controlled and stable during our test drives; with the right settings and buttons pushed it was downright fun on winding dirt roads and more engaging on the pavement than most. Engine, road and wind noise are quelled sufficiently for road-tripping.
The Nissan Juke in NISMO trim and Mini Countryman S may match the Renegade’s driving fun, the Kia Soul its emotional and stylish appeal, the Buick Encore Limited version, and the Chevrolet Trax its value proposition or fuel economy. Also due this year are a Mazda CX-3 we anticipate will be at least as fun to pilot, the Honda HR-V undoubtedly a utilitarian and efficient contender, and the Fiat 500X derived from the same base as the Renegade. None of them will head off the beaten path as handily as a Renegade Trailhawk.
Jeep Renegade has at least 10 headlight/grille visages, though most are no bigger than a mobile phone. Look at the bulb cover inside the headlight or in the middle of the back-up light and you’ll find one; keep looking inside and out and you will find many more. They’re commonly referred to as Easter eggs, little amusements designers sneak in to keep your attention.
While it has nothing in common with the original Jeep apart from the name and height (it’s nearly four feet longer) Jeep has thrown every traditional styling cue at it while conforming to regulations and standards. Round headlights frame a seven-slot grille, the windshield is fairly flat and upright and has a hill-climbing Willys in the shaded edge, the wheel arches (and some wheel cutouts) echo Willys fenders and protrude slightly from the flattish sides, the side window line drops from the base of the windshield and the ends are kept short.
With the hood, fenders and bumper ahead of the grille and headlights, Renegade looks like an inquisitive puppy dog. The entire lower periphery is plastic so it doesn’t scuff or chip paint and most have fog lamps. The Trailhawk gets unique trim including bright red tow hooks that are each rated for twice the vehicle’s loaded weight (a third in back) and an optional matte-black center hood section if you’re into wallpaper.
The rear is dominated by big, square tail lights with an X-shaped backup light in center. That shape, which is also repeated on the MySky roof and cupholder bases, was inspired by the same-shape reinforcing stamp in the side of fuel jerry cans hung on the side of original Jeeps. Limiteds get twin-pipe chrome exhaust exits, and the muffler below the rear bumper is shaped to resemble a skid plate.
Optional on all is a MySky roof with removable panels; all but Sport offer a power retractable version. The panels stow in a dedicated bag in the subfloor cargo compartment so you can open or close up any time.
Like many in this segment, Renegade has lots of visual character and some amusing paint shades. Of the 10 paints only one is metallic, Limited is too restrained for Omaha Orange or Solar Yellow, and Anvil gray is unique to Trailhawk.
Renegade’s cabin finishes and materials appear mission appropriate. While the Renegade Sport is clearly the budget model (air conditioning is optional), soft-touch panels and fabric upholstery doesn’t give a penalty-box impression. Top-line Renegade models with two-tone leather, heated steering wheel and bright trim pieces demonstrate size doesn’t equate to cheap.
Your six-foot-plus correspondent fit front and rear, though three of us that size might crimp someone’s knees. We managed more than an hour in back or front with no complaints but did appreciate the lumbar support on the upper-trim models on longer-duration drives. It’s easier to get in and out of the back than we expected and while the data show Cherokee has a five-inch advantage in rear-seat legroom we didn’t notice it. The upgraded rear seat adds a center armrest with cupholders that may prove handy for comfort or separating juvenile delinquents.
There are no small controls in Renegade, everything from the windshield pillars to the shake-the-car grab handle are substantially sized pieces to impart ruggedness. While they’re large, the big pillars are far enough forward that they don’t obstruct the view as much as you’d expect.
An analog speedometer and rev counter (with brightly colored splash to mark redline) frame vertical-dot scales for engine temperature and fuel level. The central trip computer/display is 3.5-inch on lower trims, a reconfigurable 7-inch full-color screen on higher trims. Save the Jeep horn button, the top-flight steering wheel looks, feels and works as well as that in a Chrysler 200 or Grand Cherokee.
As it’s a compact cabin, the switch plates, climate controls and touch-screen stacked amidships are skewed to the right of center but remain within easy reach; it also gives the driver a bit more right-legroom with noticeably impacting passenger comfort. Of course there’s more heritage silliness like a contour map in the stowage pocket liner and “Since 1941″ atop technology that clearly wasn’t available in 1941, but all controls are easy to use and navigate, and the only difference between the 6.5-inch touchscreen navigation/infotainment and other Jeep or Chrysler product 8.4-inch Uconnect systems is the screen size and a few hard keys below it.
The top-rung Uconnect 6.5 includes Bluetooth hands-free and streaming, text-to-voice along with 18 standardized text replies, HD radio, 180-watt 6-speaker stereo, navigation with 3D graphics, SiriusXM with Traffic and Travel Link, SD card, and camera display. Uconnect Access works through your smartphone to provide Yelp search and on-demand Wi-Fi hotspot, among others, and an app for your mobile sets up things like remote-start (not with manual gearbox).
