2015 Jeep Renegade First Drive [w/video]
Heritage And Funk Conspire In Jeep's Latest CUV
Power180 HP / 175 LB-FT
0-60 Time8.3 Seconds (est.)
Curb Weight3,348 LBS
Cargo50.8 CU-FT (max)
MPG30 HWY (est.)
As Tested Price$26,860
Jeep has most recently fought this battle following the arrival of the new Cherokee, where two-tracking purists and rock-crawling enthusiasts bemoaned the nameplate's dip into Crossoverdom. Now, with its latest vehicle, the off-road brand is trying to keep this vocal minority happy (or at least quiet) while building a crossover that has general-purpose appeal to consumers in an increasingly crowded and important small CUV market.
This balancing act has produced the 2015 Renegade, a vehicle that, following our testing in sunny San Jose, CA, we're quite confident will appeal to both brand loyalists and the uninitiated, alike.
Before we dig into the meat of our First Drive, if you're here looking for a review of the Renegade Trailhawk and its off-road abilities, you're out of luck. We did drive it, both on- and off-road, and will be publishing a feature on it in the very near future. But for now, we're focusing on the volume model, the Renegade Latitude.
Instead of the off-roader-meets-E.T. appearance of the Cherokee that's polarized so many, Jeep has dipped its brush in the tin marked "Heritage," fitting a simple seven-slat grille, historically appropriate round headlights and square taillights. In between all that, there are flared trapezoidal wheel arches, like you'd get on a classic CJ or MB, tall windows to let in plenty of light and short overhangs.
It's not the broader strokes that contribute to the Renegade's adorably busy exterior, so much as the myriad of smaller styling details that visually attach this new model to Jeeps of the past. The hood is long and mostly flat, forcibly recalling the bonnet of the original Willys MBs and Ford GPWs that US troops used to strategize, sermonize and operate on during World War II. But rather than make it flush with the grille, it bleeds over the headlights, like the front of an infantryman's helmet. The X shape found throughout the car is reminiscent of military-style jerry cans, while the mirrors are door-mounted, like Jeeps of old. The roof, meanwhile, can be blacked-out, further linking the Renegade to its big brother, the Wrangler.
These same small details make the interior a fascinating place. Jeep, and the Chrysler brands as a whole, have made something of a habit of sprinkling tiny Easter eggs throughout their cabins. The Renegade carries on this proud tradition. It sports a tiny topographical map of Moab, UT, home of the Easter Jeep Safari. The surround for the infotainment system, meanwhile, reminds drivers that Jeep has been doing this "Since 1941," while the jerry can influence is felt once again in the cup holders. There are subtler items, too, including a Yeti, as Fiat Chrysler North America's Interior Design boss Klaus Busse explains.
The spacious cabin isn't without its stylistic shortcomings. FCA's latest automatic transmissions have used a rotary dial or some other twist on the traditional shift lever. But due to the lack of real estate on the Renegade's dash and center stack, the new Jeep gets by with a traditional lever. It's a similar story with the pushbutton start, which is mounted, counterintuitively, on the steering column. And enthusiasts will doubtlessly lament the electronic parking brake – your author did – which was selected over a traditional handbrake, to accommodate a pair of cupholders.
These are, to be fair, modest sacrifices in the otherwise roomy interior. Whether you're sitting in front or back, shoulder and headroom are in ample supply, and backseat passengers should rest easy knowing there's solid legroom. For the driver, both the standard, manually operated six-way and optional, powered eight-way seats enjoy a decent range of adjustments, while the tilt/telescopic steering wheel adds a further range of comfort. Sightlines are quite good, both fore and aft, although the thick D-pillars aren't great for blind spots.
Jeep has dipped into the corporate engine bin and plucked out a pair of familiar powertrains for its new entry level model: the 1.4-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder from the Fiat 500 Turbo/Abarth and 500L; and the 2.4-liter, naturally aspirated Tigershark four-cylinder from the Dodge Dart, Chrysler 200, and Jeep Cherokee. Both engines are available on the Sport and Latitude, while the top-end Limited and off-road-ready Trailhawk can only be had with a 2.4. Regardless of trim, both front- or all-wheel-drive is available. Finally, 1.4 owners are stuck with a six-speed manual, while 2.4 owners get FCA's nine-speed auto, so it's really a question of transmission – not engine – when it comes time to buy (once the creature comforts and doodads that CUV buyers demand have been accounted for, of course).
Power output for both engines is more or less the same as in other models. The 1.4 gets by with 160 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque, while the 2.4 pumps out 180 hp and 175 lb-ft. EPA estimates haven't been published for either engine just yet, although Jeep is expecting the entire Renegade range to exceed 30 miles per gallon on the highway. We expect the official numbers to arrive shortly.
You might imagine we gravitated immediately towards the turbocharged Renegade and its three-pedal setup, but you'd be wrong. Our first stint was behind the wheel of the 2.4, and much like in other FCAs, we were impressed with the refined power delivery and sound that came from the Renegade's largest engine. Off-the-line acceleration is decent, and the throttle response is linear and modulates progressively, although we wouldn't have minded a smidge more punch for freeway passes and such.
