Review: Jeep storms back with radical Renegade

When Fiat rescued Chrysler from hard times it also took control of the Jeep brand, one of the few resolutely dedicated 4x4 makers. The first all-new model from the unification is the Jeep Renegade. Unlike traditional Jeeps, the core model is more soft-roader than all-roader, aimed at people who like the image but don't need too much wild terrain grunt.

The Renegade updates the Jeeps trademark vertical grille and keeps its head  and chassis  well above water
The Renegade updates the Jeeps trademark vertical grille and keeps its head  and chassis  well above water

Renegade looks like the scaled up toy car you played with as a child. It’s as boxy as a Tonka and, in its mimosa or orange paint, is hard to miss, hard not to smile at.

It’s only half a Jeep. The other half is Italian. It was designed in Jeepsville USA and is built alongside Fiat’s 500X in Spaghetti Central, near the heel of Italy.

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Underneath there’s the bones from Fiat’s baby SUV. So, Jeep reshapes the Fiat, funks it up with a chunky body, a trademark seven-slot toaster grille, cross-point rear lamps, Noddy wing mirrors and enough ground clearance to skim flooded roads or farm tracks. Then it sends the idea to Fiat, which makes the Renegade at Melfi. The city has an 11th century castle, some esteemed red wine and olive oil. Placing a car factory so far down Italy brings employment to the impoverished south.

The Renegade traction is at the front but serious dudes will need the Trailhawk model, which has 4x4 drive, lower ratio gears, ride height to match a Subaru and serious scrabbling ability. Jeep invented the Trailhawk name. There is no such bird. The romance fits the legend of Jeep, the progenitor, lest we forget, of the whole 4x4 and SUV industry. Without Jeep there may never have been Land Rover, which started out as a copy of the Second World War Jeep made by Willys and others. Jeep is now a registered trade mark but a generic, too.

We tried the Trailhawk on stately Yorkshire roads in its golden wealth triangle between Bowcliffe Hall and Ripley Castle, chosen by Jeep for the UK national press launch. With its higher ride and Goodyear M+S tyres, the Trailhawk has more body movement than the regular Renegade. The trip meter said 32.5mpg, so it’s a thirsty hunter.

Jeep is storming back from its depression. World sales went from 732,000 in 2013 to 1.2 million last year. The transformer is Renegade. It takes 70 per cent of Jeep sales in Europe, reaching the 30-somethings, 20 years younger than buyers of the Cherokee models. This younger profile attracts carmakers.

Prices start at £17,295, which buys the 108bhp 1.6 petrol engine and Sport trim, rated at 47mpg and 141g. A Sport with the torquier 118bhp 1.6 diesel engine is £18,995, rated at 64mpg and 115g. The cheapest automatic is the 138bhp 1.4 petrol Longitude at £21,795 (48mpg,137g). The cheapest 4x4 Renegade is the 138bhp 2-litre diesel Limited at £25,995 (55mpg, 134g). A 168bhp 1.4 petrol Limited is offered with 4x4 and automatic gears at £27,195 (41mpg and 160g). The tough roader Trailhawk comes only with a 168bhp 2-litre diesel and automatic gears at £28,595. It has hill descent control, crawler gears, a front tow hook, skid plates, sharper approach and departure angles, mud and snow tyres. In short, probably unstoppable in everyday rough terrain.

These baby Jeeps are shorter but taller than everyday cars like the Ford Focus. They are not as cheap, nor are they as economical or clean. I also tried the front-wheel-drive Limited 120 version fitted with the 118bhp (120ps) 1.6 diesel, drive away from £23,695. The Omaha orange paint and gloss black roof added £900. Other body colours include military green and stealth black. The rather fun Jeep website lists the connotations. There’s a promo video of the Moab terrain in Utah. A map segment is integrated into some of the trim in the Renegade. On such things do Americans thrive. Anyway, it’s one of the best and most accessible car websites I’ve seen.

In life, the Renegade exudes charisma, stamina, adventure. It benefits from one of the iconic faces, as familiar as a Mini or Che Guevara. I’ve romped in Jeeps through rain forests, brick hard deserts, Gold Rush mountain passes, boulder infested gulches and Scottish moorland loam. They go the distance and don’t seem to break.

So I come to the Renegade with favourable opinions. I like the gay spirit of the brown mud-splatter paint job on the red end of the tachometer and the quirky tail lamps – inspired by Second World War jerry cans.

It’s not all sweetheart of the rodeo stuff, though. Neither Fiat or Jeep get rave reliability ratings. The manual gearshift is functional rather than obliging. The handling, ditto. Forget wanting a hot hatch. There’s vibration and sensitivity on coarse roads – things you’ll not find as evident with, say, a Mazda CX3 or Nissan Qashqai but do feel on, say, SsangYong’s bargain Tivoli and Dacia’s cheapo Duster.

I also found visibility blighted by the thick roof supports – four each side – and some blind-spotting on the nearside. The Fiat 1.6 diesel was serviceable, sometimes loud, gave 40 to 45 miles a gallon lugging the far from lightweight Jeepette.

Verdict: Not cheap but it is different. Small SUV ability helps.