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2015 Jeep® Renegade Trailhawk

A.J. Mueller/Jeep

The made-in-Italy 2015 Renegade is priced right (sub-$20,000 to start) and is a real Jeep – rugged enough to go tippy-toe trail blazing on two wheels without groaning, twisting or bending in half. I know, having navigated wicked stretches of barren, bouldered and boggy trails at this off-road park south of San Francisco.

Yes, the Renegade is all of the above – newly engineered from body structure to drivetrain – to be an authentic Jeep. This is not a tall, compact wagon merely posing as a legitimate member of the clan that dates back to the Willys war wagon of 1941. It's the real deal.

Does it need to be? The Jeep people see the Nissan Juke, Mini Cooper Countryman and Buick Encore as three key competitors in the subcompact crossover segment. None of that trio should venture beyond an unpaved cottage driveway. You may never use it, but if you want Jeep authenticity, the Renegade delivers, right down to the 4x4 system and the Jeep Selec-Terrain System that allows you to dial up responses beyond "auto" for snow, mud or rocks.

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But those muscular capabilities do affect on-road ride and handling. The steering feels heavy and slow, though road noise is minimal. This rig doesn't flex, bend or twist, but in enthusiastic on-road cornering, the Renegade feels ponderous where the Juke is quick and nimble.

Still, this Jeep looks the part: bolt upright front end and side windows, vertical windshield, flat roof, big greenhouse, seven-slot grille, searchlight headlights with clipped tops and all what Jeep design chief Mark Allen calls "exaggerated elements" – lights, mirrors, wheel flares, cladding.

"But it does have this loveable character," he says, grinning. Yes, the Wrangler is a macho Jeep design, while the Renegade is fun. It has a great cabin, too, right down to the supportive seats and the very good Uconnect infotainment interface. Lots of room in a clever cargo area and you can tow up to 907 kg.

Of the two available engines, you'll want the 2.4-litre (180 horsepower) mated to the nine-speed automatic gearbox. It's strong and the turbo effect is unnoticeable because there is none -- as you'll get in the entry-level 1.4-litre turbo four (160 hp) with a six-speed manual or nine-speed auto. The manual might be a sporty choice for some, but not me.

Jeep is going to sell boatloads on styling and price. But over time, some might find it too, too off-road capable.

You'll like this car if ... You want an affordable, authentic Jeep with huggable looks.

TECH SPECS

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  • Base price: $19,995; as tested, $31,995
  • Engine: 1.4-litre turbo four-cylinder and 2.4-litre turbo four-cylinder
  • Transmission: Six-speed manual or nine-speed automatic.
  • Fuel economy (litres/100 km): TBD.
  • Alternatives: Nissan Juke, Buick Encore, Mini Cooper Countryman, Chevrolet Trax, Hyundai Tucson, Kia Sportage, Mitsubishi RVR, Subaru XV Crosstrek.

RATINGS

  • Looks: 8.5 – The designers at Jeep HQ in Auburn Hills, Mich., have brought original Jeep styling cues into a 21st century package that celebrates the brand heritage in a sassy way.
  • Interior: 8.0 – In the instrument cluster, you’ll find a colouful “paint splash” that says everything about what the designers have achieved. The cabin is not over-large, but there’s certainly room for four full-size adults. The Uconnect infotainment system is user-friendly and the seats hold you comfortably for hours.
  • Performance: 7.5 – Both four-cylinder engine choices are turbos from the Fiat side of Fiat Chrysler. The larger 2.4-litre is the best choice for power without a great fuel economy penalty at all. The steering is slow and the handling in corners is ponderous. But take this puppy off-road, and it’s all, authentic Jeep. Nothing in this class can touch it in the bush.
  • Tech: 8.0 -- The chassis and body structure are as modern and solid as can be. Jeep makes a long list of advanced safety technologies available, the four-by-four system is super modern, the twin sunroofs can be removed and stored, with one electronically operated, and there’s even a standard electric parking brake.
  • Cargo: 9.0 – 60/40 and 40/20/40 split second-row seats are available to add flexibility to the best-in-class cargo volume with the seats folded. There is a reversible, height-adjustable rear cargo floor, under-floor storage and a 12-volt outlet.

THE VERDICT

8.0

The most capable small SUV on the market looks fun and is priced right, though in some driving conditions the handling feels ponderous.

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