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WESTLAKE VILLAGE, California -- We’re not saying that this dirt trail up a ravine in the Santa Monica Mountains is steep, but all we can see right now over the hood of the 2015 Jeep Renegade is blue sky and the hands of the trail spotter beckoning us onward.

This is not what we were expecting from the 2015 Jeep Renegade, which looks like a cute ute designed only for a big shopping adventure to Target. And as we creep the Renegade forward into we know not what, we’re reminded yet again that a Jeep is what it does, not what it looks like.

Apparently Melfi, Italy, is very like Toledo, Ohio
Of course, let’s not kid ourselves here. The 2015 Jeep Renegade is not a Jeep CJ nor even a Jeep Wrangler. Instead it is a personal-size sport-utility designed for quick family errands around town, not brush-busting high adventure. Small, affordably priced sport-utes like the Renegade are coming into fashion now, and no less than a dozen different brands will have them on the road in America within the next three years.

And the key attribute here is an affordable price. Everyone wants a utility vehicle, whether you live in Arizona, Vermont or, you know, Italy. The utility vehicle is now the definitive car, not the sedan. And a small ute like the Renegade with a price close to $20,000 is the best way to get an SUV into the hands of someone who would otherwise choose a Toyota Corolla.

The 2015 Jeep Renegade is indeed a small vehicle, measuring 166.6 inches in overall length on a wheelbase of just 101.2 inches. The cabin measures out to 99.9 cubic feet for the passengers, 18.5 cubic feet of cargo capacity behind the second-row seat and 50.8 cubic feet of cargo capacity when the second-row seat is folded flat.

The Renegade is built on Fiat-based architecture and components, and this ute is even assembled in a massive Fiat plant in Melfi, Italy. But just as you’d expect from a company whose spiritual home is Toledo, Ohio, the Renegade comes in four different models in seven different trim levels, and there are two different engines and four different drive choices (all-wheel drive and front-wheel drive). It comes in 10 different colors. And there are tow hooks.

Say hello to Mulholland Highway
As we’re flying down Mulholland Highway in the chaparral-covered mountains above Malibu, it comes to us that maybe the Italian heritage of the new Renegade isn’t such a bad thing. We’re driving the top-of-the-line Renegade Limited with the 184-hp 2.4-liter Tigershark engine, the nine-speed automatic transmission, and all-wheel drive. And we’re speeding down the winding road as if the Renegade wants to be an Italian sports sedan.

It helps that this engine spreads its 177 lb-ft of torque across a broad rpm range, and the automatic transmission swaps gear ratios not only quickly but also smoothly. But mostly we’re impressed by the poise shown by the compact chassis, as the special dampers of the long-travel, strut-type all-independent suspension help deliver a supple, controlled ride even on these dual-purpose mud-and-snow-rated tires. The Renegade feels alert, and the electric-assist steering is fine for a ute, where you want a higher degree of isolation from road rumble anyway.

Yes, we’re feeling pretty Italian here, only in a good way. You might argue that the Renegade looks a little Italian as well, but the cuteness of the exterior styling doesn’t irritate us at all in this Limited’s shade of high-fashion green. More important, the self-conscious Jeep cues of the interior trim (“EST 1941” has even been embossed in a few places) makes the Renegade more than a simple box, while the control layout, seating ergonomics, and fine choices in materials (plastic or not) represent the best of Italian design. There’s even an optional panoramic sunroof that lets you not only tilt/slide open a panel but also remove both panes altogether to really let the light shine in.

Get your Jeep on, guy
Of course, there’s only so much cuteness one can stand, so we leave behind the sunroof, the 6.5-inch touchscreen for the electronic interface, and the comprehensive Uconnect audio system of the Renegade Limited and instead try on a Renegade Trailhawk. We admire the way that upright seating always seems to accentuate spaciousness. We admire the practical 18.5 cu-ft of cargo area behind the second seat and the clever adjustable-height cargo floor. All this helps remind us that Jeep people carry mountain bikes, backpacks, and ski gear, not just boxes of electronic stuff from Best Buy.

The Renegade Latitude and the Renegade Sport come standard with the 160-hp turbocharged 1.4-liter Multiair Turbo, but this engine comes only with a pretty nice six-speed manual transmission. Probably you will prefer the nine-speed automatic, and this comes only with the 184-hp 2.4-liter engine. More importantly, you can have the Renegade in front-wheel drive as a Limited, Latitude, or Sport. You can also have the Limited, Latitude, Sport, or Trailhawk with full-time, all-weather Active Drive, an all-wheel-drive system that disconnects the rear wheels for better fuel efficiency when you’re just cruising around on the highway. And when you get Active Drive, you get a four-mode control that allows you to calibrate the AWD system for automatic, mud, sand, or snow, and ABS-controlled hill-descent control is part of the package.

Naturally you’re interested in really getting your Jeep on, aren’t you? So you vector right to the 2015 Jeep Renegade Trailhawk 4X4, and there you are on your hands and knees while you peer underneath to see if there’s a chassis skid plate. There is. Perhaps even better, the Trailhawk has a different front and rear fascia to improve approach and departure angles in off-road situations. Plus the Trailhawk 4x4 comes with five-mode control for its Active Drive system to calibrate for automatic, mud, sand, snow, or rock. The Trailhawk 4x4 even comes with a super-low 20:1 drive ratio to make it possible to creep across obstacles at ultra-slow speed.

We were as skeptical as anyone about the wisdom of pointing this lightweight sport-utility up a narrow dirt ravine, but there we were nevertheless. And the Renegade Trailhawk 4x4 made us look like a pro. We wouldn’t bash it across boulders, but a trail-spotter can lead you almost anywhere else simply because the Trailhawk is so short, while 8.1 inches of wheel articulation, 8.7 inches of ground clearance and 19 inches of fording capability take care of the rest. The 2.4-liter engine proves very controllable when matched with the automatic, and the hill-descent control is surprisingly effective. The Renegade is not a CJ, but it can go places. It’s a Jeep.

Shopping every day, adventure on the weekend
Almost no one you know will ever get mud on the 2015 Jeep Renegade. In fact, we always object when sport-utilities are shown in adventure situations because real people in the real world do not use SUVs in this way. So the people you meet at the wheel of the Renegade will be more interested in its price, its fuel economy, its excellent range of active safety features, and the amount of stuff that can be carried when the second-row seat is flipped down. They will probably complain that the Renegade’s short wheelbase and minimal overhangs lead it to hop a little bit across the seams between the concrete slabs on the freeway.

If we were grownups, we’d all ask for no more than that. But because we love the whole idea of the Jeep thing -- EST 1941! -- we love that the Renegade comes with tow hooks. Maybe you’ll never have to winch your Renegade into a parking spot at Target, but the tow hooks are a signature of the whole peculiar Jeep enthusiasm.

Jim Morrison, director of the Jeep brand, admitted to us that he took home a Renegade prototype and then went to an off-road park on a rainy weekend with his teenage son. They bashed around for an afternoon, Morrison in the Renegade and his son in a Wrangler. He tells us, “I didn’t take the Renegade to the car wash afterwards, because when I parked it in the executive lot on Monday morning, I wanted everybody to see that the tow hook was thick with mud.”

A Jeep is what it does, not what it looks like. The Renegade might look a little cute to some, but the bodywork is there pretty much only to keep off the rain. As we recall, the original 1941 Jeep looked as if someone had cut up some steel from a Quonset hut and bashed it into place around the chassis with a hammer. If you’re all crazy about what the visual essence of a Jeep should be, maybe you should just be driving a plain old car instead.
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