Jeep turned 75 this year, and things have never been better for it. It’s one of the fastest-growing brands in America, with a 35.1% market share in crossover and SUV segments in 2015, and arguably the most competitive lineup in its history. Its entry point is the Renegade, a compact crossover that seats five, offers a six-speed manual transmission, can be spec’d in Jeep’s “Trail Rated” designation, and most importantly, stands out as “the fun one” in a segment full of forgettable little family cars.
But in many ways, the Renegade is a departure for Jeep. Sure, it looks like a Jeep, performs on- and off-road like a Jeep, and fits in just fine with the bigger Wranglers and Cherokees on dealer lots. But it doesn’t come from Toledo, Ohio, Belvedere, Illinois, or any other traditional traditional Jeep factory. It’s built in Melfi, Italy alongside its platform-mate, the Fiat 500X. And while both models were introduced 2015, only the Fiat can lay claim to the platform, since it descended from a joint venture between the Italian company and General Motors in 2006.
In a sense, Jeep lucked into such a strong platform, and with nearly 100,000 Renegades sold in the U.S. since its debut last March, it’s been reaping the spoils. On the other hand, the 500X has gotten off to a much quieter start than its American cousin. To date, the brand has sold around 15,000 examples in North America, making it one of the rarer new cars on the roads. But why is that the case? Is it a lack of brand recognition? An unforeseen quality issue? For this week’s installment of Buy This, Not That, we’ll take a look at FCA’s two entry-level crossovers, and see just what the issue is.
Tale of the tape
The Renegade may be an Italian immigrant, but it’s been fully assimilated into the Jeep lineup. It looks like a Jeep, drives like a Jeep, and feels like a Jeep. In fact, the brand has done such a good job making its smallest model feel all-American, that we’d wager some Renegade owners would be surprised that their crossover was an import. Instead, Jeep says it’s “Authentic any way you look at it,” and with design details like seven-slat grille, squared-off wheel openings, and “jerry can” taillights, it isn’t too far off.
The Renegade line starts well under $18K with the front-wheel drive Sport model, and tops out at the $25K-and-up Trailhawk, a gutsy little trucklet that can actually go off-road. The base engine is the 1.4-liter MultiAir inline-four, which is good for 160 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque, which can be mated to either the aforementioned six-speed manual or FCA’s new nine-speed automatic. A larger 2.4-liter four is standard on the range-topping Trailhawk, and optional across the line, which produces 180 horses and 175 pound-feet.
Inside, the Renegade bears a resemblance to the Wrangler, albeit one that’s a little more civilized, right down to the removable MySky panels that recall the iconic four-wheeler’s FreedomTop. And in Trailhawk guise, the resemblance to the Wrangler continues; with its shorter wheelbase, and added 0.8 ground clearance, the Renegade actually has better approach and departure angles compared to the bigger Cherokee.
So the Renegade is a capable family crossover with the uncanny (for the segment) ability to hit the trail. How does its cousin with the accent stack up?
Like the Renegade, the Fiat 500X does an admirable job fitting in with its stablemates. With its rounded shape, it fits right in with the cutesy 500 and Papal favorite 500L, while standing out as arguably the best-looking of the bunch. Under its skin, you’ll find that it has a lot in common with its more popular platform-mate: Same 1.4- and 2.4-liter mills for the same horsepower (160 and 180, respectively), same gearboxes, same 101.2-inch wheelbase, same five-seat layout, same two-panel sunroof, and likely available at the same dealerships.
But the Fiat carries a little bit of a premium; the entry-level Pop model starts at a cool $20K, giving the Jeep a little bit of an edge with budget-minded buyers. And while the Renegade pleases the Jeep faithful with its off-road prowess, the 500X is more concerned with the street. It handles a bit better on the pavement, and the bright interior is far more stylish. Fiat seems far more content marketing its crossover to urban-dwelling millennials than light off-roaders, and that’s fine — but there’s also a lot more competition from that angle. All-wheel drive is available on the Trekking models, but with the Renegade making so much noise as the rugged compact crossover, the 500X likely isn’t getting the exposure it deserves. After all, all that great American ruggedness in the Renegade is actually Fiat tech…
We like the underdog at Autos Cheat Sheet, and frankly, we like the 500X. In our opinion, it doesn’t get nearly enough shine for what it is: namely a fun, stylish, people-mover that delivers far more smiles than you’d expect from a car in its price range. But the Renegade is just too good to pass up. It’s the rare captive import — hell, it could be the only one ever — that completely captures its brand’s essence. It’s fun to drive on the pavement, a blast off of it, and the perfect little Jeep for people who can’t justify daily driving a Wrangler, and don’t love the Cherokee’s polarizing looks. The Renegade could be the best crossover in its segment, and while it may have been a Fiat first, the brand that invented the SUV made it its own, and just did it a little better.