2018 Jeep Renegade- Please Like Me

Ahhhh…… the Renegade. There’s already a collective, uncontainable tribal chant from diehard Jeep devotees with this car, and this review. “That isn’t a real Jeep!” is the universal outcry.

“It’s a Fiat! It’s not a real Jeep!”

“It’s not American! It’s not a real Jeep!”

“It can’t off-road! It’s not a real Jeep!”

Okay, okay! Let’s get all of this out in the open before discussing the Renegade any further. No, it is not a Wrangler. It never was intended to be and never will. The Wrangler will always hold the title as the most iconic and capable Jeep out there. But, with Wrangler prices skyrocketing north of $40k and becoming unobtainable for the masses, this little critter starts below $20k and is intended for budget minded buyers and soft-roaders who can’t afford the “real Jeep”. The two products do not overlap or compete, and the Renegade is not replacing the Wrangler anytime soon (unlike the situation 30 years ago when Ford planned on replacing the beloved Mustang with the Probe). Sure, it’s built in Italy on a platform shared with the Fiat 500X. Yet Jeep has beefed up the suspension, raised the ground clearance, and added the same 4WD systems that are shared with other noteworthy Jeep models, namely the Cherokee. Sure it’s the first Jeep product ever built outside of North America, but this is becoming a globalised world. Now that all of our panties aren’t in bunch, let’s move on…..

Introduced for 2015, the poor, lowly Renegade has received this type of criticism from off-road enthusiasts since day one. It’s a cruel, cruel world for the new kid on the block. Originally intended to replace both the abysmal Patriot and Compass, the Renegade never promised to set the Rubicon Trail ablaze. But it does a much better job of embodying a rugged image than its predecessors. In fact, the Renegade almost conveys the spirit of the original 1984 XJ Cherokee, the compact SUV adored by Jeepsters, in size and shape.

With 101.2 inches between the wheels, 166.6 inches from bumper to bumper, and 71.06 inches in width, those dimensions on the Renegade are within an inch of the deceptively small XJ, plus it’s three inches taller. But the Cherokee could boast an additional two inches of precious ground clearance. Tall, upright, and boxy, the Renegade also apes the XJ Cherokee’s styling better than the current, reimagined modern-day Cherokee.

The Renegade is distinguishable on the road with its plucky, rugged yet cutesy, profile. All of the tell-tale Jeep elements are here: the seven slot grille, circular headlights, near vertical windscreen, squared-off rear hatch, and there’s even the old-school quarter glass panels in the front windows. Jeep may have missed an opportunity with those quarter panels, as the Renegade is the only modern car I know of with them, and they don’t swivel for ventilation like in the days of yore. The overall look has a fun, whimsical theme that stands out among its generic compact CUV competitors. Some of the design details look a little forced, as though Jeep was trying too hard to differentiate itself from the Fiat. Yet as a whole, the Renegade is cute, distinctive, and won’t be confused as anything else….except another Jeep. Oops….

Prop open any of the Renegade’s four doors and the look and layout are more generic. The controls themselves are borrowed from other Jeep and FCA (Fiat Chrysler Automobiles) models. There’s a pair of dual centre air vents that are plopped on top of the dash that seem to pay tribute to “Hank the Octopus” in Finding Dory and look like a set of eyes peering from below. Aside from those and the passenger grab handle (aka “oh s**t handle”) perched above the glove box, there is nothing too exciting to report here.

That’s not a bad thing. The ventilation controls are as straightforward as they come, and the Renegade shares the same UConnect interface with all Chrysler products. UConnect continues to be one of the most intuitive and responsive touchscreen systems out there. Sorting through menus and personalized settings is a breeze, and pairing the Bluetooth with a device only takes a matter of seconds. The 5-inch screen itself felt small and dainty on our Sport model, and a 8.4-inch screen is standard on all higher trims. It’s amazing what a difference…ahem…..three extra inches can do, but the system’s operation was still flawless on our base unit.

The steering wheel is borrowed directly from other Jeeps and anyone who has driven any Chrysler product in the past 10 years will feel right at home with the tactile wheel-mounted controls for the radio and cruise. Gauges are also clear and easy to read from the driver’s seat. The temperature and fuel readings are a digital set of bars, while the speedometer and tachometer are traditional analog gauges. The tachometer, instead of having the plain ol’ boring redline painted at the 6,500 rpm range, has a graphic of mud slung at those furthest reaches of the rev scale. It’s unique, playful, and reminds drivers that, yes, this is a Jeep

On that note, the Renegade does not let you forget what it aspires to be. Someone obviously had a jovial time penning the little, hidden Jeep touches throughout. There are the symbolic Jeep seven-slot grille logos everywhere. They’re in the door speaker surrounds, the headlights, the inner lining of the back hatch trim, and the taillights. The taillights themselves are in the shape of an “X”. Not to pay homage to the “X-Files”, but to the “X” shaped symbols embroidered on fuel cans carried around by Jeeps during World War II. On the base of the windscreen is a small outline of a Wrangler (yes, THAT Jeep) climbing rocks, and on the rear glass; a sasquatch walking across. To be honest, I’m not sure what relation Bigfoot has to Jeep, but both like the great outdoors. I completely missed it, but later learned that a spider outline is lurking under the fuel door with a speech bubble reading “Ciao Baby!” The Italians had to have their input too, even though spiders are more associated with Australia than Tuscany. Regardless, these are whimsical touches that separate the Renegade from its staid competition and makes Renegade owners feel like part of an elite club. Just not a Wrangler club.

