Jeep purists might smirk, thinking the Renegade has a fitting name, but this subcompact SUV is no Benedict Arnold: It delivers big-time off-road performance in Trailhawk form without sacrificing on-road driving refinement.
The Renegade shares its platform with the Fiat 500L. That may seem an unlikely starting point for an off-road-capable Jeep, but there are significant differences between the two. Within the Jeep family, the Italian-built Renegade is shorter and wider than both the Patriot and Compass compact SUVs, which will be replaced by a single model in the 2016 calendar year.
The subcompact SUV segment is quickly growing, with new models like the Chevrolet Trax, Honda HR-V and Mazda CX-3 joining existing competitors such as the Mini Countryman and Buick Encore. The Renegade, which will be at Jeep dealerships by March, joins the mix with unique features and technology designed for difficult off-road terrain.
The base Renegade Sport starts at $18,990, including a $995 destination charge, while the Latitude and Limited trim levels are $22,290 and $25,790, respectively. Four-wheel drive is a $2,000 option on all trim levels except the $26,990 Trailhawk model, where it’s standard.
We drove two pre-production versions of the Renegade: a four-wheel-drive Sport trim with a turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine and a six-speed manual transmission and a Trailhawk version with a 2.4-liter four-cylinder and a nine-speed automatic.
With its round headlights and seven-slot grille, there’s no mistaking the Renegade for anything but a Jeep. Mark Allen, head of Jeep Design, said the Renegade’s upright, boxy shape let the automaker retain interior room even with the SUV’s small footprint.
I really like the little details that Jeep and other Chrysler brands have been giving their cars lately, and the Renegade is no exception. There are little cues everywhere you look, from the small seven-slot grille icon integrated into the headlights to the military-style “No Step” warning on the side sills. They’re small things, but owners will delight in discovering them, and they make previous-generation Jeeps like the Patriot seem unfinished and uninspired.
I was impressed with the Renegade’s ride and handling. Ride quality is firm, but suspension responses are refined.
The Renegade features frequency selective damping struts from Koni, a Jeep first. Body roll is well controlled — the Renegade remains remarkably flat even when attacking winding canyon roads — and the SUV shows admirable poise on the highway, without any of the bucking tendencies that some cars with shorter wheelbases exhibit.
Another thing that stood out was the Renegade’s quiet cabin. Despite the SUV’s boxy shape, wind noise is faint — even at highway speeds.
The Renegade offers a choice of two drivetrains, and each has its strengths and weaknesses. The base 160-horsepower, turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder is a smooth-revving, refined engine that teams exclusively with a six-speed manual transmission. The light-effort clutch pedal and precise manual shifter are fun to work. That’s good, because you have to use them quite a bit to make the most of the engine’s modest power. Its sweet spot is around 4,000 rpm; below that, it doesn’t feel very strong.
The optional 180-hp, 2.4-liter four-cylinder feels a little stouter, but not dramatically so. Granted, I tested it in a Trailhawk model, which is the heaviest version of the Renegade, weighing in at 3,573 pounds.
The 2.4-liter four-cylinder and nine-speed automatic are the same engine and transmission in Cars.com’s long-term 2014 Jeep Cherokee. We’ve experienced problems with the transmission’s responsiveness and shift quality in our Cherokee, and the SUV recently received a new engine under warranty. The lighter Renegade, however, has a completely different calibration package than the Cherokee, according to Jeep, and while it doesn’t exhibit the occasional abrupt shift that our Cherokee does, it’s still not perfect.
The biggest problem with the automatic transmission is it’s slow to kick down when you need more power. Floor the gas pedal and the automatic waits a moment before it decides to slowly shift to a lower gear. There’s no urgency even when that’s exactly what’s needed.
The transmission was also in too high a gear more than once when exiting a tight turn, robbing the 2.4-liter engine of power. Pressing the gas pedal farther brought a downshift, but the automatic needs to be smart enough to stay in a lower gear so a downshift isn’t necessary.
