JEEP in style, but European in size, this US-designed, Italian-built baby SUV has what it takes to shake up its patchy competitor set.
WHAT IS IT?
Built on an entirely new platform, yet sharing elements with Fiat’s 500X crossover, the funky Jeep Renegade is manufactured alongside its Italian cousin in Fiat’s Melfi plant in southern Italy. Jeep claims the Renegade is 100 percent Apple Pie in execution, including a proper ‘Trailrated’ all-wheel-drive version, yet several models employ Fiat-Alfa’s 1.4-litre ‘MultiAir’ turbo four and front-wheel drive. Think Jeep toughness in a satchel-sized, city-chic package.
WHY WE’RE TESTING IT
Launched in the challenging Hollister Hills outside San Jose, California, the Renegade is Jeep’s newest arsenal in its bid to be a serious global player. With worldwide Jeep sales up 39 percent in 2014 (to a record 1,017,019 units), about the only thing standing in the way of the stylish, neatly sized and surprisingly capable Renegade is production capacity. Available with 16 different engine and transmission configurations, the Renegade is armed and ready to attack the burgeoning baby SUV set.
Ford EcoSport, Holden Trax, Honda HR-V, Mazda CX-3, Nissan Juke, Peugeot 2008, Renault Captur, Skoda Yeti, Suzuki S-Cross and, when it launches in Australia late this year, Citroen’s C4 Cactus.
THE WHEELS VERDICT
Huggably good-looking, with loads of cool design details, the Renegade’s trump card is its terrific styling. But beyond this baby-Jeep aesthetic is a car that manages to be genuinely well-rounded. It’s surprisingly quiet, reasonably punchy, roomy, handles and rides fluidly and (in 1.4 turbo manual form) feels a bit sporty. Plus, the Trailhawk model is a true off-roader. Only steering numbness at straight ahead and a flat rear seat dilute the Renegade’s goodness.
PLUS: Handsome styling; fluid handling; pleasant ride; road-noise refinement; off-road capability; brave colour palette; available technology; overall concept
MINUS: Steering is over-light and deprived of feel around straight ahead; rear-seat cushion is flat and lacks under-thigh support; nine-speed auto needs a Sport mode
THE WHEELS REVIEW
THE Renegade is one of those cars you really want to like. Unmistakeably Jeep in style, it manages to distil many of the design elements the brand holds near and dear – seven-slot grille, trapezoidal wheelarches, a tough stance and army-inspired details (like the ‘jerry-can’ tail-lights) – and perfectly packages all that into a well-proportioned, super-cool little SUV. Plus, it comes in some really ‘out there’ paint colours that manage to enhance its visual appeal.
Measuring 4232mm long and riding on a 2570mm wheelbase, the Renegade sits smack-bang in the guts of the baby SUV class.
Available with front- or all-wheel drive, when the Renegade lobs in Australia in the third quarter of this year the range will kick off with an 82kW 1.6-litre ‘EtorQ’ naturally aspirated petrol four, and will include either a 1.6- or 2.0-litre turbo-diesel four (or both). The front-drivers we drove in California, however, sported a version of the 1.4-litre ‘MultiAir’ turbo-petrol four that does such a fine job in Alfa Romeo’s Giulietta.
Tied to a sweet-shifting six-speed manual gearbox with the same faux-metal knob as a base Giulietta, the entry-level Renegade Sport weighs a solid 1372kg, but manages to feel sprightly in its lower gears thanks to the 1.4 turbo’s generous 119kW and 250Nm outputs.
A lesser-powered 103kW/230Nm version will be offered in Europe, but Australia will stick with the up-spec 1.4 turbo, including an optional six-speed dual-clutch transmission.
Riding three-up through very hilly country, the Renegade Sport feels a little flat-footed in taller ratios, demanding at least 2800rpm on its tacho in fifth and sixth gears to deliver noticeable shove. But with just the driver on board, the front-drive Renegade is punchy and keen, with a gutsy mid-range.
Jeep claims “under 10 seconds” for the 0-100km/h sprint for both the 1.4 turbo manual and its 2.4-litre ‘Tigershark’ atmo sister tied to a nine-speed auto, and we wouldn’t argue with that.
No real complaints about the Renegade’s on-road dynamics, either, especially in terms of quietness and overall fluidity.