Moving back to the cockpit, seat comfort is very good up front and the cloth has a durable texture that gives the impression of standing up to outdoorsy abuse. The seats are upright and offer a commanding view of the road ahead. With its almost-vertical windscreen and flat hood, the view is not unlike the Wrangler. But before you ask, the windscreen does not flip forward. This is not the Wrangler!!!!! Despite a good view to the front and sides, the rear is hampered by thick roof pillars and smallish windows. Sasquatch cannot be blamed for this, as he’s too miniscule to block anything behind the Renegade.

Despite the deceptive boxy styling, cargo space with the rear seats up is modest. With 18.5 sq. ft. of volume behind the rear seats, the Renegade is beat in hauling capability by smaller and sleeker competitors such as the Honda HR-V, Hyundai Kona, Mitsubishi Outlander Sport, and even the tiny Ford Ecosport. Luckily, the rear seats fold easily and once down, permit an impressive total cargo hold of 50.8 cu. ft., beating all but the crafty Honda. On a brighter note, like the design, the cargo hold’s shape is square and usable. The opening is wide and the 29.8 inch liftover height is low. Getting heavier objects into the back of the Renegade is a breeze.

Rear seats are on the tight side. The seatbacks are upright and do not recline. Headroom is generous thanks to the tall, squared-off roofline. Most passengers will find their knees digging into the front seats. Luckily, in an age when many seatbacks are clad in hard plastic, the Renegade’s are cloaked in a soft cloth that offers some give for the passenger’s legs. What they will not find in the rear are seatback pockets; an odd omission that couldn’t have saved Jeep that much money.

The mismatch of features on the Renegade was sometimes head-scratching. This basic Sport trim had high-tech goodies such as push-button start, a touchscreen, and an electronic parking brake as standard. But, some of the basic essentials were left out. Those seatback pockets were one. This Renegade did not have automatic headlights, and the lights themselves did not turn off once the vehicle was parked without having to switch the dial to the “Off” position. Even air conditioning is optional, but our test vehcile was equipped with it. Yes, that’s right, a brand new car in 2019 has A/C on the options list. These may sound like first-world problems (and they likely are), but they’ve been standard on even the most basic economy cars for years. It was more of a surprise than an inconvenience on an SUV that is close to $25k.

Perhaps, the most unforgivable oversight was the lack of a spare tyre. This is a vehicle marketed to go off-road where tyre punctures are common, cellular phone service is spotty, and the trail is inaccessible to tow trucks. It almost seems negligent of Jeep to not include the spare as standard equipment. There’s room for the spare, as there is a recessed wheelwell below the cargo area that houses a dainty inflator kit, and Jeep is more than happy to sell a spare as a dealer accessory for $345. At the very least, 4WD versions should automatically have a spare included. It is a concern as to how many Renegade owners who do off-road are unaware of the issue until they are in a dire situation.

As far as off-roading, the Renegade did a pretty good job. We didn’t take it on any serious mountain trails, but did some soft sand driving through the Anzo Borrego Desert in Southern California. The Renegade proved itself to be completely competent. The reasonable 7.9 inch ground clearance and tidy overhangs cleared rocks, the short wheelbase helped through deeper ruts, and Jeep’s Active Drive 4X4 system was grippy when the sand offered little traction. The system itself is biased towards remaining in front wheel drive whenever possible, but is capable of sending power to any one of the four wheels that has the most ground contact. 4WD can be also activated with a dial in the console, and has mud, sand, and snow modes that change the transmission gearing. For more serious off roading, the Renegade Trailhawk offers additional ground clearance, downgrade assist, under-engine skid plates, and an aggressive 20:1 crawl ratio. Sadly, we didn’t get to test a Trailhawk. But even in lower spec, the Renegade handily outclasses all of its competition when the pavement ends. It’s a Jeep after all. Oh wait, am I allowed to say that?

Back on paved roads, where most Renegades (and ahem, Wranglers) can be found in their natural habitats, the driving dynamics had a few surprises. Two engines are available: a base 1.4 litre turbo-charged four-cylinder is paired solely with the manual transmission on lower trims. Being an automatic, we moved up (no pun) automatically to the 2.4 litre Tigershark normally-aspirated four-cylinder that has about the same torque as the smaller turbo, but 20 extra horsepower with a slight cost in fuel economy. Like a reversed Venn diagram, the 2.4 cannot be had with a manual, and the 1.4 cannot be teamed with an automatic. There is zero overlap.