I experienced the Trailhawk’s considerable off-road capabilities. After crawling up rock-strewn paths, navigating deeply rutted terrain and descending steep dirt tracks, my lasting impression is how easy the Renegade made it all seem.
The Trailhawk has a number of unique elements designed for off-road driving: It gets an extra 0.8 inches of ground clearance, for a total of 8.7 inches, along with front and rear tow hooks that are rated at twice the Renegade’s gross vehicle weight in case you need to be yanked out of a ditch — or yank someone else out. There are also skid plates for the front suspension, transmission, transfer case and gas tank, as well as different lower front trim that gives it a better approach angle.
The Trailhawk also gets a special four-wheel-drive system dubbed Active Drive Low. Rather than using a two-speed transfer case with a low range, the Trailhawk uses its 4.33-to-1 axle ratio and the nine-speed automatic’s short gears to achieve a 20-to-1 crawl ratio for off-roading. Hill descent control is standard, and I like how the system lets you adjust the descent speed using the gas and brake pedals.
Official EPA gas mileage estimates weren’t available as of publication, but Jeep says the Renegade will get more than 30 mpg on the highway with either of its four-cylinder engines. That figure is, in all likelihood, for the most efficient versions; expect heavier four-wheel-drive models like the Trailhawk to get lower EPA estimates.
Despite its small footprint, the Renegade accommodates taller passengers. The front bucket seats have firm but comfortable cushioning, while the rear bench seat provides decent comfort and legroom.
Overall interior quality is good, and the attention to detail that’s present on the Renegade’s exterior carries over to the cabin. You see it in things like the storage bin mat, which incorporates a trail map design, as well as the tachometer, which has a splatter graphic inspired by paintballing instead of a regular redline.
The Renegade also features soft-touch dashboard trim. While it looks nice, I would have preferred if Jeep had padded the upper door trim instead; I like to rest my arm there when driving, but its current hard-plastic finish isn’t the most comfortable.
Rather than a traditional moonroof, the Renegade is available with an optional My Sky sunroof that features two removable fiberglass-polyurethane roof panels that stow in a bag in the cargo area. An uplevel version of My Sky adds a power tilt/slide feature to the front panel.
The Renegade’s controls are thoughtfully arranged, and — just as important — it has the right kind of controls in the right places. The climate control system has large knobs, and there are familiar dashboard buttons.
All models have a standard MP3 jack and USB connectivity, and three Uconnect multimedia systems are offered. The base Uconnect 3.0 is a traditional stereo system with a display screen, while the Uconnect 5.0 and 6.5 systems both have touch-screens and Bluetooth streaming audio. The Uconnect 6.5 system also incorporates navigation.
The Uconnect 6.5 interface is similar to Jeep’s Uconnect 8.4 system, but the latter has a bigger 8.4-inch touch-screen. Uconnect 8.4 has received quite a bit of praise from Cars.com editors for its ease of use. The Renegade’s smaller 6.5-inch touch-screen is responsive and seemed big enough, and I like how Jeep includes physical knobs for volume and tuning functions.
The cargo area measures 18.5 cubic feet. With the rear seats folded there’s 50.8 cubic feet of cargo space. The Chevrolet Trax has a similar amount of cargo room (18.7/48.4 cubic feet), but the Honda HR-V surpasses them both (24.3/58.8 cubic feet). A removable, height-adjustable cargo-floor panel is standard.
Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration crash-test ratings weren’t available as of publication.
A number of advanced safety features are optional. The Safety and Security Package includes a blind spot warning system with rear cross-traffic alert, while the Advanced Technology Package adds lane departure warning and prevention, forward collision warning with automatic braking, and rear parking sensors. A backup camera is also optional.
The subcompact SUV segment that the Renegade is part of is relatively new, but it’s quickly gaining steam as automakers look for new ways to appeal to shoppers more interested in SUVs and crossovers than cars. Unlike much of the competition, however, the Renegade has retained the style — and a lot of the off-road capability — of a traditional SUV. Jeep is one of the few brands that can pull off something like this, and it does it very well with the Renegade. Whether you need a small SUV for everyday driving or for leaving the road far behind, there’s a version of the Renegade for you.