Jeep’s first small crossover aims to impress

Jeep has long been a cornerstone of American off-road goodness. Recognised as a synonym for an off-road vehicle, the brand has ridden on a combined wave of unashamed all-American brashness and genuine rock-crawling, mud-plugging ability. And, it’s worked wonders so far.

Jeep is arguably the best performing child of the Fiat-Chrysler marriage, surging ahead in 2016. Despite slowing sales in the early half of this year, if rumours are to be believed, the Chinese are showing a keen interest, with a potential takeover bid in the works.

The Renegade is one of the reasons why Jeep is going through this apparent resurgence but it’s also fairly divisive for fans of the Jeep brand. Why? Well, for starters, it’s the first small cross-over they’ve developed – a segment that, thus far, has been left to the European marques to muck around in. Second (and perhaps more importantly), it’s not entirely a Jeep either. The Renegade is actually based on the Fiat 500X platform, and borrows its engine from its Italian counterpart… So, how much of the pizza-loving, pasta-eating influence has spread to this seemingly all-American offering?

At first glance, it’s unmistakably Jeep – even if looks may be polarising to some. Slab-sided, tall and featuring that hallmark 7-slat grill flanked by two circular headlights, all factors that certainly go some way in cementing a first impression of “Jeep-ness”. If Italians engineered it, then Americans certainly styled it—perhaps ot the most ideal combination, but it seems to work.

Inside and out, you’ll find the car is dotted with what Jeep likes to call ‘Easter eggs’. These tiny inscriptions and graphics are found on everything from the seats to the windscreen, with the 7-slat Jeep insignia featuring heavily across the vehicle. It could be considered cute, but also feels as if they’re trying just a bit too hard to convince buyers that it’s a proper Jeep—nope, not a Fiat at all, sir!

The good news is that they needn’t have bothered with all those eggs, because when you’re behind the wheel, it feels how a Jeep should. Despite being a subcompact crossover, the Renegade still manages to give you a commanding, SUV-esque driving position. There is the inherent and almost notorious lag from the Fiat-derived, 1.4-litre turbocharged engine, but the 9-speed transmission offered on the four-wheel-drive car we tested makes up for it, offering rather swift progress. Hustling the Renegade around bends is enjoyable too, thanks to a quick and responsive steering rack and remarkably controlled body-roll for a car with such a high centre of gravity.

But, it’s off-road where the Renegade (at least in 4WD form) makes its case as a bonafide member of the Jeep family. With good ground clearance and a short wheel base, a bit of light off-roading was well within the Renegade’s stride. Torque was distributed to all wheels evenly, and you get the feeling that the Americans have had more of a say in the off-road engineering after all.

So, the Renegade is a quirky alternative to the norm. With the 4×2 version starting at Rs8.9 million, and the 4×4 adding another million or so, it’s not the cheapest option. But, it’s a fun and charming offering in a segment that is grossly underrepresented in Sri Lanka. And yes, it is most definitely a proper Jeep.

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