New­est Jeep may look com­i­cal but is se­ri­ous fun off-road

The 2015 Rene­gade Trail­hawk is bumpy and noisy but it im­presses on dirt.

Los Angeles Times - - BUSINESS - By Charles Flem­ing

In 1940 the U.S. gov­ern­ment asked Amer­ica’s car com­pa­nies to de­sign a gen­eral pur­pose ve­hi­cle for World War II com­bat sup­port — and the Jeep was born.

Seventy-five years later, the sto­ried mil­i­tary ma­chine has fi­nally be­come a true gen­eral pur­pose ve­hi­cle, used for off-road­ing, canyon climb­ing and get­ting to yoga class.

Es­pe­cially get­ting to yoga class. Par­ent com­pany Fiat Chrysler Au­to­mo­biles sold al­most 700,000 Jeeps last year. More than 350,000 of them were the city-friendly Chero­kees or Grand Chero­kees. Only 175,000 were rugged Wran­glers.

The com­pany is on a roll. Jeep sold 71,584 ve­hi­cles last month, 25% more than in March 2014. In the first quar­ter this year, sales were up 22% from the first three months of last year.

With the 2015 Rene­gade Trail­hawk, it may be poised to sell even more. Smaller, lighter and more af­ford­able than the Chero­kee, this is the first Jeep to emerge from Fiat Chrysler’s Melfi, Italy, fac­tory — where the com­pany is also turn­ing out the Fiat 500X, us­ing the same plat­form.

The Rene­gade en­ters a field dom­i­nated by the Kia Soul and the Buick En­core but will also com­pete for buy­ers with the Fiat 500L, Nis­san Juke, Mini Cooper Coun­try­man, Scion XB and the com­ing Honda HR-V and Mazda CX-3.

The in­creas­ingly crowded small sport util­ity ve­hi­cle mar­ket is poised to ex­plode,

auto an­a­lysts say, and with rea­son. The sporty, in­ex­pen­sive ve­hi­cles sit high, are easy to drive, and of­fer a quirky al­ter­na­tive to the bland­ness of an Ac­cord or Camry.

The Jeep, by most ac­counts the orig­i­nal SUV, has more off-road cred than most of its com­peti­tors.

The Rene­gade is slightly com­i­cal in ap­pear­ance, as if it had been co-de­signed by Roger Rab­bit. (Check out the X in the tail­lights. In car­toon terms, that’s called a “Booze X,” and on a char­ac­ter’s eye­balls it’s used to con­note drunk­en­ness.)

Though an en­try-level Rene­gade is avail­able in a front-wheel-drive for­mat, most mod­els in this line are 4-by-4s, rigged and ready for off-high­way ac­tion.

The Trail­hawk is adorned with a spe­cial “Trail Rated” badge and is out­fit­ted with off-road fea­tures such as skid plates, tow hooks, elec­tronic roll mit­i­ga­tion, Hill De­scent Con­trol and Hill Start As­sist. The ve­hi­cle’s Se­lec-Ter­rain al­lows the op­er­a­tor to choose from modes for snow, mud, sand, rock and more.

Even the ta­chome­ter de­clares trail-wor­thi­ness. In­stead of a red-line zone, it has a spat­ter of sim­u­lated mud to in­di­cate it has reached its rev limit.

Af­ter my first short drive in the Trail­hawk, I de­cided it was just a Fiat 500X in hik­ing boots — an Ital­ian Amer­i­can lum­ber­sex­ual hip­ster sport­ing a vin­tage Pendle­ton and shiny Red Wings that have never been north of NoHo.

Around town, the Rene­gade is bumpy but fun to drive. The 2.4-liter, four-cylin­der en­gine is peppy enough to dash through traf­fic. The wide, square stance, paired with tight steer­ing and stiff sus­pen­sion, gives the Rene­gade the feel­ing of an over­grown gokart.

I found it a lit­tle noisy on the free­way, in part be­cause of its tra­di­tional boxy shape and in part be­cause of its MySky re­mov­able roof — whose pur­pose, other than trans­port­ing a gi­raffe, was a lit­tle lost on me.

Is it a sun­roof? A moon roof? But, if you wanted to moon some­one, wouldn’t you want that win­dow to be on the side of the ve­hi­cle?

To its credit, the Rene­gade of­fers great visibility. It sits up high and has a ro­bust horn, which I like, be­cause I can look down on other mo­torists while us­ing a fullthroated sonic blast to tell them what I think about how they drive.

When I hit the dirt, I con­fess I was im­pressed by the Trail­hawk’s ca­pa­bil­i­ties. It’s no canyon climber, but the lit­tle SUV per­formed ad­mirably on a few dozen un­paved miles be­tween Sierra High­way and Bou­quet Canyon north of Santa Clarita — eas­ily crest­ing the hills to reach some back­coun­try vista points that would be off-lim­its to regular cars.

On dusty back roads, it smoothed out the wash­board and stepped nim­bly over rock and rut. I didn’t ask it to scale a wall, but it han­dled the steep, sandy sec­tions with­out a hic­cup. On one sharp down­hill, I en­gaged the Hill De­scent Con­trol, took my foot off the brake, and let the Trail­hawk take over.

The Rene­gades — even the top-end Trail­hawk — aren’t the most mus­cu­lar ma­chines in the Jeep lineup, but they’re not meant to be. If you want to mount an as­sault on Moab, Utah, you can drive a Wran­gler Ru­bi­con. But if you just want to trot over to the trat­to­ria or mo­tor past the trail­head, the Trail­hawk will do.

Price may be an is­sue for some buy­ers. Although en­try-level Rene­gades can be had for as lit­tle as $18,990, the Trail­hawks start at $26,990. (The one I drove would go for $29,555.) The Kia Soul and Nis­san Juke cost less.

Trail­hawk buy­ers won’t be sav­ing on gas ei­ther. The two-wheel-drive Rene­gade gets 22 miles per gal­lon in the city and 31 on the high­way. The 4-by-4s get 21 in the city and 29 on the open road.

The Soul and the Juke do bet­ter than that, and Honda’s new HR-V claims 28 in the city and 35 on the high­way.

Who’ll buy the Trail­hawk? Maybe the Rene­gade’s ex­te­rior trim of­fers an an­swer. It’s the only Jeep you can or­der with fac­tory-in­stalled, uni­ver­sity-themed de­cals, each lit­tle Trail­hawk bear­ing its very own USC Tro­jan or Florida Ga­tor em­bla­zoned on the driver’s side door.

I had ini­tially dis­missed the Trail­hawk as a poser, too dainty for the dirt and not rugged enough to haul any­thing heav­ier than a dou­ble venti minty soy latte.

But the longer I drove it, the more I liked it. Af­ter a cou­ple of hours off-road, I was ready to for­give its lim­i­ta­tions and for­get the Roger Rab­bit-in­spired de­sign. Next stop, Toon Town.

Myung J. Chun Los An­ge­les Times

THE WIDE, square stance, paired with tight steer­ing and stiff sus­pen­sion, gives the Rene­gade Trail­hawk the feel­ing of an over­grown go-kart.

Myung J. Chun Los An­ge­les Times

THE TRAIL­HAWK is out­fit­ted with off-road fea­tures such as skid plates, tow hooks, elec­tronic roll mit­i­ga­tion, Hill De­scent Con­trol and Hill Start As­sist.

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