Jeep has found itself between a rock and a soft place in recent years: A brand that earned its stripes with military and off-road vehicles has watched recruits flee to kinder, gentler crossovers. Jeep's initial foray into alien crossover territory begat the insipid Compass, the Chinese Rolex of Jeeps, but the new Renegade finds the right balance between authenticity and the actual needs of today's SUV drivers. Penned by two of the youngest designers from the corporate hook-up of Chrysler and Fiat – both recent grads of the Center for Creative Studies in downtown Detroit – the Renegade blends funky, cute-ute proportions with a look that says "Jeep," but in an Italian accent.
As upright as a church pew, the Renegade evokes holy rollers of Jeeps past, including the Willys MB nicknamed the "Jeep" by World War II servicemen. The Willys and civilian CJ and Wrangler lines are the clear inspiration behind the Renegade’s flat fenders, slatted grille, round headlamps, and trompe l’oeil taillights. Heritage motifs continue with "X" patterns – recalling steel Jerry Cans that toted fuel in wartime Jeeps – on the Wrangler-like, removable polyurethane roof panels. The interior takes playful cues from extreme sports, including central air vents shaped like ski goggles. Hidden “Easter Eggs” offer a design hunt for fans, including a storage cubby inscribed with a topographical map of Moab, Utah’s off-roading mecca that hosts annual Jeep Safaris and Jamborees.
But the Renegade really signals Jeep's international ambitions. This crossover debuted in Geneva, will be built in Italy, and goes on sale in Europe before reaching the States – likely around year-end, at under $20,000 to start. The only ominous sign? The Jeep shares its basic platform with the Fiat 500L, a cheese-eating Euro crossover that makes a Toyota RAV4 look tough. But Jeep says the Renegade will tackle trails and ford 19 inches of water, with a driver-selectable terrain system and an optional low-range 4WD mode for serious rock crawling. The Jeep will also offer 16 powertrain combinations for various world markets and the first nine-speed automatic transmission in any small SUV – a far cry from the days when Jeep tried to foist left-hand-drive models on right-hand-drive countries. America will see a 160-hp, 1.4-liter turbo four and a 2.4-liter four with 184 horses. And for everyday driving, the Renegade will decouple its rear axle to save fuel, and offer the latest electronic safety gizmos with Chrysler's impressive WiFi hotspot and infotainment services.
The baby Jeep might not survive Moab's most hardcore trails, but the Renegade is clearly designed to cross over. [Price TBD; jeep.com]