Product review

Behind the wheel with the Jeep Renegade: Real Jeep, or real disappointment?

Ever since Fiat Chrysler announced in March 2014 it was expanding the Jeep lineup with a small Fiat 500-based Ute, brand loyalists have cried foul with some very familiar complaints:

Papers

Import papers call the Renegade a Fiat 520. Case closed? Of course not.

“It’s not a real Jeep.”

“It couldn’t crawl over a curb at the mall.”

“You can’t even take off the doors!”

But, what is a ‘real’ Jeep? It isn’t uniformity of parts or corporate ownership; the Jeep brand has passed through many corporate parents, from Bantam to Willys Overland, American Motors to Chrysler on down to the current Fiat Chrysler owners. And, how many CJ purists have Chevrolet, Buick or even Oldsmobile parts in their beloved Jeeps? How is the inclusion of a few parts from Fiat’s Italian parts bin any different?

The Renegade is built in Melfi, Italy, alongside its Fiat 500X stablemate, in Goiana, Brazil, alongside the Fiat Toro and in Guangzhou, China. It’s the only Jeep model exclusively produced outside North America.

EugeneTheJeepIt turns out, a Jeep is a fairly difficult thing to define. Sure, we all know a flattie, CJ or Wrangler when we see one, but those aren’t the only Jeeps accepted by the Jeep faithful. XJs certainly have their fans, as do ZJs and other Grand Cherokee variants. It’s pretty appropriate, when you think about it. After all, when ‘Eugene the Jeep’ popularized the term in a 1936 Popeye comic strip, this mysterious creature imbued with magical abilities was a rather ambiguous fourth-dimensional creature living in a three-dimensional world. What was easy to see is it could go anywhere, do anything and was truthful to a fault. Sounds like a Jeep to me!

Based on a test drive shortly after the Renegade’s launch and a three-day experience with the silver rental 2017 Renegade Latitude seen in this post, here is a look at seven (a nice, Jeepy number) qualities that have historically defined Jeep vehicles, and how the Renegade squares up:

Go anywhere, do anything

OK, let’s deal with the elephant in the room: Jeep’s little Renegade is no rock crawler.

Renegade_Console

If our rental had either the “Selec-Terrain” or “Active Drive” four-wheel drive system, its controls would reside here. Instead, we get a Jeep-grille Easter egg.

You’re unlikely to ever see one tackle the Rubicon or or taking on Metal Masher in Moab, unless the driver has had more than one too many.

And, there’s nothing wrong with that.

What you should see is a subcompact five-passenger crossover vehicle with eight inches of ground clearance, and which has the only low-range four-wheel drive system in its market segment. (It’s also the first compact open-top SUV since the Suzuki Samurai to not bear the name Wrangler.) Renegade affords small-ute buyers the choice of a vehicle that can very competently get them through up to 19 inches of water and has a laudable 20:1 crawl ratio.

The most off-road-worthy Trailhawk models’ “Selec-Terrain” full-time four-wheel drive system adjusts the vehicle’s suspension, traction and shift points electronically, based on five pre-set types of terrain. Lesser Renegades get the “Active Drive” all-wheel-drive system that disconnects the rear axle to improve fuel efficiency on the black top.

Within the obvious constraints of its independent suspension and shallower tire openings, the Renegade will go anywhere its driver wants to go.

Verdict: Jeep!

Unmistakable identity

 

One of the things that separates the classic short-wheelbase Jeeps from, well, everything else on the road, is its unique shape and exterior appearance. No one needs to be told that a CJ or Wrangler is a Jeep. It’s something you just know.

Renegade_Upholstery

‘Jeep’ is even woven into the seat backs.

The Renegade doesn’t have that degree of individuality. Neither, though, do the Grand Cherokee, Cherokee, Compass, Patriot or a host of other Jeep vehicles past and present. Yet, the little Renegade, in Sport, Latitude, Altitude, Limited and Trailhawk flavors, does stand out. Like the Wrangler, it is a box on wheels — just a bit more rounded and urbane box than the classic Jeep. Its wide sail panel is an unmistakable styling cue. Like the classic Jeepster, this is a Jeep that’s a bit more at home on the suburbs than out in the country. It’s kind of a rebel that way.

