Homeward Bound: Jeep’s Italian-Born, American-Raised Off-Road Pet Journeys From Melfi to Moab
They’re barely whispers in the exquisite backdrop that is Grand County, Utah, yet they ring loudly in our ears. We’ve come to the mountain biker’s paradise of Moab, and the annual Easter Jeep Safari is just kicking into gear. We’ve come to explore the slickrock, panoramic views of the Colorado River, and an old uranium-mining encampment left to the elements’ reclamation. We’ve come to see the Jeep Renegade Trailhawk 4×4.
The whispers are heard out in the wild, originating from accomplished outdoor pros whose off-asphalt escapades have been legend for decades. Their vivid tales recount moments from valiant (“I came across this tourist who had been lost for hours”) to hardly plausible (“I came across this remote campsite, and the guys there knew exactly who I was!”). We’ll choose to believe that last one. But after they cautiously credited the Renegade as a better off-roader than the bigger Cherokee, we felt compelled to craft our own story.
Here’s what we already knew: The Renegade is the first Jeep sold in the United States with a VIN beginning with a Z (made in Italy) instead of a 1, 4, or 5 (made in ‘Murica). Fiat Chrysler Automobiles is putting its skin into the mushrooming subcompact SUV game, smartly leading with Jeep (a strong name globally) and offering a rugged-looking but still oh-so-cutesy Trailhawk. The Trailhawk is vital both for marketing optics and for entertaining car reviewers. The Renegade is assembled on the same Fiat “small-wide 4×4” platform shared with the Fiat 500X.
According to the Google machine, there is no Moab in Melfi, Italy, so trails surrounding the Jeeper’s mecca served as test areas to validate the U.S.-raised Renegade during development. The Trailhawk sits on 215/65R17 Goodyear Wrangler SR-As (28-inchers) via struts at each corner, yielding 6.7 inches of wheel travel in front and 8.1 inches out back. Ground clearance totals a good but not great 8.7 inches, 0.8 more than standard all-wheel-drive models. All Renegades are fitted with rear torque-on-demand differentials to complete the all-wheel-drive system. The Trailhawk-specific 4.33:1 axle ratio (16 percent lower) permits the much-ballyhooed transaxle’s first gear. There is no secondary low-range crawler gear.
Off-road rattles don’t resurface on smooth pavement, a positive sign for durability.
Assuming you follow the cardinal rules of off-roading—first, know where your tires are and where they will be, and second, don’t do anything stupid—the littlest Jeep is a hoot to drive. Its compactness negates the feeling of dread on narrower paths, and the 101.2-inch wheelbase amplifies nimbleness on dirt or gravel roads. The seats grab bodies well, and you eventually get used to the distant windshield location and thick A-pillars. The steering is responsive and direct, and its progressive effort buildup and feedback prove that column-assist electric power steering needn’t always play second fiddle to electric motors mounted on the rack. Creeping over reasonably sized rock formations demonstrates the steering wheel’s ability to transmit what the front tires are going through. (Watch your thumb placement!)
It’ll never scale the boulders that make for great YouTube videos of Wranglers flipping on their sides, but it will tackle Moab slickrock all day. Farther out west on our home turf, we go another direction. Stoddard Valley Off-Highway Vehicle Area near Barstow, California, has a variety of terrain. During peak prerunning season, trophy trucks and other rigs destined for Baja fly all over the place. All you see off in the distance are brown rooster tails and something shiny really moving.
The armor starts quivering out here. The short wheelbase means the rear end loosens up more quickly as the speed builds, but always in a gradual, controllable manner. Moguls that beefier 32-inch tires and a long-travel suspension could float through at speed must be approached with care. Judicious left-foot braking combines with brief spurts of powering out of dips to become second nature. With even the prospect of bottoming out unacceptable, the Renegade reveals a surprisingly plush ride over an extensive series of bumps, when taken at the right speed. Koni frequency-selective dampers help filter the endless judder of washboard channels but do nothing for the interior squeaking. The usual creaking suspects emerge as all four wheels coil and rebound at vicious rates, flexing the unibody and eliciting groans from trim pieces around the windows and the $1,095 My Sky removable roof panel openings.
Electronic aids have made off-roading a more accessible activity. The Trailhawk’s Selec-Terrain rotary knob switches between Auto, Snow, Sand, Mud, and Rock. Each adjusts gear holding, torque apportioned to the rear, and throttle response (molasses-slow in Snow, sugar-overload quick in Sand). The modes change the launching gear as appropriate for the conditions: first for Sand and Rock, second for the rest. Make sure you’re not aimed at a ditch or other insurmountable obstacle, and take advantage of the long-travel, easy-to-manipulate accelerator pedal. Simple as that.
Back at Motor Trend HQ in El Segundo, California, we scrutinize the performance data. Returning from the high desert was a highway slog filled with wind and tire noise. In a positive sign for durability, the off-road rattles don’t resurface on smooth pavement. The 2.4-liter inline-four, more than acceptable on the trail, feels labored dragging 3,559 pounds. A 500X, 252 pounds lighter with the same powertrain, is 0.6 second faster to 60 mph (8.5 to the Renegade’s 9.1) and 0.4 second fleeter through the quarter mile. Handling tests bolster the Trailhawk’s case for going back off-road.
A chunk of the plastic lower front bumper on our test Renegade has gone missing, or perhaps it had been gutted before. The scratches and mars on the quasi-skidplate delight our eyes and show that the going hasn’t been easy for this vehicle. If you ask us, this is how the best stories come about: a driving challenge, good company, and going as far as the equipment will take you.
|2015 Jeep Renegade Trailhawk 4×4|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$29,555|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT||Front-engine, AWD, 5-pass, 4-door SUV|
|ENGINE||2.4L/180-hp/175-lb-ft SOHC 16-valve I-4|
|CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST)||3,559 lb (59/41%)|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||166.6 x 74.2 x 66.5 in|
|0-60 MPH||9.1 sec|
|QUARTER MILE||17.0 sec @ 80.0 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||126 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.73 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||29.0 sec @ 0.58 g (avg)|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON||21/29/24 mpg|
|ENERGY CONS., CITY/HWY||160/116 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||0.81 lb/mile|