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Off-Road testing: 2017 Jeep Renegade, Cherokee, and Ram Power Wagon

by David Zatz in September 2016

In 2013, we went to the Chrysler's tough offroad course to see if the Compass and Patriot were Jeeps or weenies (read about it here). This year, it was the turn of the Fiat-derived Jeep Renegade and Jeep Cherokee, and the Ram Power Wagon. It had just rained, so the trail was muddy, and there was deeper water in the splash zones. Here's a bit of video to start (the speaker is a Jeep spokesman):

Biggest first: Ram Power Wagon

The Ram Power Wagon is huge, stable, and powerful, and had absolutely no problem handling any part of the trail with aplomb, except for one tight turn.

Ground clearance is quite high, as you'd expect, and overall, it took almost no skill to drive the big Ram through any part of the course. That said, it's not necessarily the ideal off-road vehicle. It's big and wide, so there are places you just won't fit; tight turns can add battle scars quite easily. I managed the tightest turn on the trail without any scrapes, miraculously finding the perfect path; later on, a "Jeeps only" sign appeared, with an alternative route for the big Ram. But that's why the Wrangler remains so narrow, in case you wondered; it fits between trees or rocks. The Power Wagon takes a different path, unless you want to take chainsaws and pneumatic chisels everywhere.

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The other problem with the Power Wagon is visibility - you really can't see what's going on over that massive hood. There was one point where the trail goes up a steep hill, then turns sharply to the right; I had absolutely no idea where I was going until I was over the hill. Yes, that's a problem in any vehicle, but in the Power Wagon, it's "more so."

Some video (the "new guy" is from a different publication):

The Power Wagon isn't all about ground clearance and traction, though; the twin rear cameras are a fine feature in real use, one for showing the bed and one traditional backup camera. (You know what I'd like even more? An off-road camera that showed what was up front, at speeds under 5 mph. If I was really going off-road in a non-trail situation, I'd either have to send someone out to spot, or rig up my own camera, or perhaps add a mirror-based hood ornament). I can see those coming in very handy for real buyers who put these trucks their design-intent uses.

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The Power Wagon set some expectations for what was to come. The ride was very firm, which didn't help on some of the obstacles, but it really had absolutely no issue climbing muddy hills, going over logs or railroad-trestle steps, or running through fairly deep water. The truck was obviously designed specifically to handle these obstacles and conditions, and did so with insane ease, like highway passing in a Hellcat. That's what it's engineered to do, even if some buyers get it for the stance and the graphics.

Jeep Renegade

The Jeep Renegade is just about the polar opposite of the Ram Power Wagon. It's small, sporty, agile, and can't complete the Rubicon Trail; and it has no serious Chrysler roots, though Jeep engineers had their hands on it. The Renegade shares a Chrysler four-cylinder and nine-speed with the Cherokee (which also has a V6 option), and relies largely on skid plates and traction control tricks for traction.

Could the Renegade complete the course, including the car-destroying "lift one side while dropping the other" runs? (The track lifts the right front wheel and the left rear wheel, while dropping the left front and right rear wheels. The amount of torsion applied to the body in this is amazing, and has literally destroyed competitors' body-on-frame SUVs.)

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It turns out that the Jeep Renegade has to work at it, but it can handle the course. The body was surprisingly strong and capable of dealing with the torsion tests, which is amazing in itself, and tells you that this is not merely a restyled, lifted Fiat.

For the most part, the Renegade did well. On some of the sharper inclines, and going over the log-hill, there was a good deal of dragging and banging, but that's what skid plates are for, and we felt the same contacts on more-capable Jeeps in the hands of less cautious drivers. The real tell was on a steep, muddy hill, which the Renegade required a good shove on the accelerator to master. As the rep said, "Just apply the gas and let the car get you out of it." That was wise advice, though it goes against instinct; even in automatic mode, the traction control systems went from a full stop on a muddy incline to confident (and straight) upwards motion. I've driven many cars that couldn't do nearly as well on a less-slippery and level surface.

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The water hazards did not faze the Renegade; and I saw people pushing through much faster than I was willing to, fear of creating a wall of water that would collapse into the air intake. I need not have worried, it seems (which doesn't mean that you won't seize your engine if you're reckless in water).

There were times I needed to rev the engine higher than I thought wise, but it never seemed to matter; it's something to get used to. Ideally the Renegade would have an engine with more low-end torque for off-roading, but the 2.4 did have enough power to go up an improbably steep hill, after I "put some Welly in it." (I wasn't the only one who was reluctant to just "step on it" and let the car do the thinking, but it works.)