Renegade_Taillight

Logo hidden in the gerry-can inspired tail light

Still, Jeep’s design team did make sure to infuse the Renegade with plenty of heritage styling cues. Jeep-grille logos, topographical maps and even a miniature Sasquatch — all can be found aplenty both in and outside this diminutive Jeep. Some will argue all this is Fiat Chrysler’s attempt to graft ‘Jeepiness’ into an impostor.

There’s no denying the Renegade definitely is a cousin, maybe once or twice removed, even. It’s no Wrangler, but in terms of identity Renegade is Jeep enough.

Verdict: Jeep!

Aerodynamically challenged & short power

 

As previously noted, the Renegade is every bit the box on wheels a CJ or Wrangler are. The boxes are just stacked in a different pattern. As such, our tester’s 180-horse, naturally aspirated 2.4-liter inline four-cylinder power plant manages achieves a disappointing 16 mpg around town, according to EPA estimates, growing to just 23 mpg on the open road. The standard 1.8-liter turbocharged four-banger eeks out just a bit more economy at 19/24 mpg. All of those figures are in stock-Wrangler territory, and about three to five miles per gallon below the segment leaders. The mediocre fuel Renegade_Engineeconomy isn’t all aerodynamic; like the Wrangler, Jeep Renegade is a portly little rig, tipping the scales at nearly 3,100 pounds. You can blame Jeep’s rugged four-wheel-drive system for much of that weight. A comparable Honda HR-V comes in at just over 2,600 pounds, and can squeeze up to 34 miles out of a single gallon of fuel.

Still, no one has ever, in the history of the automobile, purchased a Jeep vehicle for the amazing fuel economy. We observed 11 and 28, respectively, during our time with the little Renegade. The former figure is likely accounted for by taking into account it was being driven in stop-and-go traffic in an unfamiliar town, surely exacerbating the naturally lower in-town fuel economy.

As for power, the 2.4-liter-equipped Renegade might not find itself at home at a drag strip, but it has plenty of low-end grunt for city cruising — or for puttering around your favorite trail or Forest Service Road.

Verdict: Jeep!

Impractical

Let’s get real for just a minute. There’s an undeniable split down the middle of Jeep’s family tree when it comes to practicality.

The Jeep vehicles that made the brand into the icon it is today were and are decidedly impractical. They’re purpose-built vehicles at home charging into uncharted territory, with little thought for comfort or convenience features. At the same time, well-known brand monikers like Cherokee (even the original XJ flavor), Grand Cherokee, Compass, Patriot and Liberty all added a healthy dose of practicality and social acceptability to Jeep’s renown.

So, it should be an easy assumption that the Renegade was grafted into the latter, more evolved branch of the Jeep family tree, right?

Renegade_Tire

A compact spare tire – on a Jeep. Renegade, indeed!

Absolutely, positively, without a doubt not!

Beyond the Renegade’s surprising lack of storage space, one piece of missing equipment perfectly embodies where the Renegade misses modern American culture: In standard livery, the Renegade rolls off its European factory floor with nary a cup holder in sight for rear-seat passengers!

Think about that for a moment. The entry-level Jeep, which should capture the hearts of young individuals and families in their first or second vehicle, doesn’t offer anywhere to easily stow bottle s, sippy cups or the inevitable fast-foot cups that follow. Young moms and dads driving the Renegade have a pair of cup holders between them, plus a small cubby for a water bottle in each front door. Yet, the only way to outfit a Renegade with rear-seat cup holders from the factory is to opt for the $595 Popular Equipment Group, which includes an auto-dimming rear-view mirror, power-adjustable driver’s seat and a 40/20/40 split rear seat with the invaluable cup holder in the middle 20 percent division.

