Jeeping can be a whole lot of fun, but there's a right way and a wrong way to do it—and when you try to split differences, you're left wanting more everywhere. That's what I learned driving the Jeep Renegade Trailhawk on- and off-road.
The Renegade aims to appeal to urbanites seeking compact SUV practicality and adventurous Jeep ambiance. Its 1.3-liter turbocharged I-4 engine, which made its debut last year to replace the previous 1.4-liter turbo I-4, is good for 177 hp and 200 lb-ft of torque and comes paired with a nine-speed automatic transmission. Although entry-level Renegades commit Jeep blasphemy by powering the front wheels only, all-wheel drive is available on every trim and standard on some, including the Trailhawk.
As the name implies, the Trailhawk is the rough 'n' tumble version of this slot-grilled micro machine. Supplementing its abilities are a multisurface drive select knob, "low-range" setting, and hill descent control. Aesthetic touches include red-trimmed badges and tow hooks. Our tester brimmed with options, such as a panoramic sunroof and Jeep's excellent 8.4-inch Uconnect touchscreen, which smartly integrates Apple CarPlay with fast responses and intuitive switching between device or vehicle controls.
Any Trailhawk will spend most of its time on pavement, so we tasked our tarmac-based test team with its assessment. For the 0-60 run, road test editor Chris Walton initially launched in automatic, noting tight and swift shifts through third gear but a falloff after fourth. On a manually shifted attempt, "the delay between request and shift was horrible." In either case, the engine "feels labored." Its best 0-60 measured 8.9 seconds, negligibly quicker than the 9.0 seconds posted by the 2.4-liter-equipped Renegade Sport that senior copy editor Jesse Bishop drove for a year. Jesse now has a comparatively rapid Hyundai Kona—similarly powerful and all-wheel drive—that dashes to 60 in 6.6 seconds.
Despite firm bite from the brake pedal, Walton noted substantial front-end dive and wander, concluding in a 133-foot 60-0 stopping distance. Distances varied by only 2 feet among five attempts, but all stops remained behind the larger RAV4 Adventure's 126-foot best.
Around the figure eight, testing director Kim Reynolds found the Trailhawk to pitch and roll significantly, but he thought it was "kinda entertaining anyway." Through understeer and "wild motions," the baby Jeep posted a 28.9-second lap at 0.56 g average, less than the Subaru Crosstrek, which traversed the course in 27.3 seconds at 0.62 g average.
Manners were similar in real-world driving. The nine-speed transmission seems to have more gears than it knows what to do with. Shifts are slow and rough under progressive acceleration, and when needing to zip ahead, response is muted as it thinks about where to shift. Suddenly, it decides, throwing the turbo into boost and accelerating more than you wanted. The gearbox hesitates between reverse and drive, adding complication to parking maneuvers. The engine stop/start function is slow, too, with clunky lurches off the line. Adding to these fumbles, the little engine requires plenty of gas to get up to speed.
On the other hand, the chassis shows enjoyably responsive handling. Steering is well weighted and doesn't feel dead off-center. Our tester's tiller felt nice, too, with optional leather trim adding cushy girth. That said, the Renegade's short wheelbase and narrow track don't provide an especially planted feeling. Nonetheless, ride quality is good; the springs allow roll and dive, but it's not so damped that it feels floaty. Outside visibility is great from every angle in this big-mirrored box.
These factors were present during my drive out of Los Angeles toward Hungry Valley Off-Highway Vehicle Area, a popular spot among MotorTrend editors to gauge trail prowess. Being an off-road novice myself, colleagues assured me Hungry Valley contains varied terrain to challenge me and the Jeep. Fee paid and map obtained, I tapped the Trailhawk's all-wheel-drive lock button and entered the sprawling park. Things got fun, fast.
The first dirt path was so smooth the 'Hawk didn't even notice it wasn't paved. Eager for something more dynamic, I spotted a nearby intermediate trail on the map.
How much harder could it be? Turns out, a lot—especially after a rookie navigation error. Through a rocky wash, I found myself at a gate halting all but motorcycles. I'd made it down a short, steep incline to arrive there, and now I had to backtrack. It took three attempts of increasing vigor, but I commanded the Trailhawk to claw its way over.
Adrenaline flowing, I sought simplicity to stabilize my vitals. Back to a fire road, though this one presented progressive features as it wandered along a ridgeline. Rock piles here, a deep rut there, and berms blasted into curves gave me options to explore. Throughout, the Trailhawk demonstrated confident stability and good articulation, handily lifting a wheel off the ground when needed. Traction wasn't a big issue, but if you focus, you can tell the vehicle is front-drive based. Confidence growing, I mixed things and pushed my limits, and the Trailhawk became even more fun.
Still, there was a technical portion of the network I didn't dare to enter. These trails rate the hardest, and given the vehicles I saw entering and exiting them, I figured this diminutive Jeeplet wouldn't stand a chance. Still, the intermediate options I'd hit left me amused, so I headed back toward civilization.
Cruise control set, I pondered the Trailhawk's purpose. I was mostly convinced it lived up to its name, but it clearly couldn't wrangle with true, purpose-built 4x4s. As skyscrapers came into view, I considered the value of the Renegade's compact versatility but knew that more street-focused crossovers have better urban kicks—and a more refined drivetrain. In the end, it seemed like a bit of an odd duck, a vehicle that's not as good as it could be regardless of surface type.
So who's it for? If you're an off-road enthusiast whose lifestyle won't allow a dedicated trail rig, the Trailhawk might let you get your fix. If you're a city dweller who adores the Jeep je ne sais quoi, it might be the brand's easiest vehicle to live with. But whether navigating concrete jungles or deep wilderness, it'll never provide everything you want. Keep that in mind as you consider vehicles more decided in their mission.