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First drive: Baby Jeep Renegade hits the hills

Renegade rendezvous: Jeep has proven the Renegade has what it takes on and off road at its American launch, but how it tackles the challenging Australian sales landscape remains to be seen.

Renegade takes Jeep family to six, but more large and small SUVs could follow

9 Feb 2015


JEEP has rolled out its smallest model in the United States adding the Renegade B-segment SUV to a flourishing market, but the off-road family is set to grow further with a larger model on the way and sub-Renegade SUV not yet ruled out.

Speaking at the international launch of the Renegade in San Jose, Jeep brand manager Jim Morrison told GoAuto the expansion of the range will continue with a new large SUV to sit above the Grand Cherokee.

“I don’t think we’ve seen the top end of the range with Grand Cherokee,” he said. “At the premium end people keep asking for more and we will keep exploring that top end.”

Mr Morrison wouldn’t be drawn on details of a possible halo model, but said it would “probably” resurrect an old nameplate, compounding theories Jeep will relaunch its Grand Wagoneer.

“We like bringing back old names,” he said. “That passion to connect with a name from the past is a good illustration of the passion of the brand. It’s a good way to connect with the customers.

In addition to a new top-end off-roader, Mr Morrison said the introduction of a new sub-Renegade model had not been ruled out, and would depend on the reception of its newest offering.

With increasing international demand and tightening regulations for fuel-efficient vehicles, an even smaller model would join Renegade in a double-pronged attack in the compact crossover market, appealing further to economy-conscious customers and improving Jeep’s position – and perception – in terms of environmental performance.

“It's going to be interesting to watch the acceptance of this vehicle (Renegade) to see how the competitors and market evolve around it,” said Mr Morrison. “Certainly the focus on fuel economy and smaller and more efficient packaging is something that we will continue to do and making existing packages more efficient.

“It’s the whole scope of watching the reaction to this and then seeing what customers want from there on.”

To succeed, the junior Jeep will have to achieve a tricky balance of upholding the seven-slot mantra with class-leading off-road performance and an on-road manner that the market demands from small SUVs.

But after a day with the Renegade we can confidently report the early signs are very encouraging.

As we hit the road in San Jose, the Californian sky bruised to a colour that threatened conditions would turn to true Jeep-testing weather later in the day, but for the morning we were treated to dry black-top and the 2.4-litre Sport Renegade.

Worldwide, Jeep predicts the largest engined variant to be the volume seller by as much as 70 per cent and the 2.4-litre MultiAir2 version is coming to Australia along with a second normally aspirated 1.6-litre and a turbocharged 1.4-litre. But more about that later.

Europe also gets a 2.0-litre diesel engine option while Brazil has a special flex-fuel option but Australia is sticking with the petrol versions at this stage.

Let’s start with one of the Renegade’s best attributes by looking at the competition. No the Nissan Juke doesn’t look like anything else on the road but it doesn’t look much like a Nissan either, and yes the Mitsubishi ASX and Holden Trax are accomplished packages but there is not a lot about their styling to set them apart from virtually everything else in the segment.

The Renegade however, manages to look like no other car but at the same time is unmistakably a Jeep. We love its boxy sit-up-and-beg outline, endless playful styling details and that name. Have you ever heard a tougher title?In amongst the delightful design, Jeep has hidden what it calls ‘Easter eggs’ – little Jeep culture treats for the owner to find over the first months – maybe even years – of living with the Renegade. The effect is powerfully brand affirming and fun. We kept stumbling across them all day, starting with the little Willys Jeep nose in the centre of the headlight.

Its unmistakable X-shaped tail-lights are inspired by the ‘gas can’ carried on the back of the original Willys Jeep, and the cross is another Easter egg theme found throughout.

No matter which variant you look at, Jeep has gone to town on the interiors with vibrant colour schemes at the entry level and sharp red accented and stitched leather at the top of the heap.

There are plenty of cubbies about the Renegade interior and the removal of a handbrake lever in favour of an electric park-brake has allowed two cupholders in the centre console. Oh look there’s a map of the Rubicon trail embossed into the front storage pocket.

The Renegade’s appealing seats are a point of excellence with bags of support and good adjustment for all shapes and sizes – a story that continues in the back row with cathedral-like headroom and room for two adults, or three for shorter journeys.

Moving back further still to the boot and its 525 litre cargo area and… oh there's a tiny Bigfoot hidden at the edge of the rear window glass.

Leaving the city lights behind and climbing into the wintry Santa Cruz mountains gave us a chance to stretch the little Jeep’s legs and make use of the handy 237Nm of torque.

From standstill the Renegade gets going well with good low-down grunt making the steepening hills no problem and, coupled to Jeep’s nine-speed automatic transmission, the right gear was always to hand when in manual mode.

When left to its own devices the auto had a tendency to change up too early and was reluctant to kick-down unless really bullied – most likely as a measure to improve fuel economy figures.

We got the very best out of the engine/transmission combination when swapping close ratio cogs with the stick shifter, although changes came after a relative delay.

Oh there’s a little Willys Jeep driving around the inside of the windscreen.

Perhaps the Renegade has its Fiat 500X shared underpinnings to thank for one pleasant surprise. This little SUV is without question the best-handling Jeep we have experienced.

While lacking feedback and weight, the steering is precise and quick in corners helping to build confidence in the high-riding Jeep when carrying some pace through the twisty Californian mountain roads.

As the dark skies yielded a little rain the Renegade’s limits of adhesion were easily found with a plough-on understeer followed by oversteer for the bashful driver at relatively low speed.

