The Jeep Renegade is the most talked about Jeep in years, and it may be the most controversial thing Jeep has done since it discontinued its CJ line. The CJ-model Jeep is the iconic round-headlight model made from 1944-1986 that is beloved by off-road purists – and still the standard on which all Jeeps are judged. For a new Jeep to succeed (in the minds of Jeep fans), it needs to be affordable, trail-ready, and must carry on the spirit of the original 1941 Willys MB. But Jeep is looking to expand its customer base and increase its global footprint without compromising that valuable Jeep image – and it’s looking to the Renegade to be its volume seller. Between brand reputation and sales numbers, there’s a lot at stake here. Because of this, the Renegade may be the most scrutinized car of 2015 that isn’t called the Ford GT.
Jeep has made sure that the Renegade is many things to as many people as possible. There are four different trim levels: Sport, Latitude, Limited, and Trailhawk. Four-Wheel drive is a $2,000 option on all models except for the Trailhawk, where it comes standard. With two different four-cylinder engines, a six-speed manual or nine-speed automatic, front-wheel drive, or two different four-wheel drive systems, the Renegade has 16 different engine/transmission/powertrain combinations, and a host of options that Jeep hopes will satisfy any buyer considering the small model.
The Trailhawk is the “Trail Rated” top-of-the-line model. It’s the most classically Jeep-like and the model that parent company Fiat-Chrysler has been quickest to show off. The Trailhawk comes standard with Chrysler’s 2.4 liter Tigershark inline-four connected to the new nine-speed automatic transmission. It has been lifted by 0.8 inches compared to lesser models, and has a revised front and rear fascia that allows for a 30.5 degree approach, and a 34.3 departure angle – not bad for such a small SUV. Under the sheet metal, the Trailhawk gets the new Jeep Active Drive Low with a 20:1 crawl ratio (for steep climbs), a specially designed skid plate, a revised suspension that allows 8.1 inches of wheel articulation, and 19-inch fording capability for drivers who want to take their Renegades for a swim. It may not be a Ford Raptor, but the Renegade Trailhawk is a legitimate and capable little off-roader.
For the buyers who will never get their Renegades muddy, the Jeep is a versatile, city-sized small car that becomes an instant contender in the subcompact SUV market. The base-model Sport is front-wheel drive with a standard six-speed manual transmission mated to the 1.4 liter MultiAir turbo engine, and starts at $18,990. At 166.6 inches long, The Renegade fits nicely between competitors like the 162.4-inch Nissan Juke, and the 169.1-inch 2016 Honda HR-V. Jeep claims the Renegade’s fuel economy will average around 30 miles per gallon per Car and Driver, leagues ahead of the 18-miles per gallon of the Jeep Wrangler. In terms of options, Jeep has been quick to show off the optional MySky sunroof, which features two removable panels that store neatly in the back for an open top experience – also a first in this segment.
The subcompact SUV (or B Segment) is the fastest growing segment in the automotive industry today, per Fortune. With small SUVs like the HR-V, Juke, Chevy Trax, Mini Countryman, and Kia Soul selling extremely well worldwide, Jeep stands to gain a huge market share if the Renegade takes off. It may not be geared toward dedicated off-roaders, but the Jeep badge will give instant credibility to the Renegade, and may woo some buyers on that alone. Designed in America, but built on Fiat-Chrysler’s Small-Wide 4×4 architecture (which it shares with the Fiat 500X), in Malfi, Italy, the Renegade is the first Jeep not built in America, and is a message from parent company Fiat-Chrysler that Jeep has arrived as a global brand.
Perhaps the most striking thing about this new Jeep is its “Jeep-ness.” From the front and rear, the Renegade uses tried and true design hallmarks like round headlights, the familiar grille, and boxy taillights that reference the Jeeps of decades past. Unlike its larger sibling, the polarizing Jeep Cherokee, you can tell the the Renegade is a Jeep from a mile down the road. The larger Cherokee may be assembled in the historic Jeep plant in Toledo, Ohio, and share its architecture with the Dodge Dart and Chrysler 200, but its design is far more avant-garde and un-Jeep looking. In the styling department, Jeep has made a bold (and smart) decision to mask the Renegade’s “foreign-ness” by designing an instantly recognizable car that looks more American and Jeep-like than the more orthodox, American-built truck.
Jeep has walked a tightrope in creating the Renegade, and so far it’s paid off. Instead of settling on a lukewarm compromise that pleased no one, the Renegade is enough of a Jeep to not disappoint the faithful, but is fresh, approachable, and competitive enough to attract new buyers to the brand. What’s more astonishing, Jeep has built a world-class small car in Italy that has the credibility to proudly wear Jeep’s all-American, seven-spoke grille. It may not please everyone, but it sure comes close. The Renegade provides an interesting glimpse into the future of the Jeep brand, and in that sense, it may be the most radical Jeep since the original.