During the golden age of advertising it was the jingles that sold cars and not the other way around.
When Fiat Chrysler Automobiles asked Interscope Records to create a song that would draw Millennials to an all-new subcompact Jeep, the chief marketing officer was presented with the tailor-made song Renegades just days later.
The tune, by a little-known indie band called the X Ambassadors, was reportedly already in the works when FCA came calling. With lyrics such as: “long live the pioneers, rebels and mutineers, go fourth and have no fear, come close and lend an ear,” the song had all the makings of an indie hit.
Rather than rely on radio play, the record company had the promotional power of one of the world’s largest automakers to feature the song in its commercials. While no indie band wants to be known as a sellout, the notion that the X Ambassadors wrote a hit based on a marketing brief is inspired thinking.
Too bad the actual car couldn’t carry much more than a tune.
Although it’s marketed as an American sport utility, the Renegade subcompact crossover is actually a Fiat wearing Jeep styling cues. The littlest Jeep is almost mechanically identical to the Fiat 500X crossover hatchback, both of which are assembled in Melfi, Italy, and not in Jeep’s historic factory in Toledo, Ohio.
Built on FCA’s Small-Wide 4×4 platform – a modified version of the Small Wide platform that underpins other Fiat Chryslers like the short-lived Dart – it’s fortified with enhanced structural rigidity and standard Koni shocks that work well with the four-wheel independent suspension. The wee Jeep’s taller stance gives it longer suspension travel with 17 centimetres of ground clearance on front-wheel-drive models, while the off-road-oriented Trailhawk 4×4 model provides 22 cm of clearance.
Its tall phonebooth profile pays dividends inside with plenty of headroom, and front-seat occupants have good legroom. Rear passengers aren’t so lucky leg-wise, but three-across seating is possible thanks to the generous width. The rear cargo hold offers just 18.5 cubic feet with the seats up, an unexceptional space bested by competitors like the Honda HR-V and Kia Soul.
“The interior is incredible: Grey leather seats with orange and brown accents. Leather-wrapped heated steering wheel, heated seats, an AC outlet in the back seat,” reads a review by a happy owner. Imagine the brio of offering interior colours other than black or carbon grey. Et tu, Toyota?
The base engine was a 1.4-litre turbocharged four-cylinder that produces 160 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque, tied to a six-speed manual transmission only. Optional, and vastly more popular around here, is Fiat’s 2.4-litre “Tigershark” four-cylinder that makes 180 hp and 175 lb-ft of torque, paired with a nine-speed automatic transmission exclusively.
All models can be either front-wheel or four-wheel drive, except the Trailhawk, which uses an advanced 4WD system with low-range gearing for true off-road capability. When equipped with the larger engine and tow package, a Renegade 4WD can pull 907 kg (2,000 lbs).
The Renegade didn’t receive any notable updates, beyond some tweaks to the well-liked Uconnect infotainment system, until 2019. That’s when a new engine arrived: a 1.3-litre turbocharged four-cylinder that makes 177 hp and 200 lb-ft of torque – a welcome improvement over the retired 1.4-litre four.
The new engine represents a step up from the 2.4-L four – which is the base engine as of 2019 – but, curiously, it’s slower than the big four and thirstier than the outgoing 1.4-L turbo. At least it works with the automatic, since the manual gearbox was unceremoniously dropped.
In addition to the fresh engine, the 2019 models benefited from some exterior styling changes, a revised instrument cluster and newly available features such as LED lighting and adaptive cruise control. All 2020 versions come with new telematics and a free one-year subscription that allows owners to remotely unlock and start the Renegade with the Uconnect smartphone app.
Driving the Renegade is an exercise in moderation. Regardless of which engine resides under the stubby hood, it’s a slow drive punctuated by an intractable automatic transmission known for its harsh shifts. For those who can operate a manual stick (both of you), the 1.4-litre turbo is the fun one; power delivery is smooth and it feels more responsive than the big four. But it’s still a weakling: zero to 97 km/h comes up in an underwhelming 8.7 seconds.
Most Renegade owners will have the 180-hp 2.4-L Tigershark underhood, wedded to the German nine-speed automatic transmission. Equipped with 4WD running gear, it makes for a heavy subcompact crossover as the stopwatch reveals a somnolent acceleration time of 9.1 seconds to highway velocity. Opt for the newer 1.3-litre turbo and the performance is virtually identical at 9.0 seconds.
“Big problem for me was the acceleration getting on highways and trying to pass. I love Jeeps, but the Renegade engine is lacking in any pickup and even hesitates to downshift when you need it,” observed one owner online.
Thanks to the Renegade’s tidy size and quick steering, front-drive versions feel very car-like and even a little sporty for those who can row a manual gearbox. Four-wheel-drive models sit a little taller (the Trailhawk is higher still), which contributes to body lean around curves, yet the Renegade never feels unstable. The boosted ride height adds to the genuine off-road competence, something that a Chevrolet Trax could never match.
While there are some attempts at refinement – triple door seals, an acoustic laminated windshield and an isolated rear-suspension cradle help quiet the cabin – the Jeep’s blocky profile makes wind noise a nuisance, owners noted. Then there’s the subcompact’s rather poor fuel efficiency, averaging 10.8 litres/100 km (26 mpg) in real-world driving. Another pain: holding just 48 litres, the fuel tank is minuscule and requires frequent fill-ups.
Owners talk reliability
Fans could count on Jeep to create a subcompact crossover that emulates the best traits of America’s off-road brand while delivering car-like qualities and ease of ownership. It’s nimble around town and easy to park, while four-wheel-drive models, especially the Trailhawk, offer best-in-class trail capability. Plus it’s cute as a button. What’s not to like?
A lot, apparently. Most notably, it uses the same ZF nine-speed automatic transmission that exhibits jerky shifting, stuck gears, vibration, surging, stalling and transmission-warning lights seen in other models that feature it. A computer reflash doesn’t always take, and entire transmissions have been replaced in considerable numbers. Those opting for the manual transmission may uncover a worn-out clutch – a common Fiat failing not covered by the warranty.
The transmission headaches may have diminished after the 2016 model year, but other powertrain issues persist. Fiat’s four-cylinder engines can spontaneously lose power on the highway, fuel fittings can start a fire, and there are numerous electrical faults affecting everything from starting to non-functioning accessories. The cooling fan may fail, which can cause the engine to overheat and warp the head gasket. The 2.4-litre Tigershark engine is notorious for consuming oil, which can lead to engine failure.
Owners have also reported malfunctioning door locks, broken air conditioners, frequent brake service and a plethora of electronic glitches that include blank rearview camera displays and Uconnect issues. The windshield can crack at the slightest provocation, owners warn.
Needless to say, this little Jeepster is more than a handful when it comes to maintenance and repairs. CarComplaints.com awarded the 2015 Renegade its Beware of the Clunker seal of disapproval for good reason. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of other used subcompact and compact crossover SUVs that play a happier tune.