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:
“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.
It 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 economy 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.
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?
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!
Hard to live with
From 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.
It’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?
In 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.
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 doesn’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)
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.
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.