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by David Zatz and Jim Choate
Once again, Camp Jeep is in full swing in Chicago. Ride in a Wrangler Unlimited, Grand Cherokee, Cherokee Trailhawk, or – new this year – a Renegade Trailhawk, around the indoor course and marvel at what these vehicles can do.
All the way in the back of the South Hall in McCormick Center, Chrysler set up two test tracks, the usual Jeep track and one for cars. The air was periodically punctuated by the sounds of a 392 Hemi going full-bore down a short track, (as well as a Mustang on a dyno, with a horsepower display for all to see, as though a dyno programmed by the automaker means something), but that’s another story.
The off-road course appeared to be the usual one used by Jeep in Chicago and other auto shows; it had the roller-coaster beginning, a 30 degree grade made of slippery metal, the rock garden, the logs, and the torsional torture test, where one wheel is lifted up sharply, then dropped, while the other wheel is lifted up and dropped afterwards — a test that can make many cars useless after one trial.
The Renegade is the newest Jeep, but don’t mistake it for a “baby” Jeep. While a tiny bit smaller than the Patriot, the interior is actually larger. The windshield and side glass in the Renegade is noticeably taller than it is in the Patriot, which helps the Renegade feel not-so-small. The rear seating area is almost 4 cubic feet smaller by measure, but the actual usable space seems larger. The downside is that there was only one Renegade – a Trailhawk - on the show floor to get into and experience – I would have loved to have checked out the Sport and other models.
We have never had the opportunity to test a Jeep Renegade off-road, so we jumped on the chance. The driver talked up the systems (see video) as we went, the nine speed automatic and 2.4 engine — both required for the only true off-road model, the Trailhawk — and then we went up the ramp at 30 degrees, which doesn’t sound like much until you try it. He let the automatic hill descent control take over on the way down.
We hit the first tilt at a fairly high speed, then the driver hit the brakes and let the car rock, at an angle, to prove its stability. From there we went over the rails that raise one side and drop another, the frame-bending/unit-body-destroying segment that has no impact on Jeeps (which is why they tend to be a bit heavy and also why you can’t rebadge a Dodge or Fiat as a Jeep without years of engineering changes). The rocks bounced us around mercilessly, and the logs pitched us up and down. The driver didn't go particularly slowly over these wheel-benders.
Overall, it was a fun and exciting demonstration of the various Jeeps — they had a Wrangler, Cherokee, Grand Cherokee, and Renegade running at the same time. Yes, they had a company driver behind the wheel, so it wasn’t quite the experience it could have been, and no, it was nowhere near as serious a test as the Chelsea proving grounds; but it was still enough to impress one with the fact that the Renegade, while developed alongside the Fiat 500X and conforming to many core Fiat dimensions, is neither a Fiat nor a typical small crossover. It is, in Trailhawk form, a Jeep, albeit the only one that hasn’t proven itself on the Rubicon in one form or another now (the first generation Compass was the first Jeep to have no Rubicon-capable variants).
Still, the Renegade can do things competitors only pretend to do on commercials, and it can do it hour after hour without damage. That’s one thing that makes a Jeep a Jeep — the ability to keep on going without damage, to take the punishment doled out by off-road use or incredibly poor roads, and to tackle paths that normal vehicles dare not approach. The small dimensions and some angles give it capabilities the Cherokee lacks; and you can tackle narrow paths that the wider Grand Cherokee can only contemplate.
I'm predicting that the Renegade will become quite a hit for Jeep. The way the Renegade Trailhawk negotiated the course without breaking a sweat was impressive. The squared-off styling provides more interior space than its cousin the Fiat 500X, and the MySky roof is a nice option that gives plenty of the open-air driving experience – the only thing that does it better is the Wrangler.
If you can get to the Chicago auto show, by all means, take a Jeep through the course. We usually pick on the one with the lowest reputation among “the faithful,” and we are usually rewarded with better than expected performance. This time was no exception.
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