Best Of 2015 Under $50,000: Jeep Renegade

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Time to end the Compass and Patriot nightmare.

This wasn’t an easy task for Jeep. Let’s face it, the off-road brand’s past tries building entry-level models, the Compass and Patriot, didn’t go so well. Think of them both as rental fleet punishments for when Malibus and Impalas were all gone. Launched back in 2007, both were clear signs that Jeep had begun to lose its way somewhat. How so? They were built on the same platform as the Dodge Caliber. We all know how not good of a car that was.

Chrysler was not Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) yet, and Jeep, simply put, wasn’t being managed properly. Could a Jeep still be a Jeep if it wasn’t a pure off-roader? Could it, instead, be a crossover that could hop over the occasional street curb?

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Turns out, no, and Jeep learned a harsh lesson because overall response to the Compass and Patriot wasn’t good. Now, jump forward a few years. FCA had been created and CEO Sergio Marchionne fully understood why the Compass and Patriot sucked, and he fully intended to do something about that. Facelifts were the first step, but the reality was that an entirely new model was required and fast. Fortunately, Marchionne knew to take advantage of what Fiat could offer, in this case a platform. But again, that platform was initially designed for a subcompact, such as the Fiat Punto and Alfa Romeo MiTo. At first that may have sounded like a repeat of the same mistakes of the old Jeep, but this new platform was much better.

For starters, it could properly handle a four-wheel-drive system. Jeep designers and engineers were given the greenlight to get started. Not only did the new entry-level Jeep have to look and behave like a Jeep, it also had to convince the naysayers that FCA knew what it was doing and it wasn’t going to sell the Jeep brand out. The final result was first shown at the 2014 Geneva Motor Show. The 2015 Jeep Renegade actually surprised us. It looked, well, really good. Its exterior lines were authentic and the interior didn’t reek of cheap plastics. We were given a tour of the crossover (because that’s what it really is) by Ralph Gilles, who’s now the global design chief for FCA. At the time he was VP of product design and was fully involved with styling the Renegade.

In fact, a select few American-based FCA designers were sent to Turin, Italy, to work on the project with their Fiat counterparts. One objective was to appropriately pay tribute to Jeep heritage. For example, various design bits include a topographic map of Moab in the center-console bin, Willys Jeep silhouettes at the base of the windshield as well as on the available "My Sky" removable roof panels. Speaking of which, the My Sky feature pays home to the 1941 Willys MB Jeep, which was designed specifically for service in World War II. But back to the Renegade’s exterior design itself: it looks rugged but not so much where it’d look out of place in the driveways of American suburbia.

Its upright stance and signature Jeep grille already make it look world’s better than the Compass and Patriot. Oh, those clever designers also styled the taillights to resemble those on the Wrangler. Compared to its competitors, such as the Nissan Juke, Kia Soul, and the Mini Countryman, the Renegade doesn’t look, well, funky. It’s handsome and not all too feminine. By contrast, the Compass and Patriot, especially the former, look outright dorky. The interior is also very well done. With seating for five, it’s nothing luxurious and we did notice hints of cheapness, but overall everything is very nicely laid out.

Buyers can opt for cloth or leather seats and standard bits include Chrysler’s excellent Uconnect infotainment system, which we had the chance to use during our week-long experience with the Dodge Challenger Scat Pack. The system includes Sirius XM satellite radio, voice command, a nicely designed touch screen interface and iPod and USB inputs. A backup camera is optional as is a navigation system. Under the hood lies a standard 1.4-liter MultiAir Turbo inline-four with 160 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque. That’s good enough for carting the kids back and forth to soccer and piano practice. The optional engine is a 2.4-liter MultiAir inline-four with a total of 184 hp and 171 lb-ft of torque.

Trust us, you’ll feel the power difference between both engines and the additional 24 ponies is greatly appreciated. The standard gearbox is a six-speed manual but most buyers will opt for the nine-speed automatic, which still needs additional calibration refinement. Front-wheel-drive is also standard fare, and there are four trim levels, Sport, Latitude, Limited, and Trailhawk. Want all-wheel-drive? No problem, because there are two systems. The first is called Active Drive, which works by disconnecting the rear axle when extra traction isn’t needed.

The optional system, standard on the Trailhawk, is called Active Drive Low, featuring a 20:1 "crawl ratio," a 3-millimeter-thick skid plate on the fuel tank, 17-inch wheels wrapped in off-road tires, red tow hooks, and shorter final drive ratio. The Renegade Trailhawk is definitely not a Wrangler, but it’s more than capable to handle limited off-roading. It’s best suited for those who experience harsh winters. Perhaps best of all, the Renegade is a solid bargain. The entry-level Sport trim with FWD starts off at $18,990. Add $2,000 for AWD. A top-of-the-line Renegade Trailhawk will still runs for less than $30k.

Is the 2015 Jeep Renegade a true off-road machine? Not really, but engineers have managed to make it as capable as possible for what it is and isn’t. But compared to any of its subcompact crossover competitors, the Renegade is the only one that stands a chance in a Zombie apocalypse.

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