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To the Renegade's credit, it performed well despite inexperienced, untrained drivers who only rarely (if ever) take vehicles off the paved roads. I did not hear of anyone getting stuck, and while the trails were perhaps not at the Norm Layton level, their main purpose is testing, not demonstrations, and Power Wagons have had to tow vehicles out before.

In the end, despite the crazy appearance of the Renegade on some parts of the course, I have to say I'm convinced that it works off-road. I wish that they had done whatever it took to get it across the Rubicon in one piece; but after what appears to have been a two-year delay to make it a "real Jeep," I understand why they didn't. I just hope this doesn't open the door for other Rubicon-incapable vehicles, or worse. It must be an ever-present temptation to make a lightweight Jeep-branded car that doesn't have a Jeep-strong body.

Jeep Cherokee

Oddly enough, the Jeep Cherokee was the most comfortable vehicle of the group. A front wheel drive based Jeep, with core dimensions adapted from Fiat, the Cherokee actually finished the Rubicon Trail and was praised by respected off-road journalists. Our test drive suggests that it didn't deserve all the - let's say "mud" - thrown at it.

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The Cherokee did a fine job of absorbing the bounces and rocking of the trails, without the stiffness of the big Power Wagon or Wrangler, and without being tossed around like the Renegade. It stood in a happy medium ground, with an independent suspension at all four wheels, and no need for the cargo capacity of the big Ram, but greater suspension movement, more ballast, and more space between the front and rear wheels than the Renegade.

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What's more, the slanted hood on the Cherokee Trailhawk made it uniquely easy to see obstacles coming up, giving a good view of the trail in almost every situation. The flat black decal reduced sun glare, but just not being in the way was a real benefit. Again, the obstacles that should have bent and twisted the Cherokee ended up having no effect; and even when it dragged its undercarriage over an obstacles, there was no damage, with the skid plates doing their job.

With V6 power, nine nicely spaced forward gears (one of which is rarely used), and a relatively light body, the Cherokee never had the feelings of low power that the Renegade did; it charged right up various obstacles with easily-controlled torque. It might not be the ideal for the toughest trails, but the Cherokee Trailhawk is a good compromise, like the original XJ Cherokee. Just don't try to rebuild it for more clearance.

Two Jeeps and a Ram

The trail was not easy. The Proving Grounds include exact replicas of real challenges; the off-road course was created to seek out and expose weak areas. It is normally used for testing, not demonstrations, though at some point since 2013 they put up a few signs to describe what an obstacle is testing.

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During this event, demonstrators / spokesmen tend to take the trail with speed and abandon, rocking the Jeeps and slamming them on their skid plates, all day long, over and over. When they're not driving, media people are. I've never seen a Jeep leave the lineup, and the only tow I've heard about was when someone took a street vehicle off-road (now there's a checkpoint where they make sure you're in the right vehicle and make sure you're in AWD or 4x4 mode). There is no question in my mind but that even the weakest Trail-Rated Jeep is capable of a good deal of abuse, and the best example is saved for the end.

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After going up steep muddly hills, crossing over a log hill, driving through flooded road, doing the rock road, and some basic "watch the scenery" trail, you come up against the alternating-mound test. There is something similar early on, but this is more extreme. Mounds that seem to be higher than the Cherokee's bumper come up on the right, then the left, and you end up with the right front tire and the left rear tire high up in the air, and the others still on level ground.

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Some cars would be twisted and useless afterwards; but the Renegades and Cherokees (and Wranglers and Rams) took the mounds all day long, with the demonstration drivers stopping and rocking the Cherokee and Renegade on two wheels to show off the traction controls. The Wranglers' wheels never left the ground, which is pretty amazing; I didn't see a Ram on the mounds, so I can't compare.

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These two photos, taken together, show the core difference between Wranglers and all other current Jeeps.

The Jeeps seem to have no problems on the alternating mounds, though drivers and passengers can find it hard to lurch up into the air and then drop right back down again, over and over. A steep and tall breakover mound seems superfluous afterwards - and then you have to go back on the highway again, and, if you're like me, switch into a new Jeep and start over again. Next time I will need to get more rides, so I can have more film - but really, it's more fun to drive.

2012 and 2013: Jeep Patriot and Compass off-road Patriot FWD off-road

Photos from 2013 show parts of the course (which were the same in 2016)

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