It is critical for car companies to shave development and production costs these days, just to remain profitable in an ultracompetitive market.
Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, of which the Jeep brand is one of the most the profitable parts, is not yet the high master of this art in the same way Volkswagen—one of the first practitioners—is, but its on its way.
The Renegade subcompact and recently released Compass compact crossovers illustrate the pros and cons of this approach.
Both are built off of a set of components, which the company calls its “Small wide 4×4 architecture,” and the flexibility of it is seen in the dimensional differences between the Renegade and Compass. The latter Jeep is over half a foot longer, and has a wheelbase that is 2.6 greater, meaning more legroom for rear seat passengers and more cargo capacity, at 27 cubic feet, than the even larger Cherokee.
Both boast very well resolved styling that say “Jeep” yet hardly appear related at all otherwise, something quite impressive when a platform is shared. The Renegade is really fetching, in a French bulldog kind of way, with bluff surfaces and a chunky stance (at least in Trailhawk trim) that let it really stand out. The Compass is a well-wrought concoction of Cherokee and Grand Cherokee motifs, spiced with such of-the-moment styling statements and the kinked D-pillar and “floating” roofline. It too looks well proportioned and upscale.
Inside both Jeeps, quality of materials is surprising high overall (as it should be at their price points) with the exception of the stalks for wipers and the turn signal, and some other buttons. Plastics are mostly soft touch, there’s audacious use of color, such as the red “anodized” speaker and vent surrounds, and the top UConnect infotainment systems remain amongst the best in the industry for intuitiveness and speed of response. Longer term use will also reveal hidden “Easter Egg” elements throughout.
This platform boasts a stiff structure, and that benefits ride and handling. There is definitely a European feel to the way both Jeeps tackle proceedings, with direct, well-weighted steering, good bump absorption and decent body control. This fits the brand well, since the Grand Cherokee, still built on Mercedes components, behaves in such a classy, Continental manner as well. The downside is the extra mass this platform forces upon these two machines, meaning they are amongst the most lethargic competitors in their classes.
They both come with a 2.4-liter, 180hp four-cylinder engine (more basic Renegades than the tested Trailhawk have a 1.4-liter turbo) coupled to the corporate 9-speed automatic. This transmission is now much better behaved than when it debuted in the Cherokee, but still suffers from lethargy when it needs to shuffle to a lower cog quickly and gearing in most ratios that isn’t helpful in actual driving, as opposed to government emissions testing.
This, the engine’s mediocre 175lb-ft of torque, and the Jeeps’ mass mean that 0-60mph takes between 8.9 and 9.2 seconds, even at sea level, and passing in thin mountain air is a real challenge. Real-world fuel economy suffers as a result as well; despite great EPA numbers, the powertrain’s huffing and puffing drop urban economy well below the competition. At least the 16-valve “Multiair” motor is smooth and refined, and as much as the odd ratios and selections of the gearbox grate, it is a much better aural companion than many competitors’ continuously variable trannies. Braking performance of both models is okay, but the more knobby tires of the tough-looking Trailhawks increase the length of emergency stops.
The Trailhawk package on both the Renegade and the Compass mean it really is capable of handling off road terrain; a rear axle that can predict when to couple to the front wheels—which are continuously driven—and multimode software programs make the most of the increased ground clearance and better approach/departure angles of this version in the rough stuff.
The rest of the time, driving a Jeep festooned with the Trailhawks’ blacked-out trim, beefy wheel/tire combos, flat black hood stickers and other addenda tell the world you are (or aspire to be) adventurous.
The beauty of platform sharing means we get more models and more variants to choose from, with less financial risk to the manufacturer. The downside comes when not all elements are as competitive as they could be; in the Jeep’s case it is a powertrain that cant motivate the mass of the Renegade and Cherokee in our conditions as well as one would hope, and sometimes post-sale, say when a part is recalled or a recurring repair crops up, as it affects more vehicles. Regardless, platforms are here to stay, as the only way to be a player in a fragmenting, insanely fast paced industry. That this one gifts Jeep with two (three, if you count the Cherokee), competitive and unique crossover offerings, is to be celebrated.
EPA ratings: 21/29 Renegade; 22/30 Compass
0-60mph: 9.2 sec Renegade; 8.9esc Compass
Price as tested: $32,085 Renegade; $33,815 Compass
3.5 Stars: Both Jeeps
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