Drive controls are centered around the shifter; automatics use the racier downshift forward, upshifts back on the manual gate.
The cargo floor at hatch-opening height is a removable panel that can (except Trailhawk) be stowed a few inches higher for dual-load decks. The space beneath can accommodate roof panels or small items, and a temporary-use spare is available for most, a full-size for some. Cargo capacity is 18.5 cubic feet behind the rear seat and 50.8 behind front seats, just a few percent less than the much longer Cherokee. A solid (as opposed to roll-up) cargo area cover is available.
The Jeep Renegade drives like a small European car, firm, fun and willing if not the fastest thing around. Removing weight works as well for cute-utes and off-road vehicles as it does for full-size pickups and two-seat sports cars.
Renegade isn’t the lightest in its class but it’s hundreds of pounds lighter than a Cherokee and feels just as stiff and solid as that and the Grand Cherokee.
The turbocharged 1.4-liter engine and 6-speed manual make a good pairing, with 160 horses if you want to rev it out and 184 lb-ft of torque from a leisurely 2500-rpm upwards the other 99 percent of the time. Shift and clutch effort are light, the action par with competitors. You’ll be more likely to miss the handbrake with the manual than with the automatic. Manual gearbox ratios are set for fuel economy so once past the first three gears, acceleration rates taper, but it loafs long in sixth gear and the good midrange power from the engine mean you might not have to downshift for grades.
Limited and Trailhawk come standard with a 2.4-liter and automatic that’s optional elsewhere. The 2.4-liter engine makes 20 hp more but less torque than the turbo, both at higher rpm, so it feels noisier and not much quicker despite having three more gears. The 9-speed (yup, 9, four of them overdrives) worked smoothly for the most part, made downshifts on demand and you probably won’t notice how often it changes gears. With just one person on board we found a 4×4 Limited needed at least 63 mph showing before it would go into ninth gear.
EPA ratings were not set when this was published. On two-lane highways running 40-70 mph we averaged 27 mpg in a front-drive 1.4 and 24 mpg in a 2.4 all-wheel drive. Attribute that more to the larger engine, added luxury equipment and weight of the all-wheel drive system, not added drag.
Most models badged 4×4 get all-wheel drive. Selec-Terrain has different modes for different surfaces. Leave it in auto and you’ll be fine as it does its thing constantly and transparently to the driver. Choose snow, sand or mud as you wish. We found sand gave us a little more leeway being hooligans, but the trucklet will manage if you don’t.
Trailhawk is the only Renegade you’ll want to do most Jeep things in, with slightly taller, deeper treaded tires, more clearance underneath and at the edges, skid plates lest you drag over something, a rock mode in Selec-Terrain and real tow hooks if you venture way too far. Trailhawk’s shorter axle ratio (20.4:1 overall versus 17.6:1) is what the Low button engages, and why, unless under heavy throttle application, the Trailhawk starts off in second gear rather than first. Hill descent control is as good or better than a pro-driver at the wheel for controlling downhill speed on tenuous surfaces. It will not go anywhere any other Jeep vehicle will, but it will go further off a highway than anything in this class.
Fully independent suspension and Koni FSD shocks deliver excellent body control and a reasonable ride. It doesn’t ride as soft as larger CUVs such as a Honda CR-V or Nissan Rogue but it doesn’t punish you or skitter about on rough pavement either. We’d say the target skewed more to the fun-to-drive side than outright smoothness, a tradeoff we happily accepted on pavement, slow rough stuff or brisk-pace dirt roads.
Electric-assist steering is easy to maneuver and the big-wheel Trailhawk turns a bit tighter than the others. The steering isn’t fast but is precise, a nice combo to have navigating slowly through the woods. We can’t say we pushed the brake system to its limits but winding passes were dispensed with drama-free, and the ABS and hill-descent were notably quieter than some we’ve sampled.
Road noise is well controlled and the big mirrors only begin to generate wind noise at interstate speeds. The low window sills allow low mirror mounts so they don’t block the view. All offer or come with a rearview camera.
Renegade offers two safety packages of equipment not even offered in some class-larger products: blind-spot and rear cross-path warning, vehicle alarm and keyless entry/start, forward collision warning with collision-mitigation braking, lane departure warning with correction (both with adjustable parameters) and rear park sensors. We had no issues keeping the six-foot wide Renegade in a 12-foot-wide lane, but your insurance company may approve.
Renegade brings good space efficiency and economy in a package as much fun to drive as it is to look at or go Easter-egg hunting. A front-drive 1.4 Sport with Power & Air group is our favorite on pavement, the Trailhawk the obvious one off it, and the only Renegade we’d call a Jeep.
G.R. Whale filed this report to NewCarTestDrive.com after his test drives of the Renegade models.