AUTOS

Jeep Renegade Trailhawk looks comical but is serious fun off-road

Fiat Chrysler's new Jeep is built in Italy, and looks like a Fiat 500X in hiking boots

In 1940 the U.S. government asked America's car companies to design a general purpose vehicle for World War II combat support — and the Jeep was born.

Seventy-five years later, the storied military machine has finally become a true general purpose vehicle, used for off-roading, canyon climbing and getting to yoga class.

Especially getting to yoga class. Parent company Fiat Chrysler Automobiles sold almost 700,000 Jeeps last year. More than 350,000 of them were the city-friendly Cherokees or Grand Cherokees. Only 175,000 were rugged Wranglers.

The company is on a roll. Jeep sold 71,584 vehicles last month, 25% more than in March 2014. In the first quarter this year, sales were up 22% from the first three months of last year.

With the 2015 Renegade Trailhawk, it may be poised to sell even more. Smaller, lighter and more affordable than the Cherokee, this is the first Jeep to emerge from Fiat Chrysler's Melfi, Italy, factory — where the company is also turning out the Fiat 500X, using the same platform.

The Renegade enters a field dominated by the Kia Soul and the Buick Encore but will also compete for buyers with the Fiat 500L, Nissan Juke, Mini Cooper Countryman, Scion XB and the coming Honda HR-V and Mazda CX-3.

The increasingly crowded small sport utility vehicle market is poised to explode, auto analysts say, and with reason. The sporty, inexpensive vehicles sit high, are easy to drive, and offer a quirky alternative to the blandness of an Accord or Camry.

The Jeep, by most accounts the original SUV, has more off-road cred than most of its competitors.

The Renegade is slightly comical in appearance, as if it had been co-designed by Roger Rabbit. (Check out the X in the taillights. In cartoon terms, that's called a "Booze X," and on a character's eyeballs it's used to connote drunkenness.)

Though an entry-level Renegade is available in a front-wheel-drive format, most models in this line are 4-by-4s, rigged and ready for off-highway action.

The Trailhawk is adorned with a special "Trail Rated" badge and is outfitted with off-road features such as skid plates, tow hooks, electronic roll mitigation, Hill Descent Control and Hill Start Assist. The vehicle's Selec-Terrain allows the operator to choose from modes for snow, mud, sand, rock and more.

Even the tachometer declares trail-worthiness. Instead of a red-line zone, it has a spatter of simulated mud to indicate it has reached its rev limit.

After my first short drive in the Trailhawk, I decided it was just a Fiat 500X in hiking boots — an Italian American lumbersexual hipster sporting a vintage Pendleton and shiny Red Wings that have never been north of NoHo.

Around town, the Renegade is bumpy but fun to drive. The 2.4-liter, four-cylinder engine is peppy enough to dash through traffic. The wide, square stance, paired with tight steering and stiff suspension, gives the Renegade the feeling of an overgrown go-kart.

I found it a little noisy on the freeway, in part because of its traditional boxy shape and in part because of its MySky removable roof — whose purpose, other than transporting a giraffe, was a little lost on me.

Is it a sunroof? A moon roof? But, if you wanted to moon someone, wouldn't you want that window to be on the side of the vehicle?

To its credit, the Renegade offers great visibility. It sits up high and has a robust horn, which I like, because I can look down on other motorists while using a full-throated sonic blast to tell them what I think about how they drive.

When I hit the dirt, I confess I was impressed by the Trailhawk's capabilities. It's no canyon climber, but the little SUV performed admirably on a few dozen unpaved miles between Sierra Highway and Bouquet Canyon north of Santa Clarita — easily cresting the hills to reach some backcountry vista points that would be off-limits to regular cars.

On dusty back roads, it smoothed out the washboard and stepped nimbly over rock and rut. I didn't ask it to scale a wall, but it handled the steep, sandy sections without a hiccup. On one sharp downhill, I engaged the Hill Descent Control, took my foot off the brake, and let the Trailhawk take over.

The Renegades — even the top-end Trailhawk — aren't the most muscular machines in the Jeep lineup, but they're not meant to be. If you want to mount an assault on Moab, Utah, you can drive a Wrangler Rubicon. But if you just want to trot over to the trattoria or motor past the trailhead, the Trailhawk will do.

Price may be an issue for some buyers. Although entry-level Renegades can be had for as little as $18,990, the Trailhawks start at $26,990. (The one I drove would go for $29,555.) The Kia Soul and Nissan Juke cost less.

Trailhawk buyers won't be saving on gas either. The two-wheel-drive Renegade gets 22 miles per gallon in the city and 31 on the highway. The 4-by-4s get 21 in the city and 29 on the open road.

The Soul and the Juke do better than that, and Honda's new HR-V claims 28 in the city and 35 on the highway.

Who'll buy the Trailhawk? Maybe the Renegade's exterior trim offers an answer. It's the only Jeep you can order with factory-installed, university-themed decals, each little Trailhawk bearing its very own USC Trojan or Florida Gator emblazoned on the driver's side door.

I had initially dismissed the Trailhawk as a poser, too dainty for the dirt and not rugged enough to haul anything heavier than a double venti minty soy latte.

But the longer I drove it, the more I liked it. After a couple of hours off-road, I was ready to forgive its limitations and forget the Roger Rabbit-inspired design. Next stop, Toon Town.

charles.fleming@latimes.com

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