The 2015 Jeep Renegade has been a puzzle ever since it was revealed — a subcompact crossover, built in Europe, yet wearing the Jeep name and traditional grille, like an Italian schoolboy holding Captain America's shield.
While Jeep traditionalists will reflexively cast aspersions toward any Jeep without a ladder frame, folding windshield, and removable doors — let alone a wee SUV that’s built in a Fiat plant in Italy — the square-jawed Grand Cherokee has shown us that the company can do crossovers pretty Jeep-ly, too. Still, we and many other insiders were skeptical about the Renegade, primarily for two reasons, and their names are Compass and Patriot. These unconvincing compact crossovers suggested that Jeep-ness may not be scalable this far down the food chain.
But after a thorough test through the California hills, we can say the Renegade is a wholeheartedly better vehicle in every conceivable respect. Especially Jeep-ness.
Start with the design. Oversize round headlamps and a seven-slot grille give the Renegade an unmistakable Jeep face. The T-square profile, upright windshield and side windows, abbreviated overhangs, and trapezoidal fenders are also Jeep-isms that have been brewing for decades. Four trims are offered: Sport, Latitude, Limited, and 4X4-only Trailhawk, the latter riding about an inch higher than other 4X4 models and a full two inches higher than the car-like front-drivers. The Trailhawk is also sprinkled with butch body addenda: a matte black hood patch, red front/rear tow hooks, a 3-mm skid plate, gloss black panels over the windows, and black 17-inch wheels with white letter all-terrain tires. The Limited, by contrast, plays dress-up with a metallic grille (versus black for the other three grades), matching mirror caps, and 18-inch wheels, versus 16s for the Sport and base Latitude.
Interestingly, while the Renegade offers no canvas roof, a la Wrangler, all trims offer two removable “My Sky” panels over the seating area that come off in two sections and stow in the fitted bag in the back. Each panel unlatches with a key and weighs a feathery 10 pounds, making them easily removable by one person. After a bit of rehearsal, we got the procedure down to about one minute. Latitude trims and above also offer a power sliding front panel, but even the powered version remains fully removable. Sure, it can get a little windy with all windows lowered and the roof panels removed, but as with the Wrangler, that’s kind of the point.
Jeep designers clearly had fun with the Renegade’s vibrant color schemes and its numerous Jeep-themed “Easter eggs” (some obvious, others less so) for owners to discover over time. We counted more than a dozen Jeep “faces,” at least as many Jerrycan-inspired “X” graphics, topographical maps represented on the seat fabric and center console cubby; the words “Since 1941” embossed on the infotainment bezel; a pictogram of an old Willys crawling up the lower right corner of the windshield like a spider; and the redline on the tach that looks like it was hit by a paintball. There’s even a yeti in there somewhere, though we’re not telling where.
Not only does the Renegade pull off all this kitsch without looking like Romper Room, but it does so without compromising ergonomic soundness or looking cheap. The dashboard is smartly arranged, and higher trim levels feature a sophisticated, high-resolution information screen between the primary gauges. The optional Uconnect 6.5 system features voice texting, remote starting and locking, and Wi-Fi hotspot capability. Upright windows and tall roof enhance the sense of spaciousness and excellent outward vision while affording the cargo area real space (unlike, say, the Nissan Juke). If we had any bones to pick, it would be the hard, flat back seat.
We spent the day driving two distinctly different versions: a mid-grade Renegade Latitude, which Jeep expects to comprise the bulk of Renegade sales, and a Trailhawk. The front-wheel-drive Latitude tester was equipped with the base combo, a 160-hp 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder with 184 lb-ft of torque mated solely to a six-speed manual transmission. The turbo four is wonderfully smooth and quiet if rather laggy, but the six-speed shifter is delightful to row through the gates, with a soft metallic cue-ball shifter and positive shift action. Standard Koni shocks impart a surprisingly firm but hardly brittle ride, though the body does roll a bit in corners. Surprisingly, the steering is quick and obedient, as are the pleasantly linear brakes.
The Renegade’s available nine-speed automatic transmission comes only with a 2.4-liter four-cylinder, which, turbo-less as it is, produces 180 horsepower and just 175 lb-ft of torque. This is the only powertrain offered in the brawnier Trailhawk model, and, as with the base powertrain, it is hardly a sprinter off the line. The 2.4 is also somewhat gruffer than the turbo four. That said, the Trailhawk surprised us with its smoother highway ride and lower noise levels. Yes, the off-roader is the cushier one.
While it’s highly doubtful that too many Renegade customers will venture far off-road, Jeep knew that the Renegade would have to demonstrate some basic capability to be considered a real Jeep. Hence, all Renegade 4X4s have at least 7.9 inches of ground clearance and feature nifty SelecTerrain dials that tailor transmission, engine, steering, and four-wheel drivetrain characteristics to match the selected surface. Trailhawk models go a big step further with their Active Drive Low transfer case providing a 20:1 crawl ratio for slow-speed rock-climbing, while the ABS and the electronic stability control system help prevent wheels from spinning wildly when they lose contact with the ground, as did ours countless times while traversing a challenging route through California’s Hollister Hills state park. We also put the hill descent control to the test on a silt-covered grade so steep we were left dangling by the seatbelts, yet the vehicle maintained a perfectly controlled, one-mph first gear crawl that elicited no shortage of groans from the constantly pulsing brakes but exactly none from the occupants.
Off-road, the Renegade’s super-stiff structure is clearly evident. Indeed, some of the vehicular contortions we managed might twist lesser crossovers like a pretzel, but nary a squeak or a pop could be heard inside the Renegade. The Trailhawk’s approach, departure, and break-over angles (which are 31, 26 and 34 degrees, respectively) allowed us to traverse obstacles we might not have attempted even in a Wrangler. There we were, putting the Trailhawk up on three wheels, sometimes teetering on just two, while its all-terrain tires clawed voraciously over craggy rocks. We were mildly reassured that in the event one of them succumbed to a particularly sharp edge, a full-size spare tire sat under the cargo floor.
The 2015 Renegade goes on sale in March, with prices starting at $18,990, $22,290 and $25,790 for Sport, Latitude, and Limited trims, respectively (add about $2,000 for four-wheel drive). The 4X4-only Trailhawk starts at $26,990, which the way we see it, is a reasonably attractive price for a bona-fide Jeep.