I should start this personal review with a confession. I understand the fully capable SUV, perhaps best personified by the Land Rover Discovery, Jeep Grand Cherokee or Toyota Highlander. The idea that there is a car that is a large wagon or estate, can seat seven, , can pull trailers and horseboxes through mud and snow, is comfortable and has a higher driving position is valid, even if many users do not use all the capability. I get the smaller take on it too, such as the Discovery Sport or RAV4 and many others. But I can’t get my head around something that is almost completely a facsimile of a true off-roader and blatantly pretends to be something it isn’t.
I was recently in Glasgow, Scotland’s great industrial powerhouse of days gone by, home of the Clydeside shipbuilders, of locomotive builders and many others, including vehicle building. I spent the weekend on the first in type installation of a Wi-Fi system (or ethernet backbone in the jargon) on a suburban train, and had the pleasure of hire car, a 2016 Jeep Renegade Limited with a 1.6 litre Fiat Multijet 4 cylinder diesel engine and six speed manual gearbox, for the duration.
The Renegade shares a platform with the Fiat 500X, not the regular Fiat 500, but another compact crossover which bears styling cues from the Fiat 500.
The 500X and Renegade trace their lineage back to the 2005 Fiat Punto, based on the GM Fiat small car platform, and which is still available in Europe even now. Power, for Europe at least, comes from a range of 1.4 to 2.0 petrol and diesel engines mounted transversely, with five or six speed gearboxes, or nine speed Chrysler automatic. Suspension uses MacPherson struts and trailing arms at the rear; the wheelbase is 101 in and length 166 in, for a footprint in the midsize market defined by the VW Golf, Ford Focus and Vauxhall/Opel Astra/Buick Verano. The Renegade is not built in North America; for the European market, it is built in Italy
First impressions were favourable – the car certainly gave an impression of strength in its style, with the upright stance, big flared fenders and wheel arch covers, and the obligatory classic Jeep front. Access was easy enough, and the boot decently commodious although short, and there was a high lift to reach it.
Inside, it starts to go astray. The driving position is reasonable enough, and the dash easily understood. But the added details start to seem somewhat unnecessary, and seemingly added only to impress the Jeep heritage (which is substantial I’d agree) on the occupants. A little cartoon of a classic Jeep climbing the inside of the windscreen pillar, the large grab handle in front of the passenger, perhaps the largest car key I have ever used, around the touchscreen “SINCE 1941” is pressed into possibly the cheapest feeling piece of plastic Jeep could find.
The impression of style of substance starts to build, especially as you look at the quality of the interior plastics. As you look further from the driver’s seat and lower down, the plastic quality drops sharply. Jeep heritage based shapes dominate throughout the cabin – in the style of the speakers, maps of deserts on the storage box lid, the redline is a splash of desert mud. It goes on, and doesn’t get less contrived. If, like me, you’re not a great fan of retro styling (MINI, Beetle, Fiat 500, Jaguar S type for example) then this is starting to be a turn off.
Driving is dominated by the vast flat bonnet. This is possibly the highest, flattest bonnet I can remember ever driving behind, aside from an early Range Rover, and gives a strong impression of restricting the view in front. A small child or buggy could easily be immediately in front of car unseen, for example. The wide A pillars do not help. The mirrors are large and square, and of course you’re sitting high, albeit on a rather hard and flat seat with leather that feels like plastic and the ubiquitous folding centre armrest limiting your gear change arm movements. Why do manufacturers fit these?
Some of the exterior details seem contrived too. The X style logo on the rear lights is apparently inspired by the pressings in Jerry cans, but to me seems to be the X in 4X4. It is likely to be lost on many people, or seen inconsistently. Apparently the rear lights are supposed to look as if there are externally mounted, like an early Wrangler or CJ. Personally, I don’t think it works – it just makes the car look even more like a big square box, with bars on the top. The wheels are the expected big and bulky alloys and the tyres impressively chunky. Any and all Jeep or cliché 4X4 styling cues are there.
Some of these probably don’t work as intended. The upright screen, big mirrors, flat front clip and high bonnet leading edge and chunky wheels and tyres do not help the on road refinement. It’s not bad, but you can do a lot better for £25,000. (I admit to being surprised this was a £25,000 car – I’d gueseed at £18-20,000.) Handling is predictably disappointing – small Fiat power steering is often a big vague, especially immediately off centre. Add that to those wheels and high centre of gravity and the steering seems uncommunicative, and the body roll noticeable. The open road was decent enough, given the roll.
Actual straight line performance was fine, with the torque of the diesel pulling the car fairly strongly, albeit with a fairly constant aural accompaniment. The car has a slightly erratic Stop-Start system and fuel economy was around 45mpg (from the trip computer, Imperial) for about 150 miles of mostly restrained driving, including some motorway work, but only one up and with little baggage.
Of course, a lot of this is a by product of a four wheel drive system. You can have such a system on your Renegade, but this example and the majority sold in Europe are just front wheel drive. The extra ground clearance and tyres may help in some gentle off–roading if not towing, but in reality this renders the car as likely to be labelled as a high mounted hatchback, awkwardly styled with contrived details, not very refined, not great handling and not actually that commodious for a mid size car.
The four wheel drive Trailhawk versions are reported to pretty capable off-road, though. But overall the front wheel drive version is style over substance. Land Rover have shown that you can create a strong image in this market whilst developing a contemporary style, and personally I find it disappointing that Jeep felt it necessary to resort to such a pastiche, almost a caricature,
Of course, if want a compact 4X4 and can live with, or even like the appeal of, the style and the details, then this is arguably a valid choice, providing you don’t over do the options, like depreciation and can tolerate the endless “Is it four wheel drive?” and “Do you use it off road?” questions. But if you want the capability and format, then £25,000 will get you a 2016 Audi Q3 with 180 bhp, four wheel drive and just 10,000 miles or even a 2015 Land Rover Evoque 2.2 litre, if you want a more prominent style. Buying new, how about a Ford Focus 2.0 litre diesel estate in Titanium trim or a VW Golf GT estate?
Don’t get me wrong – I have no downer on Jeep generally and no reason to assume the Renegade will let you down or fail to meet the expectations that might reasonably be placed on it, but I strongly suspect the appeal of the over done style and of the lack of interior quality will fade relatively quickly. Like the Chrysler/Plymouth PT Cruiser, it could well be seen as a very individual choice of style over capability, and lose its appeal to the owner relatively quickly. I can’t see many people buying a second one.