Thus, even using the cup holder in Renegades so equipped reduces passenger capacity from five to four. If that isn’t the epitome of impractical in 21st Century motoring, we don’t know what is!

Verdict: Jeep!

Hard to live with

Renegade_Steering1From the driver’s seat, the Renegade doesn’t feel hefty. Acceleration with the 2.4-liter Multiair power plant feels more peppy than its 8.7-second zero-to-60 time suggests. The steering is crisp and responsive. Controls are large, relatively intuitive and easy to reach. Frankly, it’s a vehicle that’s loads of fun to drive around town. Had our rental Renegade had one of the available four-wheel drive systems, gut instinct says the same would have been true for this vehicle in mild to moderate off-road situations as well.

The problem comes when the black top stretches out. Jeep’s increasingly well-named Renegade is outfitted with narrow seats that are initially comfortable, yet wear thin and feel confining in prolonged jaunts. It has gadgets and gizmos aplenty, but the lack of a rear cup holder and any real storage space for everyday-carry items makes the Renegade a bit akin to that braniac kid in school who threw the bell curve every time with all his book knowledge, but struggled in real life because he  had no street smarts to be able to apply it.

Renegade_Tach1It’s easy to envision Renegade as the type of vehicle you use as a daily driver, then park when it’s time to head out on a long-distance road trip. It’s a great little machine to go sight seeing or have a little adventure in at your destination, but it’s not necessarily the vehicle you want to get you there and back again.

Couldn’t the same be said of the Wrangler?

Renegade_CargoAreaIn the latest unexpected twist, cargo space behind the rear seat is substantial, and among the best in its class. With the rear seat upright, the diminutive Jeep stands ready for up to 18.5 cubit feet of cargo. Fold down that rear seat, though, and the Renegade becomes a true active-lifestyle adventurer, with an impressive 50.8 cubic feet for all the adventure gear you can cram into it. Consider cargo-conscious Jeeps like the Cherokees and Grand Cherokees through the years, and it becomes the Wrangler (JK Unlimiteds notwithstanding) that stands as the unexpected odd man out in the brand stable.

Verdict: Jeep!

Poor fit & finish

 

Attention to detail and quality materials aren’t exactly hallmarks of the Jeep brand. Jeep vehicles typically have been put together with the kind of regard that suggests the folks in Toledo figured ‘They’re just going to modify it anyway, so who cares?’

However, the Renegade, no doubt owing to its Fiat roots, is very nicely put together. Seams are consistent, and materials are reasonably soft-touch. Overall, the Renegade Renegade_Oopsdoesn’t feel like the typical American entry-level subcompact. To the contrary, the materials and general fitment are several notches above this blog’s namesake Wrangler. Aside from an easily corrected piece of weatherstripping that was pulled from its perch along the driver’s window to expose a poorly finished bit of body steel (inset photo), nothing about the Renegade’s quality says Jeep at all.

We wouldn’t recommend hosing out the interior after a day on the trail, but that’s not something you’d be likely to try with your Grand Cherokee, either.

Verdict: Not a Jeep (and that’s a good thing)

Highly customizable

One of the aspects of Jeep vehicles that has energized the brand for nearly 80 years is the ease with which their owners can replace one bit or another, making them more trail-worthy or simply creating a unique aesthetic.

If the Renegade has a nemesis, it’s the availability of aftermarket support.

That’s not to say options don’t exist, of course. Lift kits offer increases from 1.5 to 4 inches of ground clearance. Skid plates and rocker guards also are available. And, to boost the little Renegade’s mall crawler cred, there are even options to mount light bars and winches.

For both the Renegade and its KL Cherokee cousin, the aftermarket has been slow to find solutions to classic Jeep modification hurdles. But, as the aftermarket answers the call, more Renegades are likely to hit the trails.

Verdict: Jeep!

Final verdict

No, this Fiat-in-Jeep-guise isn’t the rock crawler an even stock Wrangler is. Nor was it ever meant to be.

