The latest entrant to the booming baby SUV segment is the 2015 Jeep Renegade – a tiny high-rider that claims to be unlike most of the other small soft-roaders that have come before it.
Jeep says the Renegade - which is set to compete with the likes of the Holden Trax, Nissan Juke, Ford EcoSport, Skoda Yeti and Peugeot 2008 - is the most capable small SUV ever made, and after time spent at the Hollister Hills off-road park outside of San Jose, California, we can attest that this is no regular high-riding hatchback – despite its tiny dimensions of 4.23 metres in length, 1.88m wide and 1.68m tall.
We’re chiefly talking about the flagship, off-road-focused Jeep Renegade Trailhawk, which is expected to sit at the top of a range that includes: a base-model Sport (with a 1.6-litre petrol engine, priced from about $24K); mid-range Longitude (with 1.4-litre turbo or 2.4-litre petrol); and luxury-focused Limited (same engine options as Longitude). Read our detailed guide on the Jeep Renegade here.
The most hardcore offering of the Renegade line-up features Jeep’s Active Drive Low 4x4 system, which can switch the car between front- or four-wheel-drive automatically if front-wheel slippage is detected, while also offering a low-range mode with a 20:1 crawl ratio.
The Trailhawk badge was originally used on vehicles capable of tackling the treacherous Rubicon Trail. But the Renegade Trailhawk isn’t quite as hardcore as, say, the Cherokee Trailhawk, and by Jeep’s own admission buyers probably shouldn’t expect it to be able to get quite as far off the beaten track as that model, nor the insanely capable Wrangler Rubicon.
However, that doesn't mean it can’t hold its own when it comes to getting down and dirty.
The Trailhawk features unique front and rear bumpers (including exposed tow hooks) to help it ascend and descend steep hills courtesy of its excellent approach, departure and breakover angles (31 degrees, 34 degrees and 26 degrees respectively).
It also boasts an extra 20 millimetres ground clearance over the regular 4x4 versions (at 220mm; 4x2 models have 170mm of clearance), and the Trailhawk has wading capability of up to 480mm.
We tested that usability through a thick, muddy water trap in the Renegade, and while it came out the other end filthy, it wasn’t troubled by the situation.
Unlike the Cherokee Trailhawk, the Renegade doesn’t have a locking rear differential, meaning its rear tyres can scrabble at the surface at times. However, it does have the clever Selec-Terrain system with five modes – Auto, Sport, Mud, Sand and the final, Trailhawk-only mode, Rock.
We tested that while scrambling up a series of slippery boulders, with the four-wheel-drive system apportioning power and traction where it was needed. Despite rain making things damp, and grip a little hard to come by, the Renegade crawled comfortably in Rock mode. On the way down the hill we used the Trailhawk-specific descent control function, which was a little slower to kick in than expected, leading to a moment of uncertainty when cresting the hill.
Over a series of steep moguls, we could feel the opposing wheels countering one another, with up to 20 centimetres of articulation and compression allowing surprisingly smooth and level progress. In some off-roaders the body can become unsettled and heavily angled, but the calibration of the suspension meant this wasn’t as prevalent in the Renegade.
The 2.4-litre four-cylinder engine that is the only powertrain available in the Trailhawk never felt as though it was struggling for grunt on the low-speed technical course. It produces 134kW of power and 237Nm of torque, sent to the ground through a nine-speed automatic transmission.
That said, we were driving at low speed and never had a chance to explore the power on offer in the Trailhawk in such a setting – but we also drove a Renegade Limited 4x2 model with the same engine. It gets more conventional bumpers and a bright grille, not to mention the lower ride height, different wheels and a different interior finish.
The engine itself doesn’t feel to be inadequate or underpowered, with a decent amount of shove available when you give it some pepper (peak torque is at a high 3900rpm, while max power snaps at 6400rpm).
However, the mapping of the nine-speed automatic transmission means it will constantly choose higher ratios in order to save fuel. That’s good for highway cruising – and we saw close to the claimed 30mpg (7.8 litres per 100km) rating during our time in the car, with a displayed 8.4L/100km average.
