Is the Jeep Renegade a Real Off-Roader?

After an afternoon as a passenger in my daughter’s 2018 Renegade Trailhawk edition on the Harquahala Mountain Byway trail northwest of Phoenix, I’d have to give it an enthusiastic “yes!”

Last fall we tackled the Harquahala Mountain Byway trail, which winds to the top of 5,681-foot Harquahala Mountain, the highest peak in southwestern Arizona. The 10.5-mile byway was built for mining access over 70 years and finally reached the summit in 1981. Along the way, you’ll see debris from mining, shafts and the miners’ stone houses.

The main attraction is at the summit. The Harquahala Peak Observatory was built by the Smithsonian in 1920 to measure and record solar activity using panels of large thermometers. The Smithsonian used the data to help forecast the weather. The wood frame structure abandoned in 1925 and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975. You’ll also see modern solar collectors used by the Central Arizona Project utility.

The trail starts climbing from the parking area and never stops until you reach the top of the mountain. A few tight switchbacks, long, steep hills and rock-strewn trails make it an exciting and bumpy ride.

Trail guides suggest airing down the tires at the staging area to make the trip less bumpy and reduce slipping. We didn’t have a way to put air back in the tires, so we skipped this step. The trail starts with a wide, graded path. The upper parts are narrow, steep and rocky, and the last three-quarters of a mile rise even more steeply.

The trail is rated easy, suitable for all SUVs with four-wheel drive and low-range gears. The Renegade Trailhawk fits the bill. Think of the Trailhawk trim level as a mini Jeep Wrangler. It’s built for off-roading with higher ride height, all-terrain tires and a specially tuned suspension.

The off-road features include 4-wheel drive, hill descent control, tow hooks and underbody skid plates. The 17-inch alloy wheels and all terrain tires are ready to tackle rough trails.

Power comes from a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine that generates 180 hp and 175 lb-ft of torque, paired with a 9-speed automatic transmission.

As the top of the line, Trailhawk features the Active Drive Low 4×4 System. The selectable 20:1 crawl ratio will drive the Renegade over some formidable obstacles. In addition to modes for Auto, Snow, Sand and Mud, the Trailhawk has a Rock setting as well.

The low Crawl setting and Rock mode came in handy on the Harquahala Mountain trail. Rocks and loose stones were slippery as we climbed the hills. The switchbacks were blind in some spots, and we had to watch and listen for other vehicles descending on the same path.

On one rocky stretch, I jumped out and slung some particularly nasty looking rocks to the side of the trail. We didn’t wholly trust the skid plates to protect all the vulnerable bits under the car. I sure felt the altitude, hurling rocks and walking up the steep grade ahead of the vehicle. I was puffing like a steam train when I got back in.

Letting the air out of the tires may have helped the grip on the stone and rock. A little more ground clearance would give a Renegade drive peace of mind. Perhaps a suspension lift and taller tires are in order. I’d also opt for steel rocker panel rails to protect the sheet metal and paint.

The brake-based traction control got a stiff workout, keeping the Renegade rolling uphill under control. The Renegade won’t articulate over obstacles like a Wrangler or other solid-axle crawler. When the independent suspension is caught with a tire in the air, the system sends torque to the wheels that have grip and you power through.

My daughter has taken to heart one of my early off-roading lessons: “Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.” Steady, deliberate forward motion will keep the vehicle moving without losing momentum and getting stuck. You don’t have to go fast but go steadily. Don’t get scared and back off the accelerator completely; you could stall in a precarious position.

Slow and steady, the Renegade tiptoed up the trail. A few spots near the top seemed extremely steep, like crawling up the hill right before the big drop on a roller coaster.

It took us over an hour to reach the top as we drove cautiously. Three guys in a Polaris UTV passed at what seemed like a high speed, made it to the top, then passed us again on the way down.

The 360-degree views from the summit are amazing, but the winds can be very gusty up there. There are some picnic tables but no restrooms, so it’s not a place you’ll spend a lot of time. Keep an eye out for desert reptiles and critters, and if you’re lucky, a bighorn sheep will peek out from a hillside. The trip down wasn’t nearly as fun, but the Trailhawk handled it with ease.

As capable as the Renegade Trailhawk is, it’s not a substitute for a Wrangler. If you want to do Wrangler level off-roading and rock climbing, get the right tool for the job. If you want a spunky, boxy hatchback that’s not afraid of dirt and rock, the Trailhawk will check those boxes.

Photos courtesy of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles

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