Somehow, 80 years of history has persuaded a significant portion of the Jeep faithful that a Jeep isn’t a Jeep unless it can tackle trails harder than the Rubicon, doorless and topless, leaving a trail of broken parts scattered behind. It’s somehow less worthy if it’s comfortable and doesn’t leak at least a quart of oil every day.

The Renegade challenges that notion, and does so very well, in this reviewer’s opinion. This is a vehicle that challenges preconceptions, that turns tradition on its heels in exciting new ways.

Is it a Jeep? In the ways that really matter, it is.

Agree or disagree, it doesn’t matter to this little go-almost-anywhere ‘ute. It’s got Jeep characteristics stem to stern. And, it’s undeniably a Renegade.

Renegade_Badge

Is it a Jeep? That’s debatable. But, it definitely is a renegade.

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Rock on! Installing Poison Spyder Customs’ frame-mounted Ricochet Rockers

Equipping Smokey with legitimate protection for her vulnerable rocker panels has been on my list of must-do modifications from Day One. After a great deal of research and consideration, I chose the Poison Spyder Customs Ricochet Rockers, not to be confused with the DIY product of the same name. The original Ricochets mount to the factory Rubicon rails, which themselves bolt to the pinch seam. My frame-mounted sliders offer much stronger protection, and afford my wife and kids a practical step for ingress and egress.

Installation was fairly straightforward. Here’s how it went.

Materials/tools needed:

  • Poison Spyder frame-mounted Ricochet Rockers (Part No. 17-08-040)
  • 1/2″ ratchet handle
  • 3/8″ ratchet handle
  • 18 mm socket
  • 9/16″ socket
  • 9/16″ box wrench
  • 3/16″ drill bit
  • 3/8″ drill bit
  • 29/64″ drill bit
  • Drill motor
  • 1/2-20 threading tap & tap handle
  • Anti-seize compound
  • Blue Lock-Tite
  • Shop towels (optional)
  • Center punch
  • Hammer
  • Permanent marker
  • Rustoleum Professional primer (2 cans)
  • Rustoleum Professional High-Performance Enamel, semigloss (2 cans)

Right-side pre-installation

Step 1: Remove transmission & fuel tank skid bolts

After removing any existing steps or rocker protection, use a ratchet and 18 mm socket, remove the bolts on the underside of the frame holding the transmission skid plate (automatic transmission only) and the fuel tank. NOTE: Loosening the two forward fuel-tank bolts will allow the tank and skid plate to drop just enough to allow the Ricochet Rockers to slide into place between the frame and fuel skid. Yeah, ask me how long it took me to stop fighting with a pry bar like the instructions said and figure out there was a better way! (smh) Just don’t loosen the forward bolts too much. The skid plate does hold your fuel tank in place on the JKs!

Step 2: Mark & drill outrigger holes

Left-side pre-installation

Step 1: Remove transmission skid bolt

RKR - DrvrMockUPAs with the passenger-side pre-installation, remove the transmission skid plate bolt in the underside of the frame and loosen the forward bolt to allow the skid to hang enough for clearance. (NOTE: Make certain you’ve reinstalled the passenger-side bolt before removing the driver’s-side bolt to avoid letting the skid plate fall.)

Use the transmission skid plate bolt and jack stands to hold the rock slider in place while you mark and drill the remaining left-side holes.

Step 2: Mark holes and drill outrigger holes

Step 3: Drill & thread rear mounting point

Center-punch and drill a 3/16″ pilot hole in the center of your marked area on the underside of the frame. Step up at least one size before enlarging the hole to a final size of 29/64″. Use caution to keep this hole as straight and perpendicular to the frame as possible, as you will thread this hole to receive a mounting bolt.

Next, use a 1/2-20 threading tap and tap handle to create threads in the 29/64″ hole you just drilled. Keep the tap as straight and steady as possible. While the frame is thicker in this area, my finished hole is only four (maybe five on one side) threads deep. Frankly, I’m not completely comfortable with such a small “nut” for my slider’s primary mounting bolt. I’ll be watching for signs of movement, and may weld this corner in the future if need be.

