PUNDITS are predicting the sports utility vehicle revolution will be complete by the end of 2016.
Early figures indicate SUVs will soon overtake passenger car sales as Australians prove their appetite for high-riding wagons fails to wane.
Which is why offerings such as the Jeep Renegade have swaggered into town. This latest pint-size Jeep has to be one of the most eye-catching additions to the genre, proudly wearing the trademark grille and shouting its fun disposition.
Yet while there have been a rush of entrants to this sub-compact arena, which includes the likes of the Mazda CX-3, Peugeot 2008, Ford EcoSport, Nissan Qashqai, Honda HR-V and the Holden Trax, this new Jeep is blazing its own trail.
You see none of the others a true off-roaders. Tapping into its heritage, Jeep has built the Renegade with city smarts and bush knowhow.
The range-topping Trailhawk is the most capable of the lot, with the retail price starting at $39,000.
Impressively retro with modern appeal thrown into the mix, the cabin is brilliant. Splashes of colour around the gear shifter, air vents and contrasting seat trim stitching make for an engaging environment.
The driver has a combination of digital and analogue read-outs, along with a busy steering wheel for control of the display, hands-free system and cruise control, with volume and radio station shifting buttons at your fingertips on the back of the wheel.
With easy access to dials and the various operations, it's a cohesive setup. Fiat Chrysler's UConnect system takes time to become accustomed to, although while a little clunky to find your way around, it is relatively straightforward.
All seats are fairly flat and if you corner with too much enthusiasm it can have a dog-on-lino effect, and while we managed three kids across the back seat, doing the same with adults would be a squeeze.
The only other hiccup was the creaking and groaning which came from the optional $2200 removable sunroof, while the better half found it too easy to flick on the high beams when trying to indicate.
On the road
Compact dimensions being motivated by a 2.4-litre four-cylinder engine make for a responsive and swift combination.
Only available with a nine-speed automatic, the little Trailhawk gets along with ease mostly, although it rarely has the need to step into ninth. Flatten your right foot and it can become flustered trying to find the right cog, although this really isn't the car you want for the quarter mile.
Where it feels most at home is getting dirty, and your can select from various drive modes including auto, sport, mud, sand and rock. Sitting 30mm higher than your standard Renegade, it is aided by short front and rear overhangs, low range, hill descent control along with skid plates and a rear tow hook should you somehow get stuck: it's a genuine mud-plugger.
The safety functions certainly keep you in check, with our test vehicle fitted with a $500 lane departure warning. A resounding warning buzzer sounds if you take your hand off the wheel too long, and a similar thing occurs with the blind spot warning.
What do you get?
Equipment such as the Uconnect 16.5cm touch-screen with integrated voice command and bluetooth, cruise control, seven airbags and rear-view camera are givens across the range, but the Trailhawk gets all the cool stuff.
Among the goodies are leather trim, sat nav, eight-way driver and passenger seats with heating function, bi-xenon headlights, 17-inch alloys, dual zone air con, Jeep's Selec-terrain system with low range, hill descent control, underbody skid plates, Trailhawk front and rear fascia, bonnet decal, black front grille and red rear tow hook.
There really is only one primary competitor in this size with true off-road ability, and that's the ageing and basic Suzuki Jimny ($20,000 drive-away). Those with more bitumen prowess include the Mazda CX-3 1.5 Akari ($37,690), Nissan Quashqai Ti ($32,890), Mitsubishi ASX XLS ($31,490), Honda HR-V VTi-L ADAS ($33,990) and Peugeot 2008 Outdoor ($32,990).
Boot space is just over 350 litres, which is not massive by SUV standards, although about middle rung compared to some rivals (the HR-V has 437 whereas the CX-3 offers 264).
That boxy shape offers great benefits in the load area, making easy work of bikes and other sporting equipment with the rear seats folding 60-40.
There are a pair of cup holders front and back, as well as bottle holders in each door, while you do get a full-size spare: vital for the beaten track sojourns.
Wearing the trademark grille, distinctive lights, red rear tow hook and bonnet decals, there is no missing the Trailhawk. What it lacks in size it makes up for with a loud personality.
There are small surprises scattered around the vehicle. Like the imprint of the old Willys Jeep inside the boot door, and a silhouette on the windscreen surround, along with the mud splash on the tacho…they are constant reminders of the brand heritage and go-anywhere attitude.
Without doubt, Jeep has cornered a new market in this fledgling sub-compact segment. The marque is gunning for a niche within the genre - genuine off-road capability.
And while the Trailhawk is packed with impressive technology and an ability to tackle the tough stuff, the primary hurdle remains price. While the retail figure has dropped since launch, at $39k it has tough competition from larger, nearly equally off-road adept, vehicles.
Those looking to undertake serious off-roading traditionally also like to carry camping gear and other essentials - whereas the cargo space is limited.
Certainly fun with distinctive looks, the little Jeep is bursting with personality and a "nothing's stopping me" attitude. But it relies on winning heart over head.
What matters most
What we liked: Cool and distinctive looks, modern cabin a mix of old and new, well equipped.
What we'd like to see: Less obtrusive safety systems, improved fit for optional removable roof, further price cut.
Warranty and servicing: Three-year unlimited kilometre warranty. Menu price servicing is every 12 months or 15,000km.
Model: Jeep Renegade Trailhawk.
Details: Four-door four-wheel drive small SUV.
Engine: 2.4-litre four-cylinder generating maximum power of 129kW and peak torque of 230Nm.
Transmission: Nine-speed automatic.
Consumption: 7.5 litres/100km (combined average).
Towing capacity (braked): 907kg.
Bottom line plus on-roads: $39,000.
Driving experience 15/20
Features and equipment 18/20
Functionality and comfort 16/20
Value for money 12/20
Style and design 17/20
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