The Italian-Made Jeep Renegade Has Off-Road Chops

The new Jeep Renegade gets its hands dirty—so to speak.
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The new Jeep Renegade gets its hands dirty—so to speak.

From “The Dirty Dozen” to “Inglorious Basterds,” it’s not a World War II movie without a convoy of mud-splattered, indestructible Jeeps.

Draft the Jeep Renegade into cinematic battle, and the stakes would be slightly different: Armies of well-heeled city-dwelling young men launching cultural rockets at the Jeep’s rivals, Kia Souls driven by similarly-dressed dudes.

Like the cube-shaped Soul, the Renegade is a cheerful confection. There are even prizes: “Easter egg” design elements, in the current stylistic vogue of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, are hidden throughout. One easy find is a topographical map of Moab, Utah’s off-road mecca, embossed on a console storage bin. X-shaped taillamp reflectors mimic the gasoline jerry cans hauled by Army Jeeps, alluding to the brand’s freedom-fighting past.

Sure, it'll raise the hackles on some Jeep manly-men—especially wizened types who learn that this cute 'ute is built in Melfi, Italy by Fiat and Chrysler, on the same production line as its mechanical sibling, the Fiat 500X. But even if it’s not made in the USA, this Jeep does bring some American exceptionalism to its class: It’s the only subcompact crossover that can honestly segue from Chuck E. Cheese to chucking off-road. Soon enough, the Renegade will shovel dirt on Jeep’s Compass and Patriot.

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Driven in New York and hinterlands, the Renegade’s Tonka-toy charm had onlookers wanting to play along. And its smartly outfitted cabin, class-beating interior space and willing spirit had us overlooking the occasional flaws. For instance, the optional turbocharged, 180-horse, 2.4-liter Tiger Shark engine sometimes feels underpowered, and Chrysler’s nine-speed automatic transmission, when not set in Sport mode, can stubbornly refuse to engage the ninth overdrive gear.

The resulting 8.8-second run from 0-60 mph won’t win races against a Nissan Juke Nismo or Mini Countryman S, but it’s only a few ticks behind the Kia. Once in motion, it doesn't exactly handle like a Porsche 911, but when the Jeep leans its body into cornering position, it can be whisked through turns with aplomb, aided by Koni frequency-selective shocks.

But this Renegade—especially the $26,990 Trailhawk version—has an extra Hershey Bar in its knapsack: The ground clearance, short body overhangs and 4WD system to allow serious levels of mud bogging,  rock climbing or river fording at up to 17 inches of depth.

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We pointed our olive-drab Trailhawk up a few steep, rocky slopes in upstate New York, and the Renegade proved it could hack terrain that would send rivals scurrying for the nearest shopping mall. Carrying Jeep’s “Trail Rated,” designation, the Renegade has also done itself proud on California’s Rubicon Trail, the longtime gauntlet for Jeep designers and owners. Those Trailhawks add a low-range 4WD with a 20:1 crawl ratio to climb rocks or tow up to 2,000 pounds.  Its Select-Terrain 4WD system also adds a “rock” mode to its driver-adjustable settings for Auto, Snow, Sand and Mud. Hill descent control lets even an amateur pick his way down a perilous grade.

Chrysler cabins used to be where old, creaky plastic went to die. But as in other recent models, including the Dodge Hellcat, the Jeep’s cabin is a high point, especially for a car that starts at just $18,990. The ultra-logical UConnect infotainment system flashes through either a 5.0- or 6.5-inch central screen. Popping the dual “My Sky” roof panels opens up maximum UV exposure, with the panels tucking away neatly in the cargo hold. 

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Like the tall-roofed Soul, this Jeep proves surprisingly useful for a truck that’s a full foot shorter than a Ford Focus sedan. Recruited for a life-or-death mission— say, helping a girlfriend move in Manhattan—the Jeep earned itself and its grunt driver a medal of honor, swallowing loads of boxes and furniture. In that practical vein, the driven rear axle disconnects in civilian-driving situations to lift highway fuel economy as high as 31 mpg.

Fully loaded, the Renegade Trailhawk can climb past $33,000, close to the tab for a larger Jeep Cherokee or even a stripped Grand Cherokee. But keeping a close tab on options can hold the price in check.

Whimsy has rarely been part of the Jeep playbook, and this urban-sized runabout is the furthest thing yet from a traditional Jeep. But with subcompact crossovers proliferating like Tribbles on Star Trek—stay tuned for the Mazda CX-3 and Honda HR-V—the Renegade’s oddball, outdoorsy charm makes it as irresistible as those fluffy sci-fi creatures.