The 2016 Jeep Renegade has something to please both off-roaders and commuters, but its performance can seem dull compared to its engaging styling.
The Jeep Renegade is the smallest vehicle from Chrysler's own military-industrial complex since before Chrysler owned Jeep—literally, the smallest Jeep since the World War II-era Willys.
As more than a foot shorter than the Cherokee, the Renegade works on a new mission for the brand: extending the brand around the rest of the world, where the appetite for small cars beats that of the U.S. market tenfold.
For American drivers, the Renegade offers something a little different: the ability to buy an off-roader worthy of the Jeep name for a price in the mid-$20,000s, with the very latest safety and fuel-saving features to make it palatable as a daily driver. The Renegade has true Jeep functionality in a package that's not much smaller than the smaller SUVs from a decade ago.
The Renegade ushers in a new look that fits more plausibly in the Jeep lineup than that of the bigger Cherokee. It's a tall, slab-sided, and upright little utility, but its stylists deliberately oversized some of the details to emphasize its heritage. The headlights flanking the seven-bar grille are large and round; the rubber-lipped wheel arches are large and trapezoidal, to emphasize strength. The taillights are stamped with "X" shapes in an homage to wartime fuel cans.
Inside, the dashboard and console are slightly more robust versions of what you might find in a subcompact. The two center air vents sit in a little pod on top of the dashboard and resemble "Wall-E" to us. Ventilation knobs are large, round, silver, and easily to understand at first glance. There's hard plastic over larger surfaces, soft-touch vinyl where passengers may come into contact with a panel, and otherwise slightly oversized controls.
The base engine is a 160-horsepower turbocharged 1.4-liter inline-4, putting out 184 pound-feet of torque, paired with a 6-speed manual gearbox. For more power, a 180-hp, 2.4-liter inline-4 producing 175 lb-ft of torque is combined with a 9-speed automatic gearbox—clearly the only such 9-speed in any subcompact on the market. All-wheel drive (AWD) is a $2,000 option with either engine, and in true Jeep fashion, it includes settings for extreme conditions: Mud, Sand, or Snow, plus a hill-descent braking mode. The top-of-the-line Trailhawk model, with an inch more ground clearance and different front and rear bumpers to allow steeper approach and descent angles, adds a Rock mode and the ability to crawl at very low speeds.
The little Jeep is very capable off-road. We've driven it up a remarkably steep climb on rutted dirt and gravel roads, and then a descent at close to 45 degrees in which the Renegade braked itself and controlled the traction on each wheel as it slowly crawled down the steep track. It can traverse boulders almost as large as its 16-, 17-, or 18-inch wheels, ford streams, and generally acquit itself well in the kind of dirty, muddy, off-roading Jeeps (or their designers) revel in. It's no Jeep Wrangler, but it's good for a little utility.
Still, Renegades will likely spend 95 percent of their time on city and suburban streets. As the entry-level Jeep, it's refined enough, but we've found ourselves preferring the base powertrain and front-wheel drive in urban driving. It's lighter, more direct, and rides lower than versions like the Trailhawk, which feels more ponderous thanks to its heavier weight and standard two-speed transfer case.
Inside the Renegade, the front two passengers will be happy with their environment. The front seats are comfortable and nicely bolstered, and the Renegade is clearly wider than other small SUVs, meaning the shoulders of the two front-seat riders are suitably separated. Rear-seat room is acceptable for two adults if the front passengers are willing to move their seats toward the dash, but this is still a subcompact, and rear-seat room isn't its strong suit. There's substantial cargo room behind the rear seat, which folds flat, as does the front passenger seat—allowing long items to be carried inside diagonally from dashboard to rear corner.
The Renegade comes with seven airbags and stability control. A rearview camera is standard on all but the base model. Optional safety systems include forward-collision warnings and automatic braking, blind-spot monitors, and lane-departure warnings. Safety ratings, so far, have been mid-pack—considering that there are a number of very high-rated vehicles in its class. The Jeep Renegade has earned four-star overall ratings from federal testers, including four stars for front impact and five for side impact, and the IIHS has given the Renegeade "Good" scores in most of its crash tests, except the small-overlap crash test.
The Renegade comes in four trim levels: the base Sport doesn't come standard with air conditioning or cruise control, which means the mid-level Latitude ($22,290) and the top-of-the-line Limited will be the versions most drivers will seek out. All-wheel drive is a $2,000 option. All can be ordered with either powertrain and with front- or all-wheel drive. The Trailhawk is the Renegade for off-road fans; it comes with all-wheel drive and the larger 2.4-liter engine with the 9-speed automatic, and offers a nifty removable sunroof system that opens the Renegade to the sun or stars, but not without a special wrench and a few minutes to spare.
In its base version, the Renegade is rated at 24 mpg city, 31 highway, 27 combined, according to the EPA. That's for a Renegade with front- or all-wheel drive and a manual transmission, as well as the base 1.4-liter turbocharged inline-4.
Upgrade to the 2.4-liter inline-4 with the 9-speed automatic transmission, and the Renegade earns EPA ratings of 22/31/25 mpg with front-wheel drive and 21/29/24 mpg with AWD.