You could almost hear Jeep loyalists let out a collective groan last year when the brand unveiled the Renegade and in turn joined the parade of tiny sport-utility vehicles — sometimes called “cute utes” — crowding America’s roads.
But no one should have been surprised. Jeep wants to make a buck as much as the next auto brand, and subcompact SUVs are all the rage right now.
Besides, the Renegade is still a Jeep.
It has the trademark seven-slat grille and includes some signature Jeep touches inside, like mud-splatter graphics on the dashboard dials. “Since 1941” is etched under the center console to remind you that although the Renegade may be the family baby, it’s part of a long-running legacy.
More importantly, the four-wheel-drive Trailhawk model is king of the mountain when it comes to off-road performance. It’s the most capable in the mini ute segment. Jeep was not about to cede that claim.
With Jeep being part of the Fiat Chrysler group, the Renegade is built in Melfi, Italy, and shares a factory, platform and components with the Fiat 500X.
It may be short in stature — just 166.6 inches long — but it is long in character. From the front, with its black-accented grille, it looks like a mischievous little tyke ready to romp in the mud and sand. Two-tone alloys and black roof rails sharpen the look. Square tail lights are stamped with the Jeep emblem.
The Renegade, which comes in a variety of loud colors, also features lift-out roof panels that spell Wrangler-style adventure.
Short overhangs in both front and rear give the Renegade a stubby look but serve to enhance its climbing skills. Clearly, however, most drivers of the vehicle will only climb neighborhood hills and speed bumps as they head to the mall or run errands around town. They’ll find the Renegade a blast to drive and easy to park. The short wheelbase, at 101.2 inches, means a slightly choppy ride.
Jeep serves up two engines, both with four cylinders, for the Renegade, which, oddly, are comparable in terms of power. A 1.4-liter turbocharged engine is standard with the base Sport and Latitude trims and produces 160 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque.
It comes with a six-speed manual transmission that is smooth and fun to drive, but as there’s little room in the vehicle’s footwell, you may want to avoid wearing the floppy sandals or work boats when behind the wheel.
A nine-speed automatic transmission is optional with that engine and standard on the other, a 2.4-liter that puts out 180 horses and 175 pound-feet of torque. That’s a few more horses but less torque than the 1.4 turbo. Fortunately, there’s plenty of pull across the power band.
The Renegade feels sprightly on the road, with a decent jump from the get-go. The 1.4 runs smoothly and has a sporty feel. Not too surprising given the stats above, the vehicle’s zero-to-60-mph time is about 8.8 seconds with either engine.
When it comes to gas mileage, the 1.4-liter engine gets 24 mpg in the city and 31 mpg on the highway. The 2.4-liter engine gets 21 mpg in the city and 29 on the highway.
Electric-assisted steering offers good feedback, and the Renegade feels well-controlled on corners. That’s especially true on the standard front-wheel-drive versions, which sit two inches lower than the 4×4.
A full-time all-wheel-drive system is available on all four trim levels. In addition to offering an automatic setting, a four-mode control adjusts the system for enhanced performance in mud, sand or snow. On the highway, the system disengages the rear wheels and reverts to front-wheel-drive for better fuel economy.
Though the Renegade is short, it’s an inch wider than the Jeep Cherokee, and that means surprising shoulder and hip room for its class, especially for passengers in front. Though back-seat passengers are a little more cramped for legroom, there is sufficient space for three back there.
The cargo area has 18.5 cubic feet of space, but put the rear seats down, and the cargo area opens up to a more generous 50.8 cubic feet. In the Limited trim, there is room to stow the removable sunroof panels under the cargo floor.
The Renegade’s interior has a rugged Jeep-like feel. Fit and finish is clean, and the materials look and feel good, even if there is some plastic about. Dials and instruments are well placed and easy to see and use.
The vehicle can be loaded with Jeep’s Uconnect infotainment system, which remains among the best in the business. The intuitive system offers quick response and bright graphics on a 6.5-inch touchscreen. Users can even apply their own smartphone apps to the system.
For safety, the Renegade has no shortage of air bags, including front, driver-knee and full-length side-curtain bags. A rearview camera is standard on all but the base Sport. Optional tech-safety packages include blind-spot monitor with cross-traffic alert, lane departure and lane-keep system, and frontal collision warning.
Despite its steel wheels and manual tranny, the Sport trim comes decently equipped, with a fixed, dual sunroof, automatic headlights, power windows and locks, and a telescoping steering wheel.
The Latitude adds alloy wheels, fog lights and roof rails plus the Uconnect control interface. The Limited gets 18-inch wheels, an improved driver-information display and leather-trimmed seats with eight-way power for the driver.
The top-line four-wheel-drive Trailhawk goes off-road with all-terrain tires, raised suspension, skid plates, tow hooks and a full-size spare tire. Cloth upholstery is accented with red stitching.
But let’s face it: Few will buy the Renegade for its off-road prowess. It’s nice to have it, but Renegade shoppers are likely more interested in its price and fuel economy. And, of course, that mischievous yet charming character.