FIRST DRIVE: Jeep Renegade

FIRST DRIVE: Jeep Renegade

Tiny A-segment SUVs are the thing every manufacturer wants to have right now, with the explosion in interest in SUV generally, but the smaller end in particular.

So it makes sense that the most SUV-ish car maker on the planet would want to get in on that action.

We head over to the USA for the international launch of the new Jeep Renegade!

What is it?

The new baby of the Jeep family is based on the same “Small US Wide 4X4” platform as the new Fiat 500X SUV, and it is also built alongside the small Fiat in Italy.

Unlike a lot of the entrants into the baby SUV segment, the Jeep Renegade not only offers 4WD models, but also a more hardcore Trailhawk variant with – gasp – some real off road ability.

While it hasn’t been confirmed exactly what models will arrive in New Zealand when the Renegade is launched here early in 2016, in the US market it is offered in four models – Sport, Latitude, Limited and Trailhawk – with a wide range of four-cylinder petrol and diesel engines and transmissions.

At the launch we drove the Sport, Limited and Trailhawk models with the US-spec engines and transmissions – a 119kW/250Nm 1.4-litre turbo petrol hooked up to a six-speed manual and a 134kW/237Nm 2.4-litre petrol hooked up to a nine-speed auto.

It is largely expected the the Asia Pacific region will see the availability of the 1.4 engine with a choice of either the manual transmission, a six-speed dual clutch or the 9-speed auto, the 2.4 with the 9-speed auto and a 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo diesel engine with a choice of the manual or the 9-speeder. What Jeep NZ chooses to take for this market hasn’t been announced at this stage.

The Sport, Latitude (known as Longitude in some markets) and Limited come as standard in FWD guise, but are available with the Jeep Active Drive full-time 4WD system, as well as Jeep’s Selec-Terrain traction system with settings for Mud, Snow Sand or Auto.

The Trailhawk is 4WD only and features the Active Drive Low 4WD system that brings a 20:1 crawl ration, as well as an increased ride height, underbody protection and a Rock mode on the Selec-Terrain system.

All models have the option of Jeep’s “My Sky” roof system. No, it won’t record the latest episode of Game of Thrones for you, but it does offer open top motoring with removable roof sections (similar to the Wrangler’s roof), while the Latitude, Limited and Trailhawk also get the option of a version that has a power retractable section that is also removable, if the mood strikes.

Jeep Renegade (05)

What’s it like?

The Renegade impresses from first sight, with a strong Wrangler/Willys-inspired look that works remarkably well on the small platform. While in photos it can appear a bit awkward and rather contrived, in the metal it comes across as a far more convincing and cohesive design.

There is more than enough “cute” to appeal to the people who are likely to buy it in 2WD for pottering around cafes and picking the kids up from school, but there is a surprising amount of “tough” in there as well, particularly in Trailhawk spec, with its matt black bonnet section and higher ride height.

Inside the intriguing mix of soft and tough continue, with a choice of interior trims that range from standard black and grey through to the striking brown and white with orange highlights that quickly became a favourite of the journalists on the launch.

The Jeep styling cues continue inside, with the “X” motif that features on the roof and taillights (and represents the jerry can on the back of the original Willys Jeep) putting in a number of appearances, along with the seven-slot grille/headlights icon, the “Since 1941” dashboard proclamation and the dash-mounted grab handle.

While the driving position is quite upright, it is remarkable comfortable and the seats are nicely supportive. Everything feels nicely put together and is of the kind of quality we have now come to expect from Chrysler/Jeep products since Fiat’s takeover.

On the road the Renegade is remarkably good fun to chuck around, particularly when equipped with the 1.4-litre engine and the manual transmission. Distinctly front-wheel drive handling throws up very little body movement into corners and the grip levels are remarkably high, even on the rain-soaked roads through the redwood forests of Northern California where the launch was held.

The 2.4-litre engine hooked up to the nine-speed automatic transmission lost a lot of the fun of the manual car with the smaller engine, but unfortunately didn’t make up for it by being a more relaxed cruiser. This is because the nine-speed transmission spend so much time shifting through the gears – it is exhausting just listening to it and is certainly a case where more isn’t necessarily better. A decent six-speed auto would probably be far better suited to the engine in this application.

Still, even the busy transmission didn’t detract from the overall feeling of extreme competence and ability that the Renegade possessed on the road. Then we took it off the road and were truly surprised.

While Jeep have made much of the fact that the Renegade is the “most capable” offroader in the baby SUV segment, that doesn’t really mean all that much, because nothing in the segment has any real off road ability.

But the Renegade most certainly does.

While it doesn’t actually feature a low range transmission, Jeep’s “Active Drive Low” 4WD system has a “4-Low” mode that locks the front and rear axles and relies on shorter axle gear ratios, while holding first gear in the ZF9HP transmission to achieve a crawl ratio of 20:1.

While we were expecting the Trailhawk to be impressive off the road, the extent to which it was – particularly after how impressed we were with it on the road – still came as a surprise to us.

2015 Jeep® Renegade Trailhawk

What’s good about it?

A hell of a lot! It looks great, both inside and out. It is roomy and practical. It is easy and brilliantly fun to drive on the road and the Trailhawk is deeply impressive off it!

2015 Jeep Renegade Limited

What’s not so good?

The nine-speed transmission tries far too hard, while the 2.4-litre engine just doesn’t feel that big. Except when it comes to weight over the front axle, making it not as agile as the 1.4. The hallowed “Trail-rated” badge no longer means that it can make it through the legendary Rubicon Trail off the showroom floor – or at all, really.

2015 Jeep® Renegade Trailhawk

First impressions?

The Jeep Renegade is a brilliant little vehicle that brings some much-needed real off road capability to the baby SUV segment, but without forgoing any of the comfort, practicality and cute looks that is also expected of a vehicle in the segment.

The fact that the Jeep designers have managed to carefully blend “cute” and “tough” into one design is equally impressive, and the Renegade has the ability to appeal to all tastes, depending on the options ticked.

The Renegades chances of sales success depend hugely on the price that Fiat Chrysler NZ can get it in for, but we honestly wouldn’t expect it to be cheap.

That said, the Renegade should have the ability to not only be a strong competitor in the baby SUV segment, but also to appeal to someone considering a Mini. Looks, lifestyle and real ability, the Renegade offers the lot.

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