The new 2015 Jeep Renegade is so cutesy and kitschy that it could almost pass as a MINI Cooper. There are all sorts of Easter eggs and silly details inside and out, and the boxy styling is exaggerated and cartoonish, with big round headlights up front and a smiley attitude that says, “Hey, look at me!”
But the Renegade is not a Mini. It’s a Jeep, and in this off-road-oriented Trailhawk trim, it gets the brand’s “Trail Rated” badge. That’s why we’re here at Bundy Hill off-road park in Jerome, Michigan, to test its dirt-slinging capability.
As we pull into the parking lot to air down the tires and affix a flag, the Jeep Renegade Trailhawk at least looks the part, thanks to attractive Anvil exterior paint and the Trailhawk appearance upgrades that make the cute ute look a little more butch and adventure-ready. The prominent red tow hooks up front not only make it easy to affix the flag’s mounting bracket, but also give some peace of mind in case we get stuck later on. The Trailhawk modifications aren’t all for show, either; different bumpers front and rear make for improved approach and departure angles compared to the standard Renegade.
With everything ready to go, we switch the 2015 Jeep Renegade Trailhawk’s Selec-Terrain knob to the Sand mode, which changes the throttle response, the nine-speed automatic’s gear selection, and the four-wheel-drive system’s torque distribution. We then press the button for 4WD Low, which activates the 20:1 crawl ratio, and head out onto the trail.
The first thing we notice is how small the Renegade is. This baby Jeep is 2.7 inches narrower than a Wrangler, meaning that we can easily squeeze through tight gaps between trees and even traverse some trails meant for four-wheelers. The Renegade’s firm suspension tuning works well off-road, and rockier terrain and rutted two-tracks don’t upset the car much. We’re a bit hesitant as we stare up a steep hill climb, but the four-wheel-drive system apportions power quickly and seamlessly as the all-terrain tires claw up the loose dirt to help us get to the top.
The nine-speed automatic transmission mostly stays in first and second gear as we’re rolling around gravel pits and sandy trails, and it does a decent job of holding gears when you’re going up or down hills. When the transmission does decide to shift, the gear changes are clunky and unpredictable. We’d prefer the six-speed manual transmission available on lower-spec Renegade models, but it requires the 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder that can’t be had on the Trailhawk. As it is, the 2.4-liter four-cylinder’s 180 hp and 175 lb-ft of torque are plenty to motivate the 3,573-lb Renegade Trailhawk, though the engine does sound buzzy and unrefined both on- and off-road.
The 2015 Jeep Renegade Trailhawk’s limitations start to become clear as we get into a few more challenging portions of the park. As we make a sharp right turn over some uneven boulders, the Renegade teeters a bit and the rear wheel starts dangling in the air. Then it happens again, and again as we go over larger hills and rocky crests. With only 8.7 inches of ground clearance and a basic suspension setup that’s no different than the Fiat compact it’s based on, the Renegade doesn’t have much wheel articulation, and feels off-balance as it teeters around these more difficult sections. At least the Terrain Response system realizes what’s going on, and applies the brake to keep the airborne wheel from spinning uncontrollably as we get on the gas.
So can the 2015 Jeep Renegade Trailhawk keep up with a Wrangler off the beaten path? No way. But here’s the thing: Of the 175,328 people who bought Jeep Wranglers in 2014, we’d wager that a hefty majority of those would be much happier living with a Renegade Trailhawk. This little Jeep has a similar rugged appeal and attitude, but doesn’t suffer from all the compromises you get with the ancient, body-on-frame Wrangler — like its punishing ride, loud interior, and dismal fuel economy. We averaged an indicated 23 mpg in the Renegade, including off-roading, compared to the Wrangler’s EPA-rated 18 mpg combined.
Though the 2015 Jeep Renegade Trailhawk didn’t completely embarrass itself off-road, it’s not the new “it” car for shoppers looking for 4×4 capability on the cheap. Still, this new baby Jeep is significantly more trail-ready than other car-based subcompact crossovers like the Honda HR-V, and it gives off a strong Jeep attitude that’s sure to appeal to a broad consumer base. (Jeep sales are up 20 percent so far this year.) It’s a smart addition to the lineup, and a smart buy for those looking for Wrangler looks without Wrangler compromises.
2015 Jeep Renegade Trailhawk Specifications
- On Sale: Now
- Price: $26,990/$31,440 (base/as tested)
- Engine: 2.4L SOHC 16-valve I-4/180 hp @ 6,400 rpm, 175 lb-ft @ 3,900 rpm
- Transmission: 9-speed automatic
- Layout: 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, 4WD SUV
- EPA Mileage: 21/29 mpg (city/hwy)
- Suspension F/R: MacPherson strut, coil springs/struts, coil springs
- Brakes: Vented discs
- Tires F/R: 215/65R-17 Goodyear Wrangler All-season
- L x W x H: 166.6 x 74.2 x 66.5 in
- Wheelbase: 101.2 in
- Headroom F/R: 41.1/40.5 in
- Legroom F/R: 41.2/35.1 in
- Shoulder Room F/R: 55.9/55.1 in
- Cargo Room: 18.5/50.8 cu ft (rear seats up/down)
- Weight: 3,573 lb
- Weight Dist. F/R: N/A
- 9.1 sec
- 1/4-Mile: 17.0 sec @ 80.0 mph
- Top Speed: N/A