Its four-wheel drive system may bring a bit more bite when on the rough stuff but we felt it may have hampered surfaced-road progress with a significant weight penalty – particularly when coupled with the heaviest 2.4-litre engine.

Mid-range acceleration is also the wrong side of sprightly with the extra driveshafts and differential robbing performance. We liked the 2.4-litre Multiair2 Tigershark engine but revving it out to the limit was fruitless as was the strained soundtrack.

Just when we thought the Jeep had revealed its true red, white and blue colours, confirming it wasn’t at home on the road, we jumped into the 1.4-litre and discovered a massive difference in road manner.

Coupled to a six-speed manual gearbox, the Renegade came alive on the road. Its more compact engine and two-wheel drive transmission benefits kerb weight by a whopping 138kg and that difference is instantly noticeable.

Acceleration is lively and the front wheels wriggle with a little torque-steer.

Clicking up through the manual gearbox was involving if a little soggy-feeling but the 1.4-litre 119kW MultiAir engine is a great match for the Renegade when not carrying too much weight.

The fizzy four-pot is the same unit found powering the frivolous Abarth 595 hot hatch and brings almost as much fun to the Renegade with a great induction note and turbo hiss, especially when wrung out to the redline… oh wait its not red at all — its orange and splattered at the top end of the tachometer like someone fired a paint-ball at the dash.

Handling also benefits drastically from the lower kerb weight and the Renegade swept through bends with fervour, while the improved front-end grip allowed more enthusiastic progress through winding roads even though a sudden winter change had brought torrential rain, unexpected obstacles and a detour. This was Jeep weather.

Even when the sharp handling didn’t allow us to avoid fallen branches the impressive chassis set-up ironed out jolts and maintained the good ride quality and relatively low noise.

While it shares a platform with the high-riding Fiat, the Renegade’s suspension is completely different – as are all the bits you can touch and see.

The Renegade has a height of 1689mm but in faster corners the Jeep resists body-roll with a stubbornness often limited to more car-like models, and body control is commendable for a car of this size and weight.

Despite the rain and slippery roads the lighter Renegade went harder into corners and kept holding on to what little grip it could find amongst the lichen-covered road, lined by massive threatening conifers.

Oh there’s another Willys grille in the speaker cover.

If we had left the Renegade having only sampled its tarmac temperament it would have left a good impression, but our road trip took us to the Hollister Hills where Jeep Jamboree off-road enthusiasts like to test their gear, and it was here the Renegade would complete its performance package.

Jeep offers at least one variant of each of its models in a rock-hopping trail-rated variant, and the Renegade is no exception. For the final part of our Renegade rendezvous we jumped in a Trailhawk and hit the dirt.

Climbing out of the valley with the My Sky lift-out roof panels removed, we fully appreciated the Renegade’s sense of fun. Its size and styling offers a level of accessibility and enjoyment not equalled by any of its larger siblings – a feature enhanced by what it can do off-road.

Even with some moisture on the ground, it took hold of whatever surface we pointed it at and grabbed with all four paws. The clever torque vectoring systems sent power to the wheels with the most grip and allowed progress up steep, slippery rock climbs and muddy water fording.

Amongst other goodies, the Trailhawk gets 20mm extra ground clearance, red recovery points and a low-ratio transmission with ‘rock’ mode for the toughest off-road condition.

We managed to get the tiny Jeep to belly-out on some nasty rocks but with its tail-saving traction it can drive just one wheel if all others are airborne, and thanks to tough underbody protection the Renegade pushed on over logs, boulders and severe gradients.

Even on sheer descents the Renegade managed grip and stability admirably with its hill descent control and switchable Selec-Trac program. We managed to provoke contorted wheel articulation with one rear a good 200mm in the air.

Impressive at the best of times but even more-so given the way the same chassis had earlier resisted body-roll on the road.

Hang on – the ignition key looks like the fuel-can. And the roof-panel release key looks like a Willys Jeep.

Don’t think of the Renegade as some kind of adolescent SUV. Its size and weight actually give it a distinct advantage off-road. It can't match the Wrangler for sheer aggressive all-terrain ability – not much can – but it certainly elevates the Jeep philosophy to a new platform.

The Renegade would snap at the heels of any other trail-rated model and blow any other Jeep off the road with its surprising handling.

Jeep is risking its reputation by entering a new segment, especially given the competition it goes up against, but with the Renegade it has a fighting chance.

Not only does it deliver truck-loads of quintessential Jeep trail-rated ability, it also sets a new standard for the Jeep brand in on-road motoring too.

Quite how aggressively the Renegade will compete in Australia has to remain speculation until pricing is confirmed but it has at least got the recipe right with performance on and off road squared away convincingly. Speculation says it won’t quite manage to jump in with the $20,000 offerings but will sit just above in price.

With the 2.4-litre engine and four-wheel drive, Jeep’s Renegade is a workhorse, plugging away with dependable grunt and grippy all-paw traction even if it lacks car drivability, but with the forced induction donk and two driven wheels the smallest seven-slot car has broken new territory for the brand.

We liked the Jeep renegade a lot. It has a presence unlike any other car – let alone an SUV rival – the 1.4-litre is enormous fun on-road and the Trailhawk is stupendous when you’re off it.

But don’t take our word for it here’s what the Collins Dictionary has to say about it: Renegade “Any outlaw or rebel”.

We couldn’t agree more.

Wait. Is that a huge gas-can X on the roof?

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