2015 Jeep Renegade: Rebel without a clue?

While I joined my fellow Jeep faithful in decrying the ridiculous Jeep Cherokee KL as unworthy of either of the names it carries, at least one of Jeep’s new Fiat rebadges strikes me as a decent compromise.

The Jeep Renegade, based on the Fiat 500L platform, is the seven-slot-grille brand’s latest attempt at a desirable small car. Though initial response was lackluster, it’s still possible the perpetually blind squirrel may finally have found a nut. Its shared architecture offers economies of scale in a crowded market niche that includes intimidating competitors such as the Nissan Juke, Chevrolet Trax, Kia Soul and even the Buick Encore.

Unlike Jeep’s latest small-car featherweights, Compass and Patriot (the latter of which could’ve made a true successor to the original XJ Cherokee with a few tweaks), Renegade comes nicely appointed and sporting — no, oozing — attitude. It also comes at a time when the micro-car market is booming.

According to industry consultant IHS Automotive, B-segment vehicles (that’s carspeak for really tiny) are the object of some 2.7 million vehicle sales each year. Those numbers are only expected to grow as fuel prices continue to climb and younger buyers focus on more urban lifestyles.

Will Renegade shake off Jeep’s small-car curse? It’s too early to say, of course, but if, as Jeep CEO Michael Manley claims, the brand hopes to use success with small cars to create a global brand entry point, it could well look across the Pacific for inspiration.

Subaru, once an also-ran among Japanese imports, needed to change its image as a maker of boring econoboxes. It identified a target market older than what Jeep has in mind for Renegade — 30- to 49-year-olds — but the strategy remains sound. Subaru recognized potential buyers aren’t just looking for a toaster on four wheels (Toyota and Honda have that market sewn up.), they’re looking for a thrill ride that connects them to a broader lifestyle.

Could Jeep find success the same way Subaru did? (Photo courtesy CarWallpapers.CC)

Could Jeep find success the same way Subaru did? (Photo courtesy CarWallpapers.CC)

The company’s subsequent decision to tie its image marketing to rallycross motorsports has proven an unquestioned success, with vehicles like the Subaru Impreza and its many WRX/STi variants the object of much lust among, wait for it, exactly the buyers Jeep hopes to attract. Most recently applied to its Forrester brand of family SUVs, the rallying family image helped Subaru launch a 63 percent increase in sales of the Forrester in 2014 over the previous year.

Oh, and did I mention rallycross is rather popular in Europe, where Jeep’s Italian overseers are desperate to make inroads?

So, young buyers want to buy a lifestyle, not a car. They want turn-key excitement. An instantly recognizable identity. Now, what American brand, pray tell, has a deeper heritage and history of no-limits, wind-in-the-face, go-anywhere freedom than Jeep?

The get-‘er-done icon birthed in Toledo, Ohio, has built unspeakable brand equity worldwide on images of GIs plowing across muddy hedgerows in Europe, scaling the Alps and conquering the Rubicon. If Jeep is determined to create this global gateway (and, given today’s market, it’s the right call), it would be well-served to follow Subaru’s lead. Jeep Wrangler already competes in places like Dakar. Couldn’t the bottom of the brand ladder do the same in London or Barbados?

With Jeep’s spunky, in-your-face image and nearly 75 years of off-road credibility, the rallycross strategy is a natural fit.

And, it’ll likely go over a heckuva lot better with Jeep die-hards in the U.S. than that mall-crawler Cherokee thing, too.

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