The nine-speed auto, meanwhile, continues to be a love-it-or-hate-it gearbox. As with our long-term Cherokee, it was more inclined to hunt about when we asked for more power, and it was almost fidgety in its inability to hold a gear while cruising. Some downshifts (particularly on the more aggressive, winding sections of our drive route) also seemed to catch it out, leading to a very small, but noticeable, shudder.
The turbocharged four-cylinder and manual transmission, meanwhile, have a dramatic impact on the Renegade's character. The 1.4 offers strong performance in its latest application, although as it is with other models, it takes some revs to get into the torque curve, so it's easy to get caught flat-footed if you don't watch the tach. It sounds quite nice, though, and turbo lag isn't a particular issue.
The six-speed manual isn't perfect – the clutch is overly light and somewhat vague, while the shifter's throws were on the long side, much as we experienced on the Fiat 500L. However, once we adjusted to its idiosyncrasies, this subcompact delivered what is, for all intents and purposes, a hot-hatchback-like-experience. It's a darn fun combination, too, although with Jeep expecting only about 15 percent of its Renegades to be sold with the 6MT, we wouldn't count on seeing a lot of them on the road.
And that's actually for the best, because as much fun as this powertrain is, the 2.4 isn't only more livable, but it feels peppier, too. Regardless of engine, though, don't plan on drag racing your buddy's Kia Soul or Nissan Juke, thanks largely to the Renegade's somewhat ridiculous weight. The non-Trailhawk 4x4 with the 2.4 tips the scales at 3,348 pounds, while the 1.4 4x4 rings up at 3,183 pounds (opt for the Trailhawk with the 2.4, and you'll be getting a nearly 3,600-pound CUV). Compare that with the less powerful but significantly lighter Soul or the slightly lighter, more powerful Juke, and the Renegade comes up short.
Even with its weight penalty, though, the Jeep feels dynamically superior to the Soul or Chevy Trax on winding roads. It feels planted (for a crossover) in all but the hardest of cornering maneuvers, while the little body roll that crops up from aggressive steering angles arrives progressively and predictably. Jeep's suspension tuners have done fine work with the damping on their latest product, as neither squat nor dive were serious issues. Overall, the Renegade struck us as a stable and, dare we say, entertaining vehicle through the twisties.
No doubt, some of this prowess is down to the Renegade's fully independent suspension. But Jeep didn't stop at just outright handling ability. The inclusion of segment-exclusive frequency selective dampers, courtesy of Koni, and thick tire sidewalls across the range makes for a surprisingly comfortable ride.
On California's highways, the Renegade was poised and comfortable. You could still recognize when you hit a bump or imperfection, but the suspension did a great job of soaking up the majority of the impact. Vertical motion, even on the pockmarked tarmac and washboard dirt roads leading into the Hollister Hills State Vehicular Recreation Area – where we'd test the Trailhawk – was very well controlled. Overall, the Jeep rides in a manner consistent with a higher-end small CUV, like the Buick Encore. That praise, unfortunately, doesn't translate to road or wind noise, both of which were more noticeable than we'd have liked.
As is the trend now, Jeep fitted an electronic power-assisted steering rack. While it's light on feedback, weight builds steadily and linearly from on-center to full lock. It's a surprisingly precise tiller as well, meaning we had little issue dialing in just the right amount of steering on the hilly northern Californian roads.
Perhaps the big question on everyone's mind following the Renegade's Geneva Motor Show unveiling has been one of cost. Jeeps are, after all, are not particularly affordable vehicles, particularly when looking at the new Cherokee and Grand Cherokee, with both easily creeping into the $30,000 and $50,000 range, respectively, when options are added.
Prices for the Renegade Latitude, as previously established, start at $21,295. That includes a standard 1.4-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder, six-speed manual, five-inch touchscreen audio with a six-speaker stereo, a 3.5-inch instrument cluster display and access to a wide and varied group of options packages. As for the Commando Green Renegade Latitude 4x4 shown above, it retailed for $26,860, thanks in large part to its $2,000 all-wheel-drive system, $1,200 2.4-liter engine/nine-speed automatic powertrain, optional 17-inch wheels and $1,095 removable My Sky roof. As for when you'll be able to pick one up for yourself, the first customer vehicles are shipping as we write this, and should start arriving in dealers in limited quantities later next month. Jeep expects Renegades to be widely available come March.
While that price seems reasonable, there are a few problems. This volume model's price is darn close to that of the top-end models from the competition. A Kia Soul ! can be had for $26,715, although it's only available with front-wheel drive. The Nissan Juke SL with all-wheel drive costs $27,765, but it forces its owners into a continuously variable transmission. And the Chevrolet Trax LTZ AWD rings up at $27,405. While the Jeep bests the Soul with all-wheel drive and is cheaper than the Nissan or Chevy, it's seriously down on optional extras. All competitors at this price point come with navigation, an upgraded stereo and leather seats, to name a few plusses. Consider price, then, to be the biggest and boldest mark against Jeep's latest offering.
What we've seen so far in the small CUV market is a tendency to take chances. The Kia Soul sports a funky, fresh style, while the Nissan Juke is basically a hot hatch mated with a treefrog. With the Renegade, Jeep has taken its own well-known design heritage and its penchant for trail raiding and successfully blended in a package that will appeal to a wide range of consumers. It's not only a great piece of styling, it's a vehicle that should prove an able and entertaining companion on America's highways and twisting roads.
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