2015 Jeep Renegade debuts: American-designed, Italian-crafted, 'Trail Rated'

/ Updated: 23 January 2015 3:54 pm GMT

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Updated Jan 23, 2015: We've had an opportunity to drive the 2015 Jeep Renegade Trailhawk and have updated the first look with driving impressions and more details about pricing and US powertrain configurations.

I've splashed through mud and water over 20 inches deep. I've climbed hills so steep that all I could see through the windshield was sky and driven with only 3 wheels on the ground. And I did all of that and more in the cutest, littlest Trail Rated vehicle in Jeep's lineup while testing the 2015 Jeep Renegade in the dirt of the Hollister Hills State Recreational Vehicle Park in California.

The first thing that you'll notice upon approaching the 2015 Jeep Renegade is how compact it is. About the size of a Nissan Cube, the all-new Renegade will be the smallest model in Jeep's lineup when it hits the road and trail later this year.

The automaker stresses that while this Jeep Jr. may be small in stature, it won't be any less capable than its larger siblings -- at least the "4x4 Trail Rated" Renegade Trailhawk model shouldn't be.

Beneath its bubbly Tek-Tonic styling, the "American-designed, Italian-crafted" Renegade is based on the Fiat-Chrysler "Small Wide 4x4" architecture, sharing its roots with the likes of the Fiat 500L and upcoming 500X. From there, the Renegade is highly influenced by Jeep's other odd looking little crossover -- the new Jeep Cherokee -- borrowing many of its powertrain technologies from its big brother.

Under the the hood, you'll find one of 16 different engine, transmission, and drive-train combinations depending on where you are in the world; but in America the choices are a bit simpler with just two engines, two transmissions, and three powertrains.

Familiar to the Cherokee and making an appearance on the Renegade is a 2.4-liter TigerShark MultiAir four-cylinder engine that is mated to a segment-first nine-speed automatic transmission. Power is stated at 180 horsepower and 175 pound-feet of torque. Jeeps says that it has revised the programming of the automatic transmission to suit the small Renegade, and I was satisfied with its performance both on and off road.

The second, smaller engine is a 1.4-liter turbocharged MultiAir four-cylinder that delivers 160 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. It's a bit odd that the smaller engine boasts more torque than the TigerShark. I was able to test this engine, which is mated with a six-speed manual transmission, on the highway and found that it is still definitely the less powerful of the two choices, regardless of what the numbers say.

Globally, the Renegade will also be available with a new 2.0-liter MultiJet II diesel engine, but it doesn't look like that powerplant will be available in the US market anytime soon.

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I was able to test the Renegade Trailhawk on a pretty tough off-road technical course. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

In addition to the standard front-wheel drive configuration, the Renegade will be available with the owner's pick of two all-wheel-drive systems: Jeep Active Drive and Active Drive Low. Both are "full-time 4x4 systems" that feature a fully disengaging rear axle to reduce drivetrain losses and increase efficiency in situations, such as freeway cruising, where the full 4x4 capability isn't required. When Jeep says "fully disconnecting," it means that the Renegade's 4x4 system can disconnect both the propshaft and the rear differential, totally reducing drag at the rear wheels and on the powertrain when cruising. We're told that the system can re-engage in about 500 milliseconds, the snap of a finger, to provide torque to the rear when slip is detected.

Both systems feature four selectable drive modes (Auto, Snow, Sand and Mud modes), but only the Jeep Active Drive Low -- exclusive to and standard on the "Trail Rated" Trailhawk trim level -- includes a selectable 20:1 crawl ratio. Jeep Active Drive Low also features an exclusive "Rock" setting for the Selec-Terrain system and Hill Descent Control. This model's ride height also gets a 0.8-inch bump which, in conjunction with the unique front and rear bumpers, grants the Trailhawk 30.5-degree approach, 25.7-degree breakover, and 34.3-degree departure angles and a 19-inch fording depth. The addition of skid plates and red front and rear tow hooks help out should you find yourself bumping up against those limits.

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The 2.4-liter gasoline engine performed admirably, but we're a bit disappointed that the diesel won't be coming to America. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Jeep makes a lot of "best-in-class" claims for the Renegade when it comes to things like wheel articulation, off-road capability, and approach angles, but with this class filled with "lifestyle vehicles" like the Kia Soul, Scion xB, and Nissan Cube, that's a pretty low bar that the Trailhawk simply soars over.

Seated behind the wheel of the Renegade Trailhawk, Jeep let me loose on a technical course at the Hollister Hills SRVA park where first I was able to test the subcompact SUV's approach and breakover limits with a series of undulating hills. At times, I could see nothing more than the sky and the hands of our course spotters telling me where to point the wheels and I was sure that I'd be digging the Trailhawk's bright red tow hooks into the ground on some of the descents, but the Renegade cleared it.