Running fully independent suspension with struts at each corner and Koni ‘Frequency Selective Damping’ (FSD) – designed to filter out high-frequency surface irregularities while maintaining ride suppleness and body control – the Renegade feels confident and mature on challenging surfaces.
The FSD dampers still transmit some suspension jiggle on California’s rippled concrete freeways, but on patchwork country roads, the Renegade’s road-noise refinement puts it right at the top of its class.
It handles neatly, with well-contained body movement and a level of fluidity that most people wouldn’t expect from a Jeep. Indeed, with the peppy 1.4 turbo and snappy manual shift, the front-drive Renegade is quite a fun little thing, even on all-season 215/65R16 Continental Cross Contacts.
The Renegade’s only real weak link is its electric steering, which is too light and lacking in feel around the straight-ahead position, though it becomes more precise and responsive once you start to apply lock.
Move up through Renegade’s Sport and Longitude trim levels and you come to the Limited. Wearing 225/55R18 Kumho KL33 tyres, the Limited is grippier than the 16in-wheeled models without too much detriment to its ride.
But up in the mountains, the Limited’s Tigershark 2.4 with nine-speed auto needs to be driven manually – via a correctly configured gate (forward for downshift, back for upshift) – to prevent the nine-speeder from trying to grab the tallest gear possible, and hunting up and down its vast ratio set.
In the city and on fast freeways, however, it’s a different story. The 137kW/236Nm 2.4-litre engine needs revs to perform, but its plethora of ratios helps.
And while it isn’t the quietest thing around, it is massively more refined and enjoyable to listen to than some of the horrid petrol donks in rival SUVs.
In the all-wheel-drive Trailhawk – boasting Jeep’s revered ‘Trail-rating’, a Terrain Selector with a ‘Rock’ mode, low range, hill-descent control and an impressive 220mm of ground clearance – you can genuinely go off-roading in a Renegade.
While the Trailhawk’s 1586kg makes the 2.4 Tigershark engine work hard for its money, a lower final-drive ratio (4.33:1 versus 3.73 for the 2.4-litre in other models) goes some way to making up for it, as does the Trailhawk’s matte-black bonnet bulge, funky 17-inch wheels and toughened styling (with bespoke bumpers to enhance its approach and departure angles).
What the lowering of the Renegade Trailhawk’s diff ratio might achieve is a useful top gear. At a cruise-controlled 120km/h, the regular 2.4 auto is in eighth gear, yet if you flick it manually into ninth, it starts to lose speed as the tacho drops below 1600rpm. In other words, at any legal speed in Australia bar the Northern Territory, ninth gear is irrelevant.
The Renegade’s robust interior is littered with design details that will please Jeep fans – like the map of Moab, Utah, ahead of the gear selector in recognition of where Jeep first tested the Renegade Trailhawk, and the little Willys-Jeep figure tracing its way around the windscreen’s lower right edge – it’s a well-built and quiet place to spend time.
Offering plenty of scope for customisation (such as a chocolate dash and door tops with orange accents, beige seat trim and beige lower plastics), the Renegade offers highly competitive levels of passenger space, as well as a sizeable 525-litre boot.
About the only area it loses out is the support offered by its rear-seat cushion. Deliberately mounted low to ensure the Renegade achieves near-flat cargo floor, the seat itself is okay, but there’s not enough under-thigh support.
There are no rear air vents, either, but at least the front pair are mounted high on the dash, looking like a pair of snowboarding goggles.
Ultimately, what will determine the global success of the Renegade is Jeep’s ability to build enough. Ours will come from Italy, as will those destined for the US and Europe, but Brazilian production will kick off in late-March, and China may follow suit down the track.
Either way, the funky, chunky little Renegade deserves to gain a following. If you think ‘Jeep aesthetic, European size and flavour’, then you’ve pretty much nailed it.
Here’s hoping punters are brave enough to go for the olive, orange, 70s blue, and 50s bone paint colours…
Model: Jeep Renegade Sport
Engine: 1368cc 4cyl, sohc, 16v, turbo
Max power: 119kW @ 5500rpm
Max torque: 250Nm @ 2500-4000rpm
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Kerb weight: 1372kg
0-100km/h: 9.0sec (est.)
Economy: 6.0L/100km (est.)
Price: $24,000 (est.)
On sale: Q3 2015
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