Jeep Renegade — Impressive on road and off

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Most of the time auto reviewers are loaned top-of-the-line vehicles or at least heavily-contented versions affording them the opportunity to experience all the goodies the manufacturer has to offer. So it was a mild shock to take delivery of a base Jeep Renegade Sport with front wheel drive and a six-speed manual transmission.

We admit to one caveat — standard equipment on the Sport starting at $18,990 does not include air conditioning, which we think no one in their right mind would leave off a new vehicle unless they lived in the far northern reaches of the U.S. The air conditioning option, which also brought cruise control and heated mirrors, added $1,495 to the bottom line bringing it to a summertime-comfortable and still very affordable $20,485.

Standard equipment is fairly generous including keyless entry, power windows and locks, a height-adjustable driver's seat with cloth upholstery, tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel and a four-speaker sound system with an auxiliary jack and USB port.

Jeep offers four trim levels in the sub-compact crossover — Sport, Latitude, Limited and Trailhawk. We spent considerable time in the Trailhawk last year and and this spring in Los Angeles and found it not only an excellent highway companion, but with serious off-road capability that lives up to Jeep standards — unmatched by any of the segment competition. The Trailhawk with four-wheel drive begins at $27,490 with the 2.4-liter four-cylinder making 180 horsepower and 175 pound-feet of torque mated to a nine-speed automatic transmission.

While four-wheel drive with selectable drive-modes for different terrains is standard on the Trailhawk, it can be added to the other trim levels for an average cost of $2,000.

Last month 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 the Trailhawk that also negotiated several hundreds of miles of mountain road twists and turns in sports-car-like fashion. Most enjoyable!

Our Sport test vehicle —driven on the East Coast — came with the standard turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder making 160 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. The six-speed manual was easy to shift and it made it easier to keep the smaller engine percolating for merging and passing. We didn't have an issue with performance. Because most people these days would rather go the automatic route, the Sport can be outfitted with the bigger 2.4-liter engine and the nine-speed. But the sticker cost will obviously go up.

The Renegade was especially impressive on an up-hill-down-hill off-road course last year 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 downhill using the braking system to slow the little crossover 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, shares some of its mechanicals with the new Fiat 500X. It 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.

Even though the Renegade has a seven-slot grille and muscular trapezoidal wheel arches, 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 — with just the right amount of cute.

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.

Interior space is surprisingly generous for such a small vehicle. Four adults can ride together reasonably well. We moved the front passenger seat as far forward as we could without hitting our 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 without folding up like an accordion.

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 a 5 or 6.5-inch touchscreen, 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.

Base price: $18,990; as driven, $21,080
Engine: 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder
Horsepower: 160 @ 5,500 rpm
Torque: 184 foot-pounds @ 2,500 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Drive: front wheel
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 101.2 inches
Length: 166.6 inches
Curb weight: 3,044 pounds
Turning circle: 36.3 feet
Towing capacity: 2,000 pounds
Luggage capacity: 18.5 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 50.8 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 12.7 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 31 highway, 24 city, 27 combined
0-60: 9.5 seconds (estimated)
Also consider: Chevrolet Trax, Mazda CX-3, Honda HR-V

The Good
• Classy exterior styling
• Best-in-class off-road capability
• Host of features available

The Bad
• Tight rear-seat legroom

The Ugly
• Excessive wind and road noise