The 2.4 litre is a relatively sophisticated and expensive design for a low-end engine. Engineered by Fiat, the same Tigershark powerplant can be found in the Renegade’s sister car, the Fiat 500X, as well as the Jeep Cherokee, Jeep Compass, Ram ProMaster City, and Brazilian-market Fiat Toro pickup. Some of the impressive technology includes variable valve timing and variable value lift, producing a healthy 180 horsepower. It does a pretty decent job moving the Renegade around and never feels raspy or overwhelmed. Freeway merges and uphill climbs do not hint at any strain at all.

But there is strain from the transmission. The unit is an extremally advanced nine-speed unit from ZF in Germany. The Jeep Cherokee can boast that it was the first mass-produced passenger car in the world with a nine-speed automatic, back in 2014, and the Renegade shares the same powerplant. However, the ZF has had continual teething issues and software updates have been provided by Chrysler. In our particular car, there were no real issues in regular, real-world driving. Shifts were smooth, effortless, and well-timed.

Once driving gets spirited, the nine-speed becomes confused and downright hesitant. Full accelerations from a stop began with such a lengthy pause that I initially thought that the non-turbo Renegade was suffering from turbo-lag. Also in passing situations, the transmission was reluctant to downshift for several moments, and would then select too low-of-a-gear; creating a racket from the engine and a lurching launch. But in all fairness, drive the Renegade sensibly and these issues will rarely crop up.

Aside from the loud growl during vigorous driving, the engine remained hushed all other times. There is some apparent wind noise at highway speeds, which isn’t surprising given that the Renegade has the aerodynamics of a barnyard door.

Handling was a pleasant surprise. Despite how tipsy the Renegade appears, it clung onto corners with tenacity. Given the high seating position and lack of side bolstering, I lost confidence long before the Renegade did. It was a pleasant surprise how stable the Jeep felt on fun, back roads. Steering feel was slightly dead on-centre at highway speeds, but felt nicely weighted around town or the curves.

Ride quality was on the firm side, but not uncomfortably so. It’ll never be confused as a luxury car, and most bumps on the road were felt. But it wasn’t rough or jarring on Southern California’s notoriously uneven freeways. That firmer ride paid off on those trails, where the Renegade had no issues crawling over larger dips and grooves.

The EPA rates the Renegade with the 2.4 litre at 21mpg city and 29mpg highway. We blew past those numbers with some conservative highway driving, reaching a pinnacle of 35mpg over 200 miles. Even after 400 miles in a mixture of freeway, off-roading, and city traffic, we still averaged an impressive 32mpg. Even the Renegade was surprised, as the trip computer kept extending the range on our tank as the miles rolled past.

Our Renegade had 24k miles at the time of rental, and I’m pleased to report that it still felt brand new. Nothing had warped, gone missing, or rattled. The headliner felt a little flimsy near the rear view mirror, but it was still in place. Despite some horror stories, and nasty rumors, the Jeep portrayed itself as a reliable piece.

Prices on the Renegade start at $18,445. The MSRP’s are tempting, but these are lightly optioned cars that have a manual transmission and no air conditioning. However, standard equipment still includes: 16-inch steel wheels, manually adjustable mirrors, remote locking and unlocking, push-button ignition, power windows and locks, a rearview camera, a height-adjustable driver seat, a fold-flat front passenger seat, a 60/40-split folding rear seat, cloth upholstery, a removable cargo floor panel, a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, a driver information display, Bluetooth, a 5-inch touchscreen, and a six-speaker sound system with a USB port. We included the $1,495 Power and Air Group that adds such delicious goodies as air conditioning, cruise control, and heated, power side mirrors. Going for the automatic transmission is free, but must include the 2.4 litre engine, an added $1,330. Once destination charge was added, our alpine white Renegade had a sticker price of $24,215.

That’s the key to keep in mind with buying the Renegade; there was a 31% increase on the base price to add some basic features over the stripped, cheapest model. If you check every option box, the price skyrockets even more. Despite the misleading prices, a $24k Renegade still represents good value as nothing in that price range can come close to its charisma or off-road capability.

That’s the dilemma with the Renegade; it’s trying too hard to be liked while turning its back on what it really is. It is not a Wrangler; but is attempting to cloak itself as a “Wrangler-lite”. It isn’t nearly as capable and some important off-roading necessities are missing. It’s truly a CUV, but has forsaken some of the CUV perks by trying to be something else. Don’t get me wrong; it’s a likable, even lovable, companion. It’s charming and beaming with personality. But it’s trying too hard to be liked. Sort of like that middle-aged guy at the bar trying to be the stud that gets all the ladies. It’s not a perfect CUV, and not a serious off-roader, but I still like the Renegade once you look at what it really is. It gets 2.5/5.0 boomerangs


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