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Is Jeep's first small SUV too cute? Can anything be too cute?

What Is It?
Behold the birth of a brand-new Jeep, a down-size departure for the icon that will open it up to a whole new set of buyers in the small SUV category. The Jeep Renegade 4x4 and 4x2 will seek to attract entry level Jeepers while giving the Jeep faithful a capable and cheerful-looking cute ute.

"I relate this vehicle to a puppy dog," said head of Jeep design Mark Allen. “Its ears are too big, its eyes are too big, all that is what I see in this vehicle. I tried to walk it right up to the edge of cute but not go beyond that.”

You decide. We think it’s just the right amount of cute. Styling was done “100 percent” in Michigan, Allen said. But it does share one or two or 30 parts with the Fiat 500L and upcoming 500X, things like the steering column, front wheel bearings, a bunch of fasteners and the floor boards. Still more Fiat parts were modified for this Jeep application. Altogether, the Melfi Italy-built Renegade will be the first Fiat Chrysler Automobiles vehicle to use the new Small-Wide 4x4 architecture. With a wheelbase of just 101.2 inches and an overall length of 166.6 inches (making it approximately 25 inches shorter than a Chrysler 200 sedan) it will occupy the small end of the Jeep lineup's size spectrum.

U.S. Renegades will get two engines and two transmissions. The 1.4-liter MultiAir Turbo producing 160-hp and 184 lb-ft of torque will be mated to a six-speed manual. The 2.4-liter 180-hp, 175 lb-ft Tigershark will be paired with a nine-speed automatic that has already made cameo appearances in the Jeep Cherokee and the Chrysler 200, among others.

Just because the Renegade is small, it does not mean that it skimps on engineering and technology. The Renegade's body is composed of approximately 70 percent high-strength steel for increased structural stiffness, while also featuring four-wheel independent suspension and increased ground clearance in the Trailhawk version -- one of the four trim levels. The Renegade uses a Koni frequency selective damping (FSD) front and rear strut system for what Jeep promises will be better handling and road grip, as well as muting out bumps on poor road surfaces.

The interior features Jeep's new "Tek-Tonic" design language, exemplified by intersections of squared-off design details with soft-touch surfaces. Both the interior and exterior pay homage to Jeeps of decades past with a number of design elements, such as the X-shaped tail lights that recall the stampings featured on Jerry cans. The exterior design also features plenty of traditional Jeep hallmarks, including a seven-slot grille framed by a front fascia surround, trapezoidal wheel arches, and a body-color windshield surround. The rear cargo area offers 50.8 cu.ft. of space with 60/40 folding rear seats.

While the Renegade certainly is not as open to the elements as the Wrangler, it nevertheless features an optional My Sky roof system, composed of two large removable transparent roof panels that can be stowed in a special “pizza insulator” bag in the trunk. Adding to the outdoor theme is the mud-splatter graphic on the gauge cluster, at the center of which drivers will find a 3.5-inch monochrome display or an optional 7-inch TFT color display screen. Speaking of screens, the Renegade offers Jeep's UConnect touchscreen infotainment system in 5-inch and 6.5-inch sizes that will permit voice-activated audio system controls, in addition to Bluetooth connectivity and an audio text messaging system.

What Is It Like To Drive?
The Renegade’s small wide architecture will fit 16 different powertrains and driveline setups. We in the U.S. will only get a few of those 16, but after a day driving different U.S.-spec Renegades on a variety of surfaces both on- and off-road we came away thinking it’s generally a pretty sound setup.

Off-road the Renegade is surprisingly capable. In fully-loaded 4x4 trim it can do most anything, from crawling over rocks to descending massive, steep hills with hill-descent control slowing each wheel individually. The “Trail-Rated” Trailhawk trim level gets extra ground clearance and better approach and departure angles so if you want to go Rubicon, get that one. We tried out a bunch of terrain and had no trouble surmounting everything the park could put in our way. This is more capable off-road than anything in the class, easily.

The lack of a hand brake will be seen by traditionalists as unforgiveable. We found it would have been a nice feature to have when just backing the Renegade out of a downhill parking space, for instance. Four-wheelers use it to get out of all kinds of tight spots. The fact that it was eliminated to make room for -- gasp -- cupholders will be hard to take for old-school wheelers. However, Jeep says cable-operated handbrake levers have problems of their own and result in some owner complaints. You can't please everyone.

We tried out the hill-descent control on a very long, very steep downhill pile of sand and had no trouble at all. It was a breeze, the electronics of ABS and traction control applying itself perfectly to perform the function done by low gearing on old Jeeps. What a world!

We got a chance to try out the full articulation of the 4wd on a short, controlled course made specifically for that task at Hollister Hills State Vehicle Recreation Area in California and encountered no problems, never scraping so much as a diff pumpkin. You can get a Renegade with the "Trail Rated" badge and if you give it a whirl in the dirt you'll see that it has earned the moniker. It might be fun to take one of these to the Rubicon once the snow has cleared away up there and give it the ultimate test. We suspect it would pass with flying colors, mostly Earth-tones.

On-road it had its good and bad points. The engines were just fine for all urban and suburban tasks. They’ll both get you up the freeway ramp and let you pass whatever you want to pass. So don’t worry about which engine to get, both are fine. The manual transmission felt cheap, however, with long throws and vague engagement. Spacing between second and third gears was a bit too far. On certain tight twisty roads we found ourselves wanting for a second-and-a-halfth gear. Hey, there are six gears in this box. Faster third- and fourth-gear corners were no problem, however. At first, that manual shifter felt pretty flimsy. It's shared with the Fiat 500 variants and feels downright cheap. The throws are long and gear engagement isn't exactly reassuringly clicky. After a while, you get used to it.

And we would have softened up the rig’s frequency sensitive dampers a lot more. Just regular bumpy pavement on regular old “roads” transferred an awful lot of pavement whacks into the cabin, more so than we would have preferred. Maybe we’re just too sensitive, but it seems competitors like the RAV4 and CR-V are far more livable.

Do I Want It?
When the Renegade goes on sale in March it will be available in four distinct trim levels, beginning with the Sport which will start at $18,990. The Latitude trim level will add a little more equipment including a backup camera, leather-wrapped steering wheel, roof rails, ambient LED interior accents, six-speaker audio, and 16-inch aluminum wheels, and will start at $22,290. The Limited trim level will add more luxury goodies in the form of heated seats, 18-inch wheels, and exterior chrome accents, among other items, and will start at $25,790. These first three trim levels will be offered on 4x2 and 4x4 versions of the Renegade alike, with 4x4 coming in at a $2,000 premium over the starting prices listed above.

The range-topping 4x4-only Trailhawk version will be paired exclusively with the 2.4-liter engine and a nine-speed automatic transmission. It will be easy to distinguish from other versions of the Renegade owing to revised front and rear fascias, red-painted functional tow-hooks, front and rear scuff plates optimized for 31-degree approach and departure angles, and a slightly increased ride height.

And then there’s the quality question. Both Jeep and Fiat are below industry average in quality according to JD Power, Consumer Reports and AutoPacific ratings, though George Peterson, President of AutoPacific, believes "…the Jeep Renegade promises to reverse that." Let’s hope it does.

Overall, there’s nothing in the small SUV class this cute nor this capable in the dirt. Daily life in suburbia might wear on you a little, unless you’re either tough or oblivious. But cuteness goes a long way and, based on that, we predict sales success for this little dirt darlin’.
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