Especially if they’re not cars at all.
Like this Jeep Renegade.
How many small SUVs are there out there with a starting sticker price under $18 that come standard with a turbocharged engine and a six-speed manual transmission?
How many have the turbo engine, the six-speed manual, can go off-road and cost under $20k?
The Renegade is the first Jeep-branded fruit of the Fiat-Chrysler merger. It is a cousin of the Fiat 500X, and shares the same engines, but differs markedly in terms of what it can do… and where it can go.
While the Fiat offers all-wheel-drive, the Jeep offers two different four-wheel-drive systems.
All-wheel-drive is light duty; good for driving in the snow and rain… on paved roads. Gravel’s ok, too, But don’t push it much beyond that. AWD systems typically route the engine’s power from front to rear in varying ratios but (unlike most four-wheel-drive systems) usually send most of the power to the front wheels, can’t permanently lock the power split in a fixed (usually, 50-50) ratio and (the Big One) typically doesn’t have a gear reduction feature (usually, a two-speed transfer case) to multiply the engine’s pulling power at low speeds. You need the latter to slog through deep mud and such.
The Jeep’s two optional systems haven’t got the two speed transfer case but do have the gear-reduction function, can lock the power split, front to rear and have multiple driver selectable terrain modes. No other small SUV in Jeep’s price bracket offers this additional level of capability.
A top-of-the-line Limited with a larger 2.4 liter engine, nine-speed automatic, four-wheel-drive, heated leather seats and steering wheel, a nicer LCD display, automatic climate control and 18 inch wheels stickers for $26,995.
Also available is a stubble-chinned Trailhawk version. It comes standard with the 2.4 liter engine paired with the nine-speed automatic transmission plus an upgraded version of the four-wheel-drive system with rock crawl mode, plus knobby tires, underbody skid plates, upgraded suspension and an extra inch of ground clearance.
Probably the closest cross-shop is the Subaru Crosstrek. At $21,595 to start with standard AWD, it is less expensive than the 4WD Trailhawk by several thousand dollars and has similar ground clearance. But it does not offer terrain-selectable drive modes or a low range gearing function. It’s also longer by almost a foot and it’s more of a wagon than the boxy-shaped Jeep, which cuts down a lot on the head room (especially in the second row) you’ll find inside the Soobie.
And if you mainly like the bulldog looks – but don’t care much about capability – there’s also the Kia Soul to consider. Or, if you’d prefer to keep it in the family, there’s also the Jeep Patriot. It’s similar in looks (and slightly larger) but it’s an also an aging design (2016 will probably be the last year) and doesn’t offer the Renegade’s beefy capabilities, either.
The Renegade came out in 2015 as an all-new model, so the changes for the new model year are pretty minor. There’s a new Beats high-end (nine-speaker) audio system, updated automatic wiper system for the Trailhawk and Limited trims and a slight price uptick (about $200) across the trim lines.
Legit as a Jeep.
Standard (Fiat-sourced) 1.4 liter engine is much stronger than Patriot’s wheezy (and thirsty) 2.0 engine.
Six-speed manual transmission is available. With the turbo engine. With 4WD. And not just in the base Sport trim, either.
Uniquely “Jeepy” features such as the available removable MySky roof sections.
It’s not a marketing con. The Renegade is more capable than the light-duty AWD-equipped competition.
Optional 2.4 liter engine requires foregoing the stick. It is paired only with a nine-speed automatic.
Electric parking brake seems out of place in such a hands-on vehicle.
Base Sport trim doesn’t standard come with Bluetooth – or AC.
Off-road-capabilities also entail some on-road compromises, including a wider-than-you’d-expect turning circle (36.3 feet) for a vehicle this size.
Euro-spec high-mileage diesel engine is not on the menu here.
It says Jeep on the fenders but pop the hood and you’ll find a Fiat-sourced 1.4 liter four.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
The little engine is turbocharged and makes 160 hp – 12 more hp than the Patriot’s larger and much less fuel-efficient 2.0 liter four. The 1.6 engine also produces a fat (for a four) 184 ft.-lbs. of torque at just 2,500 RPM – which means it pulls harder (and sooner) than the typical four.
The turbo’d engine delivers on-demand power and lower gas bills the rest of the time because you’re feeding about 35 percent less engine (in terms of displacement) when the turbo’s not boosting the engine’s output.
You can pair the Jeep’s 1.4 liter engine with either a six-speed manual transmission or a nine-speed automatic, the latter being the way to go for maximum potential fuel economy, but the former being a lot more fun.
The mileage difference isn’t huge, either. With the six-speed manual, you’re looking at 25 city, 34 highway; with the automatic, 24 city, 31 highway.
