Brian Nielander, senior manager of Jeep design, was scheduled to be in Middleboro on Aug. 12 when Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (the new company name) brought a pair of Jeep Renegade early working prototypes for a show-and-tell with the New England Motor Press Association.
However, Nielander was stranded in Detroit where torrential rains had left him with a flooded basement.
If he had been able to leave the mess at home, one of Jeep’s vehicles, even this new compact SUV, could have gotten him to the airport. That was just one of the messages Nielander and Jim Morrison, head of Jeep product marketing, wanted to emphasize.
The Renegade inherits Jeep’s can-do capability and is a significant launch, giving the brand a legitimate presence in the growing and profitable compact SUV segment.
Jeep comes in with a built-in appeal to the sought-after younger and active-lifestyle buyers. It also brings a dose of toughness to the segment.
The Renegades will be built in Melfi in Southern Italy and go on sale in Europe this fall and in the United States early in 2015.
They will build on decades of tradition, demonstrated by South Shore Jeep restorer Gary Benson, who brought both his silver-gray 1951 Willy’s and red 1974 CJ5 to add to the Renegades, Cherokees, and Grand Cherokees on display.
It only took a moment for Morrison to reference the family relationship.
“You’ll notice that there are styling cues, including the upright profile, from the ’51 Jeep that we’re still using.’’
When asked about the Renegade’s main competitors, Morrison, says, “We like to think ‘nobody’ because of the family and tribal nature of Jeep owners. We know that’s a bit naïve, but the Wrangler drivers still wave at each other. As for Cherokee, we’re getting buyers coming from import cars, and Grand Cherokee is competing with imported luxury crossovers.’’
These are heady days at Jeep. July sales were up 44 percent nationally over last July and up 51 percent in New England. The brand’s goal is 1 million in global sales for 2014.
The new renegade is six inches shorter than the Patriot and thus becomes “the smallest but still fully capable member of the Jeep family,’’ says Morrison.
Add to that the traditional seven-slot grille, large circular headlights, flared fenders with trapezoidal wheel arches, and it certainly shows the family heritage.
The Renegade will come in four trim levels: Sport, Latitude, Limited, and Trailhawk. The Trailhawk has 8.7-inch ground clearance, 20:1 crawl ratio, and a rock drive mode added to the standard 4×4 drive modes: Auto, Snow, and Sand-Mud.
Full power can go to any single wheel in the Trailhawk. “Instead of cutting power by braking on other wheels, our system can put 100 percent power to any single wheel,’’ says Morrison.
Engine choices are a pair of four-cylinders: a 1.4-liter mated to a six-speed manual and a 2.4-liter with a nine-speed automatic. The former is a rare manual transmission-turbo-4×4 combination. Both promise significantly better than 30 mpg on the highway.
Contributing factors to the good mileage are a rear axle disconnect that makes the Renegade a front-wheel-drive vehicle in normal conditions, and aerodynamic tweaks that help the traditional Jeep “box on wheels’’ shape slide through the air. Among them are a working spoiler, air-deflecting rear tail lamps, underbelly pans, and spats (air deflectors around the wheel openings).
Instead of a removable top like the Wrangler’s, the Renegade has a pair of oversized My Sky roof panels that each remove with one latch and can stow under the floor.
The Trailhawk prototype on display was in Anvil gray with charcoal cladding.
Morrison says the color originated, as many do, in a conference room, however, this one had a twist.
“Someone noticed the color of a Rubbermaid wastebasket and commented it would make a good Jeep color,’’ says Morrison.
Fortunately, no one trashed that idea, because the combination is striking and seems suited to an off-roader.
Also standing out at the front of the Trailhawk are a pair of red tow hooks.
“Sure we could have painted them flat black or body color and made them hardly noticeable,’’ says Morrison, “but Jeep owners are proud of them and happy to flaunt their off-road heritage. We consider it a signature look.’’
Inside, the Renegade contains the latest in Jeep’s Uconnect technologies and offers a peek at future Jeep interiors.
Both the taillights and My Sky panels have x-shaped design features, throwbacks to Jeep’s military and Willys history.
Morrison hedged when asked about Renegade pricing.
“I think the base price will start with a 1,’’ he said, “but if I say anything more, I’m likely to be looking for a new job.’’
Stop and Start
The 2015 Cherokee on display had a couple of notable tweaks from the 2014 edition.
Mechanically, it now offers a stop-start feature that figures to add about a mile per gallon in overall fuel economy. Jeep asked that we embargo any driving impressions on the system until Sept. 2. It’s safe to say, however, that it works.
The second tweak, welcome on a warm, sunny day, was a lighter, frost beige interior option that was a bit less toasty.
“Customers asked for it for just that reason,’’ says Morrison.