For me, an affordable car with a hatched back, not so tall I'd have trouble at 5'6" using the roof rack, and, most importantly, a manual transmission. With that, my choices were really narrowed down to:
-Volkswagen Golf Sportwaggen TSI
-Mazda3 Hatch 2.5
-Subaru XV Crosstrek
-Used Subaru Outback (2013/2014)
-Mini Countryman S AWD
Volkswagen Sportwaggen Wagon
A pretty nice place to be and nicely appointed. The interior was a bit more cramped than what I was hoping, but might have dealt with it if their packaging wasn't so hampered. I could only get the manual transmission in the base trim, gas-powered wagon and I wanted more content than what the base 'S' trim offered. I could get the higher trims in a manual transmission but only with the diesel. Good thing I didn't go that route!
With the 2.5, this is a fun car! Again, a bit tighter than perhaps I wanted to go. Unfortunately, the car is priced well with the 2.0, which I found too slow, and got too expensive by the time the 2.5's were available. Now, for 2016, they dropped the 2.5 Touring with a manual so the only way you can get a Mazda3 with the 2.5 and a manual is to go Grand Touring, a $25,500 compact hatch. Nope.
Mazda6 & Honda Accord
Comfortable, relatively cheap, great reliability record, low cost of ownership, and plenty big enough on the inside with easy-for-me roof rack access. Sure, they weren't a hatched back, but it made up for it in being a full-size (Accord) or mid-size (Mazda6) car with generous trunk spaces. Honestly, if the Renegade didn't exist, it may have came down between these two. With the refreshed interior of the 2016 Mazda6 using the same headunit as in the 3 now, I probably would've leaned towards the Mazda.
Say what you want about Subaru, but not many companies are left offering an awd + manual combination. The Forester is the only vehicle in its class (as in it's the same size class as Cherokee) I believe that is. Unfortunately, after I learned the Forester was the car that is was and not the one I had hoped it would be, I decided to not got down that road. The 2.5 was noisy and underwhelming, it was loud on the inside, the suspension was set to 1980's Buick, and the interior looked super dated. Honestly, I'd probably trust the more tried-and-true, Japanese-built 2.5 over my Italian 1.4 Multiair, but eh, extended warranties! Given that the Forester was supposed to be quieter and peppier than XV Crosstrek, I didn't even bother test driving that. The Outback was neat, if a bit mom-mobile. As 2014 marked the end of an Outback manual (and 2013 marked the end of a manual in 2.5i Premium; 2014 only base model outback had a stick), there was too many other options for me to seriously pursue this.
Mini Countryman S AWD
If I had a bit more cash, I would've probably went this route quite honestly. Although the Renegade obviously has more interior room, the lower roof height when putting my 72 lb kayak atop it would've been the more beneficial scenario for me. Also, as my "off road" adventures are really just dirt roads with the occasional spots of sand, having a car with just more-than-a-sedan's worth of ground clearance would've been sufficient for me needs.
Good question....long answer....
My first choice was actually the Honda Element AWD some years back, but it was discontinued several years ago. My wife and I liked the "utility" nature in that it was designed to get dirty and hosed out, etc.
I bought an Element EX AWD manual back in 2004 and loved it! Although I've owned a number of cars between that and my Renegade, I think of the Reney as the spiritual successor to the Element. It's a shame that Honda just left it to age without any considerable improvements besides one mid-cycle refresh. The did the same with the Ridgeline and a number of their once-popular motorcycles (ST1300 stands out the most).
I was originally looking at a Subaru Outback or XV Crosstrek but hadn't gotten that serious about either one. Had a friend come over in his Patriot and that was the vehicle that I was pretty set on until I was strongly advised to look at the Renegade over the Patriot. I liked the exterior of the Patriot but the Renegade has definitely grown on me. After test driving the Renegade I was sold and placed an order.
After driving the Forester, I couldn't get into it really. I didn't even bother with the XV as its 2.0 and 5spd was even more underwhelming and louder than the 2.5/6spd in Forester, despite the weight advantage of XV. Aside from the lackluster engine, the outside noise was too present on the interior, the interior layout lacked refinement (everything looked 2-3 generations older than what everyone else was doing), and the suspension was very wallowy. Even with the 2015 coming out with the awesome sunroof for the 2.5i Premium (it was available in 2014 but ONLY with the CVT), it wasn't enough to entice me.
Looked at Mini Countrymans with 6-speed manual, but they're expensive to buy, and maintain. And I couldn't stand the giant Flava-Flav clock in the center of the dash.
Seen the Honda HR-V and it could be had with a manual, but dumped that idea as soon as I noticed the anemic engine with <130ft/lbs of torque.
Test drove a Mazda CX-5 fwd with manual trans. I liked it. Power was ok, had more trunk space than the Renegade.
My employee discount with Chrysler and the torque of the 1.4T tipped the scale towards Jeep.
All of these vehicles had mpg's over 30 for highway.
I too fancy the Countryman but felt it was a bit too pricey for me to get in. I'd rather take a new Renegade than a used Countryman. I neither gave the HR-V or Mazda CX-3 a look due to the lack of a manual. I'm surprised you said the power was okay in the CX-5 manual, quite honestly. The ONLY way you can get a manual CX-5 is with the 2.0 (instead of the 2.5) and FWD. I drove a Mazda3 with the 2.0 and a manual and felt it was a dog.
For me, I really need to switch to a four door vehicle. I also really wanted AWD, and I require a manual transmission. This really limited my options.
18 months ago I was mostly interested in a Subaru WRX. It would have been a natural progression from all the small sporty coupes I've always driven.
Last winter, and our apartment's lackluster snowplow service, made me want some ground clearance though. So then I started looking at crossovers. If I'm buying something like an SUV, I want it to look like one. I don't like how most other crossovers look like sporty cars with a raised suspension. If I was giving up that low-to-the-ground racer feel, I wanted something more geared toward utility. So, naturally the Renegade caught my eye! There's nothing really comparable.
Completely agree. The 500X and Countryman sort of come close; the former for obvious reasons and the latter which also comes in an AWD+Turbo+Manual configuration. Nonetheless, it's the Jeep that has that combination while pivoting more towards the traditional SUV side of things both in interior and exterior dimensions.
I was looking seriously at the Subaru Outback. ]!
I thought about a 2013-2014, but I was unimpressed with the engine and the trick roof rack was actually a hindrance to me as I already owned an aftermarket rack from Thule that I wanted to transfer over.