The 2019 model year brings some big changes to the Jeep Renegade, as it’s the first refresh for the small SUV since its debut for 2015. There are styling tweaks and added safety equipment, but the big change is under the hood with the introduction of a new powertrain: a 177-horsepower, turbocharged 1.3-liter four-cylinder, which I sampled.
The first time I laid eyes on the Jeep Renegade, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. Those big, bugeyed headlights and the unconventional shape gave me pause. So did the fact that it didn’t quite look like a rugged, squared-off SUV in the same way as the rest of the Jeep lineup.
Related: How Jeep Is Making the Compass and Renegade Less Poky, More Off-Roady
But after driving (and seeing them on the road), my stance softened. With familiarity came a modicum of appreciation for the Renegade. That funky shape gives it a high ceiling, and it feels roomier than most of the other subcompact SUVs. Plus, I can get behind the no-frills multimedia system with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay.
Though It Be Small, It Is Fierce
The new engine sounds like it should be less powerful given that it only has 1.3 liters of displacement and four cylinders. But a turbocharger can work wonders and though the engine is small, it pumps out 177 hp and a mind-blowing 200 pounds-feet of torque. It comes with the nine-speed automatic transmission, which doesn’t bode well, as this is a transmission we’ve had problems with in the past.
Last year’s standard engine remains: a 180-hp, 2.4-liter four-cylinder that makes 175 pounds-feet of torque. It’s also mated to a nine-speed automatic transmission, and this powertrain was not loved by our staff; in fact, the lack of refinement from this combination bears the brunt of the responsibility for the Renegade’s poor performance in our 2015 test to find the best subcompact SUV.
Both Renegades I drove, a Limited and a Trailhawk, had all-wheel drive and come standard with the new engine (the engine is available on Sport and Latitude models as a $1,495 option). The smaller engine has an edge in fuel economy, topping out at 27 mpg combined for FWD models and 26 mpg combined for AWD models. With the base engine, those figures sit at 25 mpg and 24 mpg respectively, so you gain 2 mpg with the optional engine. The exception is the Trailhawk, which also gets 24 mpg combined due to its higher ride height and added equipment.
Driving the Renegade on the road, the improvements to the powertrain are immediately noticeable. This thing has some go-go to it and if you get it the engine speed up, the Renegade becomes a little bit frisky. It hustles ably from a stop and though there’s a slight hesitation when passing, once the transmission takes a second to get settled, the power pours on smoothly all the way up to 70 mph and beyond.
It’s not a perfect experience, however. The Trailhawk still had too much transmission lag and a busy, trucklike ride. That’s due in part to the difference in tires and ground clearance between the Trailhawk and the Limited; it has a more aggressive set of off-road-oriented tires and extra ground clearance. The Limited rides better, but it also had a noticeably smoother transmission that seemed to follow a more logical shift pattern.
The difference I experienced on the street led me to ask if the two had different transmission tuning or even different gear ratios. Jeep confirmed that the two transmissions are identical in both hardware and tuning, so it’s curious that I noticed such a contrast. If you plan to buy a Renegade, be sure to drive a couple of trim levels first to see how they compare for you.
Driving the Renegade Off-Road
One of the Renegade’s calling cards continues to be its off-road prowess, especially the Trailhawk. It gives the Renegade a unique positioning in this class, as there isn’t another small SUV that can do the things it can when the pavement ends. As mentioned, the Trailhawk has added ground clearance (8.7 inches versus 8.0 inches for other AWD models), skid plates, 21:1 crawl ratio, hill descent control and the ability to ford water 19 inches deep.
I took the Renegade on an off-road loop that included rock crawling, climbs up loose dirt and gravel, and even a steep downgrade to show off the hill descent control. It’s not a Wrangler, but it’s pretty untouchable in this environment among competitors – there’s enough dexterity and tire right out of the box to handle dirt roads and camping duty. Only real rock crawling where you need a lot of suspension flex will stop this little ‘ute.
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What’s the Rub?
I like the Renegade’s copious amounts of headroom and the new dual-pane panoramic moonroof, and I’ve come around on how it looks. But for such a small thing, it has two big catches: pricing and safety equipment.
Both the Limited I tested and the Trailhawk made my eyes bulge with their price tags: $34,860 (including destination) for the Limited and $36,005 for the Trailhawk. That pushes them up a class — for perspective with the competition, a 2019 Toyota RAV4 Limited AWD starts at $36,145 and a 2019 Honda CR-V AWD starts at $35,195. Those are both larger SUVs that offer more cargo utility and passenger room.
That’s not even the highest I know the Renegade Limited can go, as my test vehicle didn’t include the Advanced Technology Package that’s required if you want automatic forward emergency braking, lane keep assist or adaptive cruise control. A blind spot warning system comes as part of a separate package. For all of the Renegade’s off-road chops and fun, quirky looks, it’s far behind the rest of the field when it comes to availability of safety technology (especially compared to the Toyota C-HR, which comes with most of the above features standard) and will be something that Jeep must address when the Renegade eventually gets a redesign.
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