The Jeep Renegade Trailhawk is an answer to a question few people are asking.
Now, that approach has worked with other FCA—sorry, Stellantis—vehicles. “How much horsepower can a Grand Cherokee handle?” resulted in the laugh-out-loud, 707-horsepower Trackhawk. “Is the Hellcat too demure?” brought us the widebody, nearly-800-pony Challenger Redeye. Both show an understanding of market positioning and what buyers want from their Dodge or Jeep vehicles: big, silly fun.
The basic idea of the Jeep Renegade is a sound one: a more affordable, urban-friendly model for those wanting a taste of the brand’s go-anywhere attitude. In Trailhawk trim, however, it ends up sacrificing those very same virtues to cater to more traditional brand values, finding its square butt falling between two stools.
Tiny Jeep, tiny engine
Jeep has kept the recipe the same for the Renegade Trailhawk here in 2020. The off-road-oriented model found itself with a new engine last year, a 1.3-liter turbocharged four-pot. Despite dropping a tenth of a liter compared to the previous year, this tiny powerplant produces a strong 177 horsepower and 210 lb-ft. Good numbers, on paper.
Two aspects of the Trailhawk conspire to dull the impact of the engine. First, despite its tidy dimensions, this lil’ guy is a porker. The Trailhawk tips the scales at 3,532 lb; put another way, it’s a toddler and child seat away from the much larger Cherokee’s curb weight. Admittedly, that base-level Cherokee would be front-drive, whereas the Renegade gets an off-road-ready four-wheel drive system.
SEE ALSO: No Jeep is Working Harder for Your Love Than the Cherokee Trailhawk (in Moab)
The other culprit in the Renegade’s near-constant sense of lethargy is the nine-speed automatic transmission. It’s your only option on the Trailhawk, and it’s closely spaced to give the boxy Jeep a fighting chance of hitting respectable fuel economy figures on the highway. The four top ratios are all overdrives to serve that purpose, leaving just five for getting up to speed. The result is a package that acts more like a CVT than a traditional auto. Moving away from any intersection, the Renegade is quickly up to 2,500 or 3,000 rpm, producing more buzz than forward motion.
If fuel economy is the justification for this tightly-packed gearbox, then an EPA average of just 24 mpg—on premium fuel no less—is a tough pill to swallow. To the Trailhawk’s credit however, during our 450 miles (725 km) together, it soundly trounced that quoted average. It even beat the EPA’s 27 mpg highway score, which is where it spent most of its time, on its way to a 28 mpg average. The destination? Cottage country.
At home, away from home
It’s true, the Renegade’s Lilliputian powertrain doesn’t make the strongest first impression. As it heads north into Muskoka, however, The Trailhawk proves to be a comfortable highway cruiser. Thank the large sidewalls of its 17-inch all-season tires, and the soft, high-riding suspension. It doesn’t like sudden direction changes—thank the sidewalls for that too—nor crosswinds from passing big rigs. Even rougher tarmac does little to bother the Renegade as it smothers the road’s imperfections, with only a medium-strength hum from those chunky tires.
More so than anything else in its class, the Renegade feels at home on dirt roads. Here its loose-limbed nature serves it well, breathing with the washboard surface. The steering wheel never doles out what you’d call feedback, but the hint of vagueness on the tarmac seems to disappear on rougher stuff.
It’s even better on no roads at all, but I’d be lying if I said I took the Renegade far off the beaten path. The furthest the Trailhawk and I got was about a quarter-mile along a path through the trees. It was narrow, uneven, and full of long grass, making spotting key. 8.7 inches of ground clearance certainly helped too. The Trailhawk didn’t even break a sweat, ambling up the hill like an eager goat. Dropping back down was a cinch too, thanks to standard hill-descent control. The Selec-Terrain system offers five different modes (Auto, Snow, Sand, Mud, and Rock) to optimize off-road performance. and it’ll even ford through 19 inches of water.
Make no mistake: no other option in this class can match the little Jeep when the road ends. An increasing number don’t even offer all-wheel drive.
SEE ALSO: 2020 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon Review
Bright and airy interior
I can’t shake the feeling of driving in a fishbowl in the Renegade. Its upright design provides plenty of glass, augmented by the optional dual-pane panoramic sunroof ($1,595). The windshield is practically vertical, feeling midway between the steering wheel and the headlights. That affords the driver an “everything the light touches” view of the dashboard and its hard plastic. The Renegade won’t win any awards for interior trim quality, but it feels suitably rugged and easy to clean. The splashes of red certainly brighten things up, and the little nods to trademark Jeep design cues are fun. The cupholders look like the taillights!
The seats are deceptively comfortable, though they too feel tall and upright. The down-low shifter contributes to this feeling, wedged between the seat cushions. Headroom is Lincoln-wearing-a-top-hat generous, and the 16th President would’ve found the legroom good too. Sliding into the second row isn’t quite as easy, but those under 6’0″ should be able to get comfortable without issue. Backseat legroom measures 35.1 inches, dropping the Renegade right between the Hyundai Kona (34.6) and Chevrolet Trax (35.7).
The hatch holds more gear than you might think, though at 18.5 cubic feet, it’s still slightly less than either the Kona or Trax. On the flip side, drop the Jeep’s second-row seats (flat!) and you’ll end up with more room than either, at 50.8 cubes versus 45.8 and 48.4, respectively.
Convenience tech good, safety tech less so
My tester comes with the upgraded 8.4-inch Uconnect screen. It remains an ease-of-use standard, providing clear menus and snappy responses. The ultimate litmus test: my other half had no issues commandeering the navigation, music, and climate settings as we headed out on our road trip. The system doesn’t need a lengthy explainer, and the big, physical buttons on the center console are all simple to ID, even with peripheral vision. The upgraded Kenwood stereo, new for 2020, is a good deal for $745 ($995 CAD).
All of the driving aids, including things like lane-departure assist, adaptive cruise control, and blind-spot warning with rear cross-traffic alert, work pretty seamlessly. The blind-spot warning noise is downright terrifying, however: high-pitched and very loud, it should keep you from accidentally changing lanes into another car, if only because you think there’s been a catastrophic failure.
The main issue here is that most of these driving aids are either optional or locked to higher trims. The Trailhawk carries them all, but as it’s the penultimate step up the Renegade range, one would hope so.
Verdict: 2020 Jeep Renegade Trailhawk
The sticker price is the one stumbling block the Renegade can’t pull itself over. Loaded up in Trailhawk trim and including destination, my tester rings up at $36,130, or an eye-watering $42,910 in Canada. Sure, you’re getting a specialized machine, one no other sub-compact SUV could keep up with on the trails. For just $120 more though, you can start looking at a Cherokee Trailhawk, which offers much more space and a standard 3.2-liter V6. You’d have to really have your heart set on the Renegade’s adorable little form to justify it.
In that way, the Renegade Trailhawk is more like the Wrangler than many would be willing to give it credit for. It has a very particular set of skills, like a cute, four-wheeled version of Bryan Mills. If your needs align with it, then there’s simply nothing else on the market that can check the same boxes. With the Renegade now Jeep’s lowest-selling current model, though, the Trailhawk remains a rare answer to the SUV question.
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