Don’t expect Saturn V acceleration, though. A fairly beefy curb weight (3,044 lbs. with FWD; several hundred more with the optional 4WD) and a boxy, less than aerodynamically slippery profile add up to a 0-60 run just under 10 seconds.
The step up engine (standard in higher trims) is a larger, 2.4 liter “Tigershark” four – also the same engine that’s optional in the Renegade’s sibling, the 500x. In both, output is pegged at 180 hp. Note that this engine makes less torque (177 ft.-lbs.) than the 1.4 liter engine (184 ft.-lbs.) and its torque peak is higher up the rev scale (3,900 RPM).
The 2.4 liter engine is paired only with the nine-speed automatic. This combo’s not much quicker than the 1.4-equipped Renegade. Zero to 60 in the mid-high nines. It’s not awful. But it ain’t speedy, either.
Gas mileage-wise, EPA says 22 city, 31 highway for the FWD version and 21 city, 29 with 4WD. This is only almost as good as the 1.4 liter engine manages.
They differ from what has traditionally been marketed as four-wheel-drive (vs. all-wheel-drive) because they’re based on a front-wheel-drive layout, with most of the engine’s output usually going to the front rather than the rear wheels.
But unlike pretty much all the AWD systems available – at least in this class – the Jeep systems have additional functional features that provide a higher level of capability.
The first system – optional in all but the Trailhawk – has three driver-selectable terrain modes (Snow, Sand and Mud) with each mode altering parameters such as throttle response and shift points (automatic-equipped Renegades) to best suit those driving conditions. Also, the power split can be locked in a fixed ratio, which is helpful when beating around out in the bush.
Trailhawk models get an additional mode – Rock – as well a gear reduction function. It’s very similar to what you’d find in something like a Land Rover LR2 (base price $36,300) but nonexistent in compact SUVs priced in the Renegade’s ballpark.
In addition, both Renegade systems can be manually toggled into two-wheel-drive mode, just like a “real” 4×4. The difference being that all power goes to the front wheels rather than the rears but the object being the same: to reduce friction losses (and so, burn less fuel) when operating on dry pavement. Most competitors’ all-wheel-drive systems can’t be disengaged; you are always in all-wheel-drive. Which means all four wheels are being powered … which means more fuel is being consumed.
Another plus: The Renegade can tow up to 2,000 pounds when equipped with its optional engine – which is 2,000 pounds more than small crossovers like the new Chevy Trax and also the Soobie Crosstrek … neither of which are rated to tow anything at all.
Crossovers are as popular as bell bottom cords were back in ’78 – but for different reasons.
The Renegade, like others in this class, looks rugged and actually is rugged; especially in Trailhawk form. But unlike the truck-based SUVs it draws cosmetic and functional inspiration from, it behaves much more like a car than a truck-based SUV.
You get the additional ride height and bad weather/snow-day (and even some pretty serious off-road) capability … but not the high-speed iffiness and clumsy cornering that are inevitably part of the package when you buy a “real” (truck-based) 4×4.
Your big decision here will be which engine – and accordingly, which transmission – to go with.
The 1.4 liter engine is – surprisingly – the sportier of the two, notwithstanding its slightly lower horsepower rating.
Remember that higher torque rating – 184 ft.-lbs. vs. 177 ft.-lbs. And take note of the fact that the 1.4’s torque peak happens much lower in the powerband (2,500 RPM vs. 3,900 RPM for the 2.4 engine), which means the thing reacts more quickly because it takes less time to reach its power peak.
Now add a six-speed manual transmission – unavailable with the larger engine – and (if you stick with the FWD version) several hundred pounds less curb weight. It’s like dropping 20 pounds and quitting smoking. Maybe you’re not gonna win the decathalon – but you’re no longer out of breath walking down to the mailbox and back.
The Renegade reminds me a lot of another fun micro-sized crossover that got killed off by the Safety Nazis: The Chevy Tracker of the ’90s/early 2000s. This one’s heavier but like the Tracker, it’s got personality – and, punch.
The 2.4 engine is fine, too – but there are some bugs yet to be worked out with the nine-speed automatic that it comes paired with. I’ve driven several new Fiat-Chryslers fitted with the same ZF-sourced transmission – and they all do the same Weird Thing. When descending a grade (lots of them up here in the mountains of rural SW Virginia) the transmission sometimes seems to jump up several gears – seventh, eighth, ninth – which makes the vehicle feel as though it is surging forward.
What’s happening is the transmission is trying to squeeze out as many MPGs as possible by getting into as high a gear as possible as quickly as possible. That’s the whole point of having all those extra gears.
