One could argue that the boxy new Renegade is the oddball of the Jeep family. After all, it’s built in Italy of all places, shares its DNA with the antagonistically curvy Fiat 500X, and has evidently been designed to please the Muppets rather than Indiana Jones. But if our 440-mile tour up and down the Alps of Tyrol and Salzburg is anything to go by, the public loves the latest bantam SUV. Our 2015 Jeep Renegade Limited certainly garnered plenty of smartphone attention and thumbs up.
Since beauty is in the eye of the beholder, we’ll give facts priority over feelings and start by noting the oddball packaging. The driving position is rather van-like, with the faraway base of the upright windshield creating a deep dashboard. Up front, there’s headroom galore (feel free to wear your tallest Stetson), but rear legroom is seriously compromised, and the cargo area is a scant 18.5 cubic feet. That last figure is 4.2 cubic feet shy of the Compass—but then, the Renegade is 8.5 inches shorter.
The Renegade is a proper all-terrain SUV that will safely make it to your favorite ski slope or the far end of the beach.
The pint-sized 2015 Jeep Renegade is critical to Fiat Chrysler’s plan to expand Jeep’s presence in Europe, so that’s where we put it to its first test: a two-day run over 12 mountain passes.
Whereas U.S. buyers choose between a 1.4-liter MultiAir turbocharged four (160 hp, 184 lb-ft) or a 2.4-liter Tigershark fourcylinder (184 hp, 177 lb-ft), our 2015 Jeep Renegade was equipped with a 2.0-liter MultiJet turbodiesel. With 138 hp from four cylinders, the turbodiesel Renegade won’t make the podium of any serious hillclimb. But power isn’t everything. What matters more when you’re charging up a mountain pass is torque, and the Fiat engine musters a feisty 258 lb-ft at a relaxed 1,750 rpm. The relatively unrefined but perfectly punchy oil-burner helps the baby Jeep dash up hills and gradients molto presto.
The 6-mile Gaisberg, for instance, was a brief 10-minute stint, Pass Lueg was over and done with before the first photo was in the can, and Griessen Pass and the two passes that followed were conquered with flying colors in fourth gear. Next on the list was Pass Thurn, which deserves a Porsche 911 but made do with the much more humble Renegade. Giving its all, the Jeep yodeled through the ultra-fast corners with enough body roll to make our poor passenger reach repeatedly for the grab handle. Although it was shod with soft snow tires, the Renegade held the road remarkably well. Better still, it didn’t understeer excessively, didn’t suffer from fits of liftoff squirreliness, and, with stability control switched off, was actually quite tweakable via throttle, steering, and courage.
The Fiat-sourced powerplant was paired with a six-speed manual transmission (which Americans can have with the 1.4-liter). We never wished for the available nine-speed automatic, as the six-speed stick features well-spaced ratios, commendably light shift action, and reasonably short throws. Our 2015 Jeep Renegade Limited was also equipped with all-wheel drive (which is available with either U.S. engine). Jeep’s Active Drive all-wheel-drive system includes a choice of four modes, from full auto to snow, sand, and mud. The hardcore Trailhawk package adds a low range and hill-descent control as well as bumpers that allow steeper approach angles, skidplates, a tow hook, and a bit of extra ground clearance (8.7 inches versus 7.9 inches for the other 4x4s). It’s doubtful, though, that the Trailhawk’s extra eight-tenths of an inch would have helped us when snow halted our progress not once but twice. The first was photographer-induced and made the car sink to its belly on what looked like packed snow but was more like deep powder. The second situation involved a snowdrift that appeared manageable but was so hard and tall that the Jeep got stuck again, spinning all four wheels like a silver guinea pig scrambling for shelter.
We were less forgiving of the factory navigation system, which drove us nuts with its small touchscreen and idiosyncratic controls. The Jeep’s UConnect Bluetooth system, on the other hand, works even better than the one in the latest Mercedes-Benz S-Class. One extra we would consciously avoid is lane-keeping assist, which does exactly that, but too soon, too often, and with too much vigor. Thankfully, it can be switched off.
On the morning of day two, we meandered up Gerlos Pass, which is a tourist trap in winter but an off-season paradise. From the icy, windswept summit way above the tree line, the broad blacktop curves down to the Ziller Valley, where my mother’s family still owns a couple of guest houses, a trout farm, and a small farm close to the bottom of the hill. The scenery hasn’t changed much since my childhood days, and the wonderfully nostalgic scents duly brought back fond memories: dark bread fresh out of the oven, steaming afternoon cocoa, the perfume of cheese-making, strong apple brandy distilled from tiny crumpled fruit. Instead of tobogganing down the last dozen hairpins as we used to after church on Sunday, the Jeep carved up the winding Zillertaler Höhenstrasse, which eventually brushes the snow-capped peaks that stretch all the way from Schwendberg to Kaltenbach. This is slow-speed, tiptoe terrain dotted with blind crests and even blinder corners, rutted pavement, crumbling valley-side shoulders, and impromptu mudslides. The views are simply out of this world, though, and the baby Jeep mastered all hurdles with aplomb—until we arrived at the aforementioned snowdrift.