Paint the exposed steel in the body mount brackets to prevent rust. I also attempted to deposit some paint around the upper edge of my mounting hole to prevent rust inside my frame.

Final installation

Step 1: Clean & degrease

With the pre-installation complete, use a scouring sponge, some denatured alcohol and a clean rag to remove any lingering manufacturing dust and/or oil from the rock sliders. The cleaner the surface, the better the primer will adhere to the surface, so don’t get stingy with the scrubbing, especially in tight areas!

Step 2: Prime

RKR - Primer1

 

Next, comes the second-most difficult part of the entire process. I call it difficult not because there’s anything overly complex about it, but because it requires discipline and patience to achieve a quality outcome.

RKR - Paint_PrimerSet down three jack stands, raised to their highest setting, then cover them with a sufficiently large drop cloth. To protect other items in my garage from overspray, I hung drop cloths along one end of the garage as well.

Vigorously shake the can of primer, then begin applying a very light coat. The particular brand I chose, Rustoleum, notes that a second coat may be applied within the first hour, or after 24 hours. So, I applied three light coats about 45 minutes apart, then let each slider rest 24 hours before flipping them to coat the opposite side.

In both priming and painting, pay special attention to the crevices along the underside and inside of the outriggers, as these areas are likely to retain rust-causing moisture.

Step 3: Paint

With the sliders primed and dry, paint may be applied. Using the same technique I used for primer, I applied five light coats of paint on each slider.

Step 4: Let it cure!

While the Rustoleum Professional series primer and paint I chose dries to the touch in an hour, that does not mean it is ready to mount on the Jeep.

All paint, especially spray paints, require time for the paint to cure to its full hardness. This process can take a full two weeks, making it easily the hardest part of the entire process — it requires patience!

In my case, I let the sliders rest about a week in my garage. With them installed, I’m also avoiding using them for another week to allow the curing process to complete in place.

Step 5: Reinstall

With the primer and paint having cured about a week in my garage, I was comfortable with completing my final installation. I’m also avoiding using the steps for another week to allow further curing while they’re in place.

To complete the installation, simply follow the steps used for pre-installation, using the factory bolts for the fuel tank and automatic transmission skid plate mounting points. (If you have a manual transmission, use the supplied bolts in the factory drilled and threaded locations.) Poison Spyder includes bolts, flat washers and nylon lock nuts for the outrigger mounting points. Apply anti-seize to all bolts, and re-tighten after 1,000 miles. NOTE: Because I’m not completely sold on the effectiveness of the left rear mounting hole’s limited number of threads, I chose to use blue Loc-Tite in place of anti-seize for this bolt to give it a little more holding power for daily use.

First impressions

I like the Ricochets’ easy bolt-on installation and frame-mounted strength. I was disappointed — perhaps unduly — that they didn’t fit fully flush against the frame or brackets in places as I had expected them to. I don’t anticipate that this will reduce their effectiveness. They’re quite solid on the frame. It’s just something that annoys the perfectionist in me. Beyond that, the Ricochet Rockers are a nice compromise between a family-friendly step and a hard-core rock slider.

Total time to complete

About two hours combined for test-fitting and final installation

Total project cost

$464.95 ($441.79 for the sliders via ExtremeTerrain coupon code, plus $23.16 for paint, primer and supplies)

I completed final install of the driver’s side before a nagging headache drove me back inside. I hope to finish this up today and post an install write-up early next week.

I took advantage of being off last week to finally test fit and prep the rock sliders I got — ugh, last year — for installation. Stay tuned, more to come!

A little update

Work has kept me too busy to post in a while, but I haven’t completely ignored Smokey.

I’ve removed my worn, faded vinyl from the hood, and a new ‘Smokey’ nameplate will be on its way soon. (still tweaking the redesign a bit)

Tube stepsAnd, I took advantage of a beautiful day today to finally remove the tube steps that were on the Jeep when I bought her. I’d been using these things on the rocks a little more than I’d realized!

Next up is a test fit of my rock sliders, followed by painting and a final mount.