Next up was a splash into and out of a mud and water pit 20 inches deep at its deepest -- which the Renegade handled without a hiccup -- and up a rocky, rutted incline where the Jeep's 8 inches of ground clearance were put to the test. With the wheels a bit wet, the 4x4 system had to step in here and there to slow wheel spin by selective brake application, shuffling torque to the wheels with grip via computer trickery. While this system worked admirably during my day in the dirt, it's very loud. It groans, grinds, and shudders as the brakes grab this wheel and that one. From the driver's seat, it sort of sounds a bit like you're rubbing the Trailhawk's skidplates on the rocks below, which is disconcerting.

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The Trailhawk is the most hardcore of the Renegade models, boasting off-road chops like nothing in its class. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

With the aid of the course spotters, I was assured that there'd been no metal on metal contact, so I keep a moderate pedal pressure, pointed the wheels where I wanted to go, and just let the Renegade Trailhawk's computers figure out the best way to climb this rock or slide down that hill. Despite the noise, the Trailhawk pulled off some impressive stunts on that day.

At times, the road was so uneven, the crests of the bumps so severe, that one of the rear wheels would be raised several inches off of the ground. The brake-based traction system would handle that admirably as well.

Later in the day, I piloted the Renegade Trailhawk up a mountain path, where the little guy tackled more uneven climbs (at ear-popping altitudes), scrambling over rocks, dirt and loose silt on its curvy ascent. When we reached the crest, the course spotters instructed me to activate the Trailhawk's hill descent control system and pointed and guided me around a blind bend to a straight-line 30-plus percent grade downhill path. Imagine sitting at the crest of a roller-coaster's big drop, only it's made of loose silt and you're in a compact SUV about the size of a Nissan Juke. It's a swear-out-loud kind of moment.

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The Jeep's traction management system uses the brakes to manage the open differentials. It gets the job done, but in a very noisy way. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Slowly, the Renegade crawled its way down that hill as well (while I braced myself against the floor and the steering wheel). Again, the braking system grinded and groaned the whole way down, but it got me to the bottom safely and in a controlled manner. At the end of the day, I came away impressed with the Renegade Trailhawk's abilities, both on and off road. It's definitely earned that Trail Rated badge.

The youthful, quirky Renegade shows promise with a selection of premium infotainment options and a few unique amenities. The most obvious are the two "My Sky" open-air roof systems. One is a manual removable roof panel, the other is a "premium power tilt and slide" panel, and both are essentially glorified dual-pane sunroofs, which isn't a bad thing.

We are excited about including the segment's largest full-color instrument cluster display -- a massive, configurable 7-inch display between the speedometer and tachometer that displays information relative to the driver. There's also the available two flavors of the Chrysler Group's Uconnect infotainment systems, offering Bluetooth connectivity, HD Radio, SiriusXM Radio, and USB and auxiliary audio via either a 5-inch or 6.5-inch color touch screen. Navigation equipped models also boast SiriusXM Travel Link for traffic, weather and more.

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Two variants of the Uconnect touch screen infotainment system are available on the 2015 Renegade. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Models featuring the new Uconnect Access system will also feature an embedded cellular antenna that grants the infotainment system one-touch access to roadside assistance, 911 assist and the ability to receive and read text messages aloud.

Fleshing out the Renegade's tech offering is a solid selection of available driver aid technologies, including Forward Collision Warning, Lane Departure Warning, Blind Spot Monitoring, Rear Cross Traffic alert and a rear-view camera with dynamic trajectory guides.

I won't spend a lot of time discussing the Renegade's Tek-Tonic design theme, which features more rounded corners and circles than you can shake a Zune at. Like the polarizing design of the new Cherokee, this is either a look that you'll love or hate, with the general consensus falling toward the latter. However, I'm excited to see Jeep taking chances with its design. The Renegade may look like Fisher-Price's take on "Baby's First Wrangler" or the offspring of a Jeep Compass and a Nissan Cube, but it's certainly not bland. Feel free to share your thoughts on the style in the comments below.

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The 2015 Jeep Renegade Trailhawk has earned that "Trail Rated" badge. This is a subcompact SUV that likes it dirty. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

The 2015 Jeep Renegade Trailhawk sits near the top of the Renegade's price range at $25,995. At the entry point, the Renegade Sport model will start at $17,995. Jeep tells us that a fully loaded, fully teched, fully optioned Renegade model will hit a price ceiling of about $32K, but that it doesn't expect most of its owners to reach that max. Globally, pricing and final powertrain options have not yet been revealed.

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2015 Jeep Renegade

Part Number: 2015JEEPSTER
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