"Whoa! It's like a small Wrangler, but with really good road manners."  And that was my first -- but certainly not last -- impression upon driving the 2015 Jeep Renegade.  What's the Renegade, you ask? It's an all-new Jeep, a tidy 5-seater that represents the brand's entry into the subcompact SUV segment. And diminutive as it may be, the Renegade is Jeep's Next Big Thing.

The Renegade isn't merely a new model for the iconic brand. It's a new way of thinking, and provides a clue to the direction of Jeep as a whole. If you haven't been following the Renegade's progression since it debuted last year at the Geneva Auto Show, you may simply think it's a mini-me take on the Wrangler. After all, it has a blocky profile, familiar 7-slot grille and even removable roof panels that enable open-air romping similar to its big brother. 

Expansive view

Perched in the driver's seat, the Renegade offers a similar expansive view out front thanks to its slab-sided windshield. Look around and you'll see other familiar Jeep design cues like a thick passenger grab handle above the glove compartment and large round climate and fan controls in the center dash. Once started, though, the Renegade proves it is something entirely new.

Also See: 2015 Jeep Renegade Rocks in Geneva Debut

Jeep invited us to Westlake Village in Southern California to wring-out the 2015 Renegade, on-road and off. The locale turned out to be a surprisingly good one to highlight the newest Jeep's handling, and a daring one at that thanks to one particular road: Mulholland Highway. This famed stretch of asphalt is usually best served with sports cars and motorcycles, not subcompact crossover SUVs.

On the road

And this led to Surprise #1 of the Renegade: It's nimble. If we had taken a 2-door Wrangler here instead, we'd be wallowing through Mulholland's myriad hairpin turns and had our bones punished by its road imperfections. Not so with the Renegade, which handled the switchbacks with surprising athleticism. In a Wrangler this road might feel like a slog. In the Renegade, which is just over a foot longer than its rough-and-tumble sibling, it was downright enjoyable. 

The explanation for the difference is simple. Whereas the Wrangler rides on a rugged, body-on-frame platform and has live axles, the Renegade is far more car-like with its unibody construction and independent suspension. The Wrangler's architecture enables it to conquer unimaginable terrain, but that off-road capability comes at the cost of on-road refinement. And vice-versa for the Renegade, which shares its platform and Italian assembly plant with the forthcoming Fiat 500X.

The takeaway for those who mainly drive on paved roads -- and let's be honest, that's the vast majority -- is this: The Jeep Renegade is a highly civilized small SUV. It doesn't jiggle or shake on uneven pavement llike the Wrangler, nor does it get squirrely at higher speeds. With a tilt and telescoping steering wheel, it's also easier to find an ideal driving position in the Renegade. 

Two engine options, defined by transmission

Two 4-cylinder engines are available in the Jeep Renegade, and the one you choose will depend on whether you want an automatic or manual transmission. The entry-level (read: less-expensive) route is a 160-horsepower 1.4-liter MultiAir turbocharged engine that also sees duty in vehicles like the Fiat 500 and Dodge Dart.  Available only with a 6-speed manual transmission, it can be had with all-wheel-drive in lieu of standard front-drive. Most buyers will want an automatic which comes with the 180-horsepower 2.4-liter, also available with front- or all-wheel drive. The smaller engine is standard, the larger one optional in Renegade Sport and Latitude, while the 2.4-liter is the only engine offered on the Limited and top-line Trailhawk.

Neither of the engines make the Renegade a rocket, but both dutifully move the small SUV's low-3,000-pound mass. The 1.4-liter must be revved into the higher rpm band and worked pretty hard for best performance. Upshift too soon and you risk lugging the engine. But those who opt for the smaller engine and do-it-yourself shifting will find a light clutch and perfectly adequate gear selector. 

The better option -- and the one most U.S. buyers will prefer anyway -- is the 2.4-liter engine and automatic transmission. As with the new Jeep Cherokee, the Renegade uses a ZF-sourced 9-speed automatic. And the good news is that through fine-tuning, it's only getting better. In our initial impression, the transmission smoothly ticked up and down its multiple gears without any of the lags or hiccups we've experienced in other vehicles already using this setup.

Before getting to how the Renegade performed in the muck and mire, I must relay how to have the most fun on-road in this new small Jeep. Get one with the optional My Sky removable roof panels, and then promptly remove them. It's not quite as open as a totally exposed Wrangler, but with the windows down and the roof opened up, the Renegade does a mighty fine job bringing the outdoors in. Yes, we had to yell to be heard over the buffeting, but the authentic Jeep moment was worth the trouble. 

Worthy off-road?

Is the Jeep Renegade a real off-roader? The answer is yes, with an asterisk. In standard form the Renegade is front-wheel drive, which means it doesn't have the grip of four wheels clawing at the terrain below. But 4-wheel drive is available in two forms. The lesser is called Jeep Active Drive and is available on all trims except Trailhawk. It works by engaging the rear axle when extra traction is needed on slippery surfaces or for modest off-roading. In addition to more ground clearance than front-drive models (7.9 inches vs. 6.7), Renegades with Jeep Active Drive have the Selec-Terrain 4-mode system (auto, snow, sand and mud). From there its power- and traction-management systems do the rest.

And here's where the asterisk comes in: the Jeep Renegade Trailhawk. If you want to venture farther off road (or just look like you plan to), this is the model to get. It has commendable off-road chops, capabilities that separate the Renegade from compact crossover SUVs like the Honda HR-V, Chevy Trax, Mazda CX-3 and even the Jeep's aforementioned cousin, the Fiat 500X. 

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The 2015 Renegade Trailhawk comes exclusively with Jeep's Active Drive Low 4-wheel-drive system. In addition to the four modes of on the terrain-select dial, the Trailhawk adds a fifth -- rock -- for crawling over them. In addition to more ground clearance (8.7 inches), the Renegade Trailhawk benefits from 20:1 low-range gearing. Rather than a manual gear-select mechanism as with the Wrangler, the Renegade's low-range system is initiated with the press of a button and enables the vehicle to travel at a low, steady speed to crawl up and down steep slopes and terrain. 

On a private off-road facility within the Santa Monica Mountains, we put the trail-rated Renegade to the test, and it clawed its way up hills, over rocks and down steep slopes with surprising tenacity. In addition to great approach and departure angles (30.5 and 34.3, respectively), Renegade's bag of tricks includes a hill-descent control feature. Normally these systems modulate off-road speed with the touch of a button, but the Renegade Trailhawk is the first Jeep to use the gas and brake pedals to change speeds. And after getting used to this way of doing things, it actually makes sense.

Will the Jeep Renegade be able to conquer the Rubicon trail? Probably not. But in Trailhawk form it will scale rock-laden paths that most people probably wouldn't attempt. 

Renegade's many good reasons

In addition to its on-road and off-road capabilities, the 2015 Jeep Renegade deserves to be lauded for its variety of models and entry-level price point. Arriving this spring, Jeep's smallest 5-seat SUV starts just under $19,000 for a front-drive Sport model. A 4-wheel-drive version costs about $21,000. Those are appealing prices that allow entry into the Jeep brand and a cool new vehicle. For those seeking a true off-road-worthy small SUV, the Jeep Renegade Trailhawk starts just under $27,000.

After spending a day in various versions of the Renegade, we left more than impressed. It's the only thing at this size and price with its off-road ability and on road manners. It may be built in Italy and share a Fiat platform, but take heart: the Renegade's essence is all Jeep. 

Check out our Compact SUV Buyer's Guide for a look at what's new and what's next.



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