And it’s fine on the straight and level.
But the upper gears don’t give you much if any engine braking effect when going downhill – and when the transmission jumps from say sixth to ninth, the vehicle feels as though it is also jumping forward.
Which can be unnerving.
The truth is no one would be selling eight and nine-speed automatics except for the pressure coming from Washington to get the fuel economy numbers up, even if the difference is only 2-3 MPG (which is negligible in real-world driving and irrelevant to buyers when gas is $1.85 per gallon).
I wish Jeep (uh, Fiat) would at least offer the 2.4 engine with the six-speed manual, so that buyers could have that option. So why not? Because too many six-speed Renegades would lower Jeep’s overall “fleet average” fuel economy figures – and that would cause Jeep problems with Uncle.
Bill Mitchell – the famous Chevy designer who is credited with penning the lines of the stunning 1970 Camaro (among others) – was accused of cribbing the basic shape of what became the second-generation Camaro from Ferrari (the 275 GTB). Mitchell, unashamed, replied that if you’re going to commit robbery, rob a bank … not a liquor store.
It’s a philosophy Jeep appears to have taken to heart.
The Renegade looks a lot like the very popular Kia Soul – which more than any other model lit the fuse of the “box car” fad that’s sweeping the land. Like the Soul, the Renegade is kind of goofy looking; tall – and wide … and short-wheelbased.
But unlike the Soul – which sits low (5.9 inches of ground clearance) the Jeep’s skirts are hiked up to nearly 9 inches. There is also a Wrangler-esque vertical bar grille in front and numerous additional – and subtler – styling affectations to impart a “Jeep” vibe to the thing. Also some unique-to-Jeep things, like the available My Sky removable roof sections. These either raise up – or come all the way off. The panels store in vinyl covers that Jeep thoughtfully provides.
Like a growing number of new cars, you can get in-car WiFi, though of course it’s not free WiFi (subscription required after an initial trail period). Still, it’s cool. All but the stripped-down base Sport trim come with (or can be equipped with) a nice touchscreen system through which you can dial up UConnect Access apps , Yelp and so on. Text-to-speech smartphone capability is available, too.
However, base Sport trims lack Bluetooth, so if you want to listen to your iPod, you’ll need to physically hook the thing up.
The tall/wide layout provides generous head and shoulder room in both rows (second row headroom in the Soobie Crosstrek wagon is – surprisingly – several inches less) but second row legroom in the Renegade is pretty tight – just 35.1 inches. The Kia Soul is shorter end to end (163 inches vs. 166.6 for the Jeep) but it has a much more passenger-friendly backseat, especially when it comes to legroom (39.1 inches). The Kia also kills when it comes to cargo room, of which there is 24.2 cubic feet behind the second row (vs. 18.5 for the Jeep) and 61.3 cubes with them folded down (vs. 50.8 for the Renegade).
Interestingly, the Fiat 500x – which recall shares its platform with the Renegade – is even less roomy in back. Just 34.8 inches of second row legroom (trust me, that’ll affect your sperm count) and only 32 cubic feet of total cargo capacity with the second row folded flat.
The Renegade is just the ticket for the person who wants a bit more Jeepiness than the Patriot offers but a bit less Jeepiness than the Wrangler and other Jeeps come with.
Except for a fairly wide turning circle, it’s a very everyday driveable little ‘ute that has that extra bit of gumption to risk venturing out in a blizzard before the plows show up – or trundling down to the stream to fish instead of parking a half mile away and hauling your gear to the stream on foot.
The Renegade’s small footprint is a big asset in city driving and also out in The Woods – where a couple or three inches less length can mean all the difference between squeezing past a couple of trees and not. And even though it hasn’t got a two-speed transfer case, the Trailhawk’s gear reduction feature provides the same – or close to the same – benefit. That plus another inch (almost) of additional ground clearance makes this little Fiat-in-drag a kind of low-bucks Land Rover. It’ll do things you might not believe it could until you see them done for yourself.
The one thing that sucks – and it’s not Fiat’s (er, Jeep’s) fault is the fact that the diesel engines available in Euro-market versions are not and apparently will not be available here. Especially now, given the VW diesel fiasco.
The federal government – notwithstanding all the donkey braying about how important it is that new vehicles use less fuel – has made it damned hard to sell fuel-sippy diesel-powered vehicles in this country. See what happened to VW.
So U.S. buyers get gas engines and maybe mid 20s, on average – while Europeans get the same basic vehicles but they average mid-30s.
THE BOTTOM LINE
It’s legitimately a Jeep… even if it did spring from Fiat’s loins.
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