Cars

The 'Adorable' Jeep Renegade Is Fiat-Chrysler's Love Child

But is it a real Jeep?

The Jeep Renegade

Photographer: Brent Murray/Bloomberg Business

On a list of adjectives a marketing wiz would hitch to the Jeep brand, “adorable” and “Italian” would be near the bottom. The company’s all-new, Renegade, however, is both of those things and brand evangelists aren’t happy about it.

The little truck is bolted together at a Fiat plant in the ankle-bone of Italy, the most apparent cog in Fiat's grand plan to leverage abroad the prize of its Chrysler purchase. For a brand created in response to a 1940s U.S. military contract, this is a stretch. But Fiat is persuaded that the rest of the world wants more Jeeps—call it Americana arbitrage.

Jeep Renegade
Photographer: Brent Murray/Bloomberg Business

And the Renegade is cute! It has all the hallmarks of its siblings: buggy headlights, big gaps around the tires, tow hooks, and skid plates. But they are all, in a word, diminutive. With its scrunched-up hood, the truck looks like a pudgy toddler in a Park Ranger uniform. The Jeep “Bambino” would have been a more apt model name.

Inside, Jeep’s design team went to great lengths to keep things rugged. On the dashboard, they stamped “Since 1941.” A smartphone tray is lined with rubber etched to look like a topographic map. And there’s a beefy handle on the passenger’s side of the dashboard in case the seatbelt isn't solace enough.

From the driver’s seat, however, the vehicle doesn’t feel tiny. The car is high and boxy and the square hood looms larger in front than those of most so-called crossovers. The side mirrors are massive. With smooth clicking thermostat dials and utilitarian metal trim, this feels like driving a sturdy little toolbox.

Jeep Renegade
Photographer: Brent Murray/Bloomberg Business

Jeep makes the Renegade in four configurations, with starting prices stretching from $17,995 to $25,995. It set us up with the penultimate "Limited" edition that offered a 2.4-liter engine, care of the Chrysler gang. (The lower two Renegades get a 1.4-liter Fiat engine.)  From a standstill, the power plant provides a nice pop that city-bound drivers will like. And, apparently, the thing will tow 2,000 pounds, enough for some canoes or motorcycles. Stepping from 40 miles an hour up to 70 requires persuasion, and the truck seems happy to coast, rather than shift down to pick up steam.

The platform—also care of Fiat—provides plenty of clearance and handles the rough stuff with aplomb. (The muddin’ isn’t great in the wilds of Brooklyn, but we thumped over every pothole we could find, as well as a few curbs). The experience was more solid than cushy, as if it would require many reckless decisions to make the machine rattle and shudder.

“By now, people have driven it in some pretty extreme situations and the skeptical conversation has almost stopped,” says Jim Morrison, Jeep’s head of product marketing. “The purists say, ‘OK, Jeep did it right.’”

That doesn’t mean the purists will buy it. They probably won’t, but Jeep doesn’t really care either way. For Fiat, the Renegade is all about pulling people into the brand. It is what car folks call a “conquest” vehicle, intended to attack rivals and tow away their loyal customers. Indeed, few other car brands have moved as quickly as Jeep has done since Fiat slid into the driver’s seat. In the past three years, U.S. sales have surged by 65 percent, handily outpacing the market at large.

 

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Globally, Jeep sales surged 39 percent last year and topped 1 million for the first time, thanks in part to more offerings such as the new Cherokee, which hit dealerships in late 2013. Last week, Fiat-Chrysler said it will make a massive, luxurious model aimed at the Range Rover and Escalade set.

The Renegade, meanwhile, is tuned to carry the company into urban and foreign markets, where space comes at a premium. Just try picture a Grand Cherokee making cobblestone laps on the piazzas of Rome or the coffee shops of SoHo and you’ll get a sense of the product strategy. It might be seem silly to some, but the Renegade won 4,200 Americans buyers in April, the second month it has been in U.S. showrooms.

Jeep Renegade
Photographer: Brent Murray/Bloomberg Business

When it comes to crusty old dudes with snorkel-equipped Wranglers, Fiat just has to make sure its pint-sized product doesn’t tick them off too much. “Honestly, we’ve got such a clear definition of what the Jeep is … and we don’t want to screw it up," Morrison says.

Despite the fact that one can buy a Renegade with front-wheel drive—instead of four-wheel drive—the Renegade appears to be negotiating this tricky territory with aplomb. In the U.S., virtually all the Renegade buyers to date are new to the Jeep brand. They are people that otherwise would have bought one of the other subcompact crossover SUVs, so-called “cute utes” like the Chevrolet Trax, Kia’s Soul, and the Nissan Juke. Meanwhile, the company is still selling more traditional Jeeps than ever.

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Morrison says Renegade sales have been particularly strong in the Northeast and in California. The vehicle is easier to find there.

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