2015 Jeep Renegade

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Jeep's timing is impeccable, introducing its new Renegade just when the small SUV crossover segment is expected to grow by a whopping 80 percent over the next two years. To make matters even better for the Jeep brand, the Renegade hits the bullseye joining the subcompact SUV ranks with a capable and affordable vehicle for suburban living while giving hardcore Jeep enthusiasts on a budget a true off-road warrior.

While other entries in the rapidly growing segment also come with all-wheel drive capability, none have the flexibility and rugged go-anywhere credentials that come with the Renegade.

We enjoyed a comfortable, composed and quiet ride in various kinds of driving from city stop and start to the 70 mph rigors of interstate cruising in both top-trim and more-popular mid-level trim. Frosting on the cake, the top trim Trailhawk negotiated several miles of mountain road twists and turns in sports-car-like fashion. How the crossover performs in the pursuit of every day living is what most buyers are concerned about, and Renegade has no problem selling itself.  But with the vaunted Jeep name attached, people expect the vehicle to, well, perform like a Jeep Wrangler.

No fears here either. Jeep presented automotive journalists with two tough off-road courses and the Renegade was up to the task. It was the same off-road area used to show the capability of the latest iteration of the Grand Cherokee several years ago.

The Renegade was especially impressive on an up-hill-down-hill course that showcased its ability to climb a steep grade and then head straight down in heavy sand in Hill Descent mode. Turn on hill descent and the "Rock" crawl feature and the Jeep tracks steadily down hill using the braking system to slow the Renegade to about two mph — never mind the sandpit-like road surface. The driver needs only to steer.

The new small Renegade — and it is, indeed, small with a 102.3 inch wheelbase and a length of just 166.6 inches — in collaboration with Fiat, sharing some of its mechanicals with the new Fiat 500X, is built in Italy, the first Jeep ever built outside North America. But don't let that put you off, it's built Jeep tough with 70 percent high-strength steel and to the exacting standards of other Jeep nameplates.

The styling falls on the cute side of rugged displaying a kind of a warm and cuddly persona. Jeep officials said they struggled with getting the look just right — getting just the right amount of cute.  "I relate this vehicle to a puppy dog. It's ears are too big, its eyes are too big, all that is what I see in this vehicle. I tried to walk it right up to the edge of cute, but not go beyond that," said Mark Allen, head of the Jeep design team.

Allen stressed that the styling was done "100 percent in Michigan." What keeps this little guy from going too far into the chick vehicle realm are such Jeep traits as the seven-slot grille and muscular trapezoidal wheel arches.

The interior features what Jeep calls its new "Tek-Tonic" design language — intersections of soft tactile forms with rugged and function details. We were impressed with the high quality materials used throughout the cabin especially considering the Renegade is the new entry-level vehicle in the Jeep lineup.

Impressive is the fact it's possible to get many of the same features found on upper-level Jeeps, including a smartphone-integrated infotainment system with 5- and 6.5-inch touchscreens, a 7-inch configurable gauge display, and driver aids that include a rearview camera, rear cross-traffic alert, blind-spot monitoring, lane departure warning and forward collision warning.

One of the really cool features that we didn't try out is called My Sky open air roof system featuring two power retractable and removable roof panels. Jeep says it's "just like the first Willys MB Jeep vehicles produced in 1941." Perhaps that's stretching things a bit, but this feature certainly sets the Renegade apart from the competition when it comes to open-air cruising fun on a warm spring day. And there's a place to store the panels in the rear cargo area.

Interior space is surprisingly generous for such a small vehicle. Four adults can live together, although the rear-seat folks may need a little compromise from the front-seaters. My driving partner proved a perfect test subject with his 6-foot-6 stance. He moved the front passenger seat as far forward as he could without hitting his knees on the dashboard, and — perhaps we should say "believe it or not" — there was enough room for a normal-sized person to reside in the rear seat behind him without folding up like an accordion.

With the seats all in place luggage capacity is measured at 18.5 cubic feet, and with the second-row seatbacks folded flat, the interior opens up to 50.8 cubic feet of cargo space. That's average for the segment.

The four-door Renegade offers the choice of two four-cylinder engines in front-wheel and all-wheel drive formats, with two transmissions choices, and four trim levels — Sport, Latitude, Limited and the off-road capable Trailhawk.

Prices start at $17,995, $21,295, $24,795 and $25,995 respectively. If you want all the Jeep off-road goodies, opt for the Trailhawk. If you want all the good stuff available, but off-roading is just something you read about, go with the Limited. Jeep says the less-expensive Latitude will probably be the most popular trim.

The standard engine in the Sport and Latitude models is a 1.4-liter turbocharged four making 160 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. The only transmission available with this engine is a six-speed manual. Most people will opt for the 2.4-liter turbocharged four making 180 horsepower and 175 pound-feet of torque paired with Chrysler's new nine-speed automatic. It's already used in the Jeep Cherokee and the Chrysler 200 sedan.

We did not drive the 1.4 paired to the manual transmission, but drove both the Latitude and Trailhawk with the bigger engine and nine-speed shifter. The engine is well matched for the small SUV providing a nice range of performance, and the transmission offered quick and smooth shifts.

Our bottom line — the Renegade lives up to the Jeep brand persona while offering just the right size, stylish appearance and driving dynamics for those daily jaunts to the mall and dinner.

Competitors include the just-released Chevrolet Trax, the Kia Soul and the Nissan Juke.

— Jim Meachen