In the small crossover utility vehicle market, there is no shortage of contenders. Fortunately – or unfortunately, depending on who you are – many of these crossover contenders err on the side of passenger comfort, cargo space, and fuel efficiency in lieu of off-road prowess and all-weather versatility. On the flipside, the full-blown sport utility vehicle gives drivers the ability to make molehills out of mountains, at the expense of the same aforementioned comfort, cargo space, and fuel efficiency. The folks over at Fiat-Chrysler have a new entrant into the ring, which purports to do everything well. Can the Italian-assembled 2015 Jeep Renegade Trailhawk put its money where its mouth is?
Although it shares a platform with the Fiat 500X, the styling of the Renegade makes it immediately recognizable as a Jeep, but with a cheerful twist that includes neat little “X” patterns in the taillights. Available only in four-door form, it is on the small side with an overall length of 4,232 mm (166.6 in). This is up to a full foot shorter than the average compact sedan. It allows for excellent maneuverability around town with a fairly tight turning radius, and makes parking a cinch. The reason for this configuration is to allow for favourable approach and departure angles, which will allow drivers to get over ruts, rocks, or suburban curbs with ease.
Inside, the Renegade offers a generally pleasant design, with the no-nonsense and rugged feel seen in vehicles like the Wrangler. The test vehicle was equipped with the $1,895 Premium Leather Group, which in addition to leather seating surfaces, includes a heated steering wheel, windshield wiper de-icer, and automatic climate control. The $1,100 Premium Navigation Group adds a very useful UConnect 6.5-inch touch screen interface, and the $795 Safety and Security Group adds an alarm, blind-spot monitoring, and rear cross-traffic alerts. A rear view camera was $450 extra.
The test vehicle also included the $1,595 MySky power sunroof system, which adds a removable power sunroof up front in addition to a second removable roof panel in the rear. The decreased length of the Jeep doesn’t necessarily equate to cramped quarters for passengers, but taller people may not enjoy their time in the back. Cargo space behind the 60/40 folding rear seats is adequate, and the stubby length of the Renegade somewhat limits the amount of stuff you can carry.
Many Jeep models get the “Trail Rated” badging, and the Renegade Trailhawk is no exception. With a healthy 221 mm (8.7 inches) of ground clearance, the baby Jeep backs it up with a four-wheel drive system dubbed Active Drive Low. When 4WD Low mode is engaged, the 20:1 gear reduction ratio is helpful, but isn’t quite as good as the 48:1 or 56:1 ratios offered by its bigger brother, the Cherokee. In the Renegade, the Active Drive Low system reconfigures the ZF nine-speed automatic (more on that later) with a 4.334 final drive ratio instead of the 3.734 offered on non-Trailhawk models. This is paired with a first gear that is fully locked out in regular drive mode, and can only be selected in either 4WD Low or the manumatic Auto/Stick function. Although this quasi-4WD Low mode sounds disadvantageous on paper, the real world performance suggests otherwise.
At a recent automotive media test event in New York State, a Renegade Trailhawk was put through its paces in an off-road trail filled with mud, ruts, large puddles, and even a forty-five degree angle. The Jeep handled the entire mess with aplomb, and didn’t miss a beat as it went through the trail and kept up with the likes of Range Rovers and other capable sport utility vehicles. On the road, ride quality was fairly refined, but was considerably firm. Noticeably absent was the jarring body shake typically seen in the go-anywhere, body-on-frame Jeep Wrangler.
Powering the Renegade Trailhawk is a 2.4-litre inline four-cylinder known as the Tigershark MultiAir. Using electro-hydraulic variable valve timing for the intake valves, the MultiAir technology allows the engine to use the timing and duration of the opening and closing of the intake valves to control air flow. This creates a more efficient method of combustion control compared to a conventional throttle body butterfly plate, while also boosting power and cutting emissions. In the Renegade’s iteration, horsepower is rated at 180 hp, with 175 lb-ft of torque on tap.
With a curb weight of 1,583 kilograms (3,490 lb) in Trailhawk form, the 2.4-litre Tigershark MultiAir does have to make use of all 180 of its ponies on a regular basis. The engine is paired to a ZF nine-speed automatic gearbox that is also seen on various other Chrysler products, including the Cherokee and 200, and other automakers such as Honda are also using the transmissions in vehicles such as the Pilot and Acura TLX. Pegged as a compact gearbox with a wide gear ratio spread, it allows for both fuel economy and performance gains.
In the case of the Renegade, the extra curb weight was still a bit too much for the nine-speed to make up for. Barring the cannibalization of sales, the 3.2 or 3.6-litre Pentastar V6 used in other Jeep products would feel right at home in this application, and would make the Renegade feel lively instead of laboured. While acceleration was certainly better than what would have been seen with a traditional four, five, or six-speed automatic, it still resulted in the Renegade screaming for a V6 engine option.
Continuing further on the transmission; in theory, the nine-speed is able to achieve its number of gears by the use of a hard-toothed dog clutch between fourth and fifth, and also seventh and eighth gears. In practice, the meshing of the dog clutch requires an extended amount of time to perform, with the transmission needing to spin up and match shaft speeds internally before allowing a gear change to happen. The result is a less refined driving experience, with noticeable clunking on both upshifts and downshifts between fourth/fifth and seventh/eighth gear – including under braking without throttle applied.
In addition, the transmission calibration in the Renegade resulted in jerky operation in most other remaining gears, and created clumsier launching in stop-and-go or rolling stop conditions. In all other conditions, shifts are very deliberate and remind the driver that many more shifts are to be felt after the first one or two. In some cases, such as cruising at 35 kilometres per hour, there is no way to stop a harsh transmission clunk when rolling on and off the throttle. This made traffic jams and city driving particularly frustrating. Having recently tested other nine-speed vehicles with V6 engines, the Renegade’s four-cylinder pairing has been the least refined.
With all the extra gear ratios to choose from, the Renegade Trailhawk’s fuel economy ratings are a respectable 11.2 L/100km in the city, and 8.0 L/100km on the highway. However, with mixed driving, observed test fuel economy only matched the city rating of 11.2 L/100km, further suggesting that the near-1,600 kilogram curb weight is negating the gains from the MultiAir system and nine-speed transmission.
With an as-tested price of $37,830, the Renegade brings itself into dangerous waters in terms of its competitors. For approximately $3,000 extra, buyers can get a similarly equipped Cherokee Trailhawk with a 3.2-litre V6 engine and even better off-roading prowess. Buyers can also sacrifice some road manners in exchange for class-leading off road capability and purchase a well-equipped Wrangler or Wrangler Unlimited.
On the flipside, top-trim crossovers such as the Subaru Forester XT and the Ford Escape Titanium will offer more power and a competitive feature set at a similar price, but won’t quire fare as well off-road. The upper level Trailhawk trim (and the even higher Limited) has placed itself in a slightly awkward pricing category, especially considering its refinement level. With a base price of only $19,995 (the Trailhawk starts at $30,995), the lower-end Sport and North models would definitely be a better value for the money.