The 2015 Jeep Renegade is a proper all-terrain SUV that will safely make it to your favorite ski slope or the to far end of the beach. But unlike the body-on-frame Wrangler, it’s not a compromised on-road vehicle that punishes its occupants with a deafening noise level, a sadistic ride, and third-rate creature comforts. Apart from a pronounced cold-start diesel clatter, the engine is reasonably quiet, the suspension strikes a decent balance between composure and cushiness, and the cabin impresses with much-better-than-expected fit and finish. Flaws? The steering may be on the light side, and it is not particularly quick, but it provides ample feedback. When driven all-out, the oil pressure warning light came on occasionally, the front differential did grind in loud protest through left-hand bends, and—at the foot of a pass—the sizzling brakes coated the wheels with a layer of charcoal powder.
There are three alternative routes that lead from the Innsbruck basin back to Munich. We chose the Achen Pass—not for its beauty but for the proximity to the little-known Jachenau toll road. Although this route is almost devoid of elevation changes, the jagged mountains that tower on both sides of the single-track ribbon are eerily majestic. In the fall, flocks of chamois will be descending to greener pastures, the river in the distance will have slimmed to a silver trickle, and the panoramic sky will likely be speckled with wheeling birds of prey. This is Jeep country, and the Renegade fits the picture much better than lifestyle-oriented wannabes such as the Mini Countryman or the Nissan Juke. True, the styling might take forever to grow on you, and better packaging would certainly help. But if and when your travels take you off the beaten track, this pleasantly affordable Italian-American effort is not a bad chariot to be in.
Twelve fun-to-drive passes that you’ll likely find open 365 days a year.
1. Gaisberg. Ten minutes outside of the Salzburg city center, this 6-mile climb was first used in 1929 for a high-speed motorsport event won by Max von Arco-Zinneberg in a Mercedes SSK. It is now part of an annual classic car rally; the 2015 event will be staged June 4-6.
2. Pass Lueg. Before the A10 autobahn was completed, all traffic from Salzburg to Italy and the former Yugoslavia had to travel over the once-demanding Pass Lueg, which these days is a mix of moderate grades and fast corners.
3. Dientner Sattel. Along the south face of the Hochkönig mountain range runs this picturesque and challenging road, which combines steep climbs with majestic views along the broad Dientner Sattel plateau.
4. Griessen Pass. This section consists of a very modest rise, summit, and descent. What it lacks in elevation, however, it makes up in speed; this is one of the fastest mountain roads in Austria
5. Pass Luftenstein. More of the same, except the blacktop is narrower, twistier, and less trafficked. Don’t bother with the detour to Pass Strub, which is a stretch of busy and boring highway.
6. Steinpass. Crossing the border to Bavaria, this is the gateway to the breathtakingly beautiful Deutsche Alpenstrasse, which curves through the Alps and will take you back into Austria near Kössen. The Steinpass itself is now little more than a defunct border crossing.
7. Pass Thurn. It’s like a racetrack, only one that runs up and down a mountain. You can see far enough into the countless second- and third-gear sweepers to take them in one fantastic long slide.
8. Felbertauern. This most significant pass links the northern and eastern parts of Tyrol. The tunnel through the Tauern massif may be boring, but the fast approach is, on both sides, a killer drive. Go up once to check the area for police, then try again and open it up.
9. Gerlos Pass. Past the famous Krimml waterfalls, this toll road embraces the Gerlos glacier like a graceful concrete serpent. Best to buy a day ticket and go play in the upper elevations where traffic is light—except on weekends.
10. Zillertaler Höhenstrasse. Slow, very narrow, and poorly protected against avalanches or rock slides, this is perhaps the most amazing route of the lot. From the top, you can see all the way to Italy.
11. Achen Pass. Touristy, crowded in summer, with plenty of speed limits, even two stationary radar traps. And yet this pass is still worth a visit because of the awesome climb to the first hairpin and because of the scenic drive along an emerald lake.
12. Wallgau/Jachenau. Instead of shooting straight back to town, take a left at the Sylvenstein reservoir and follow the narrow centipede to Wallgau where you hang a right, heading for Jachenau and then Lenggries. Not a pass per se, but probably one of Europe’s prettiest mountain roads.
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