The Jeep Renegade has one of the most distinctive provenances of any vehicle currently on sale in the US. For starters, it's almost entirely made in Italy. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles has taken a platform it also uses for the Fiat 500X and made it into a Jeep. In terms of the math, 62% of the vehicle is bella figura Italian, while 22% is red, white, and blue — or just red and white as some parts hail from Canada.
Yes, it's a Jeep that would make President Donald Trump spit his Diet Coke across the Oval Office at Steve Bannon.
But in a white-hot compact SUV market, consumers don't seem to care where the Renegade was bolted together: FCA sold almost 61,000 units after it was introduced in 2015 and was within a single sales month of doubling that in 2016, when over 106,000 examples of the vehicle rolled off dealer lots.
It isn't hard to see why the Renegade has been a success for Fiat. What we have here is a very Jeepy "cute ute" crossover SUV that definitely feels like it wants to get dirtier than, say, a Mazda CX-3 or Honda HR-V.
Jeep was kind enough to let me borrow a 2016 Renegade Limited 4x4, stickering at $31,500 after the addition of quite a few appealing options. I drove it around the suburbs of New Jersey for a week. I didn't ford any streams, nor did I rock-hop. But I went shopping and I took my kids to school, which is test enough of a small SUV's capabilities in real American life.
The Renegade, of course, has that unmistakable Jeep look: the boxy shape, the slotted grille, the round headlights, the squared-off wheel arches — you know, that purposeful Jeep aesthetic that's intended to make Jeeps stand out as vehicles with a rugged heritage dating back to the 1940s and the Second World War, distinguishing them from latter-day copycats that wouldn't know how to dodge shell craters even if they got a few weeks of basic training.
Frankly, I hated it at first, as I do the look of all Jeeps that aren't the classic, no-frills Wrangler or the ancient Grand Wagoneer. But as is always the case with Jeeps, the design grew on me and after a few days, I was smiling when I gazed upon the Renegade in my driveway. It helped that my first-grader was immediately and encompassingly smitten by the car. I can't deny that there's something adorably childlike about Jeeps, and in the case of the smaller vehicles, a more rough-and-tumble type of cute than you get from a MINI Cooper.
My tester was a sober "Granite Crystal Metallic," which is Fiat for "charcoal gray." The interior featured black upholstery that was a synthetic-leather composite and looked as if it would be pretty durable. The layout combines a nice, high driving position with a pretty no-nonsense arrangement of features, plus a fairly roomy back seat and good amount of cargo space. For comparison, you might want to check out a Subaru Forester. Vehicles such as the Mazda CX-3 and the Honda HR-V are more car-like, plasticky, and compact. The bottom line is that the Renegade is successful downsized Jeep, rather than a Jeeped-up Fiat.
I found the ride to be, initially, horrendous: crude and bumpy. But then I reminded myself that this is a dang Jeep. The whole point is that ride is meant to prepare you to deviate from the beaten path and forge a new trail and explore the virgin wilderness ... Well, you get the idea. We are not striking out for Lexus country.
After I adapted to the looks and accommodated myself to the ride, the Renegade and I were automotive besties. The straightforward 2.4-liter four-banger motor serves up 180 horsepower and is plenty peppy, and I imagine that the brisk-shifting 9-speed automatic makes the EPA-rated 21 mpg city/29 highway/24 combined a reasonable estimate of fuel economy. That isn't great, but it isn't bad either, and given that the Renegade's all-wheel-drive system adds weight but makes up for it with genuine off-roading credibility, the compromise could be worth it.
Heated front seats and a heated steering wheel are wonderful — and standard on the base-priced $26,995 Renegade. The main extra costs are for the 6.5-inch center infotainment touchscreen and an unusual moonroof that has removable panels. There's also a windshield-wiper de-icing system that I imagine would be useful in the Northeast.
Otherwise, infotainment and navigation are up to par for the segment (FCA's Uconnect system is easy to use), with SiriusXM satellite radio, Bluetooth pairing, USB and AUX ports, and plenty of airbags all around. A few cheesy elements are present, such as the plastic plaque above the infotainment screen that reads "SINCE 1941" in the sort of old-school stenciled military lettering that evokes Sherman tanks and ammunition boxes. But they quickly fade into the overall package.
Driving the Renegade was never joyful, but it was ultimately a more stout, if less comfortable, experience than what I've encountered with other cute utes. This isn't a large vehicle, either, so you can zip and dart around in ways that are unlike what you might have used to go with bigger SUVs. The steering is responsive, and the acceleration is adequate.
The bottom line is that the Renegade feels absolutely nothing like an Italian car. That dashing spirit of The Boot has been ruthlessly engineered out and replaced with steadfast Jeepy values. And if you think about, that means the Renegade is something of a work of genius.
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