We’d be surprised if the drivetrain’s lack of fizz would be any less prevalent in the Trailhawk on the open road, particularly given that model tips the scales at a porky 1621 kilograms – a full 175kg more than the 2.4-litre 4x2.
But away from the highway – for example, up a twisty mountain pass as we experienced – the transmission takes some time to choose the right gear to ensure comfortable progress. There’s no 'sport' mode on the transmission to make it hold revs longer, either.
In terms of road-holding, the little Jeep felt decidedly more European than American. The car’s independent suspension system includes what Jeep calls FSD – Frequency Selective Damping – that is a mechanical valve-operated system designed to take care of the after effect of a bump.
The ride is initially quite firm, somewhat at odds with its squishy off-road demeanour, but it settles extremely quickly after smacking a pothole or lump in the road.
The steering is also quite good, offering a light but precise action on the highway, and decent response during cornering despite being a little slow to react when you first start to turn the wheel.
That said the Renegade feels sure-footed, even on scrappy, slippery, tree-litter-lined road surfaces.
Indeed, the surprise engine of the day was the Fiat-sourced 1.4-litre turbocharged four-cylinder unit, which packs 119kW of power (at 5500rpm) and 250Nm (from 2500-4000rpm), outdoing the bigger naturally aspirated engine for pulling power.
It’s also better on fuel; we saw consumption of 7.5L/100km.
We drove the 4x2 six-speed manual, but the engine can be had in 4x4 guise, and also with a dual-clutch six-speed transmission that is expected to be a popular choice in Australia.
In manual guise it felt more like a fun hatchback than a boxy SUV, with a smooth gearshift action, light but malleable clutch, and while it isn’t fast, we were never left wanting for more grunt from the little turbo unit, which offers smooth and slightly rorty acceleration.
Its swift progress is undoubtedly aided by its even lighter kerb weight of 1381kg.
That weight better matches the size of the car, and this is not a big vehicle – but it is surprisingly well organised in terms of the space and packaging.
The boot is large for the class at 351 litres, including a dual floor system that allows for extra stowage. The seats can be folded down, and there are 60:40 or 40:20:40 layouts available.
The space on offer in the back seat is impressive, too, with enough space for two six-foot adults to sit comfortably. Head-room is helped by the tall roof-line, and there’s adequate leg- and toe-room, too. Kids will appreciate the relatively large glasshouse, and those of us who are still kids at heart will love the MySky removable roof panel system, which borrows a few cues from the pull-apart Wrangler and offers the “open-air experience”.
This is a clever little thing, and storage throughout the cabin is excellent, too.
An electronic park brake means there’s room for big cup-holders, while there is also decent door storage and a small cubby in front of the gear-shifter features a rubber mat that maps the “Fins and Things” trail in Moab.
Dual front, front side and full-length curtain airbags are standard, while a long list of safety items are also available, such as blind-spot monitoring, lane departure warning, forward collision warning and auto-braking, reversing sensors with braking, a reverse-view camera and rear cross-traffic detection.
In front of the driver is a large 7.0-inch instrument cluster with digital instrumentation and a slightly naff redline graphic made to look like a mud/paintball splatter. The central media unit – available in 5.0-inch or 6.5-inch touchscreen UConnect variations, the latter of which with satellite navigation – is simple to use and quick to operate. Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity is standard, and can read out text messages to the driver if desired.
Touches such as that, as well as what Jeep calls “Easter Eggs” – neat little design highlights that are all about branding and are littered throughout the cabin – and the “oh shit” handle placed prominently in front of the passenger make this a youthful and fun small SUV that doesn’t disappoint in its promise of unrivalled practicality.
Despite myriad small SUVs hitting the market in recent memory, the Jeep Renegade certainly fulfils a distinct role in what is a burgeoning segment of the market. We're intrigued to see how it shapes up when it hits Australian showrooms in about October.