2015 Jeep Renegade Trailhawk: Into the Mountains for a Winter Hors d'Oeuvre
by James Riswick, New & Used Car Editor on December 28, 2015
Winter in Southern California is an odd time for those who hail from more northern climes. You'll see a news report of a snow storm in Buffalo or Boston, look outside to see sunny weather in the 70's, and wonder just what the hell is going on. A quick glance at a calendar helps recall that, yep, winter still happens elsewhere. It's a bit of a man-out-of-time feeling.
Though 14 years around these parts has mostly alleviated this feeling for me, I still long for chilly temperatures and a spackling of snow during the winter (note that the preceding adjectives were not "frigid" and "grand dumping," thus explaining why I haven't returned to Toronto).
Luckily, Southern California provides an opportunity to experience a light hors d'oeuvre of winter. A mere two-hour drive from Los Angeles are the mountains around Big Bear Lake, which are cold and high enough to provide a taste of chillier places far yonder. Getting there requires a lengthy freeway drive and then a trip up the circuitous Rim of the World Highway, which can be quite entertaining should you free yourself from the inevitable people-filled Toyota Sienna or bro-dozed GMC Sierra ahead.
As such, it seemed like a pretty good test for our 2015 Jeep Renegade Trailhawk. I had already concluded that it made for a decent road trip vehicle for me, my wife and two dogs, and now we could try it out with temperatures a good 60 degrees cooler and the roads far more mountainous.
Caption: The 2016 Jeep Renegade Trailhawk on Rim of the World Highway.
On Rim of the World, the Renegade once again proved to be a surprisingly adept handler. The off-road-oriented tires are obviously ill-suited to such driving, but with precise steering and reasonable body control, I was able to keep up a rapid pace and even make mid-corner passes in the highway's few, too-short passing lanes.
Then again, doing so once again showed the limitations of the Renegade's powertrain. There's just not enough power and the nine-speed automatic doesn't do it any favors. Though it was at least smart enough to avoid the uppermost gears, the much-maligned auto nevertheless constantly up-shifted into fifth gear when third or fourth was needed. I found that the otherwise mechanically-related Fiat 500X's Sport mode corrected this problem in part.
As the Renegade is, however, it didn't take long to slap the shifter into manual mode and swap gears for myself. The shifter is thankfully oriented the right way (push for downshift, pull for upshift), but it has a mushy, unmechanical feel to it and doesn't respond to multiple downshift requests at a time. You have to wait for the gear to engage, then try again.
On the way down the mountain, it also refused to downshift into third gear for engine braking — fourth was as far as it would go despite only being at around 2,800 rpm in that gear. Multiple jabs at the shifter did nothing.
Unfortunately, snow was very light in the town of Big Bear, with only hard remnants of a small, past accumulation in some parking lots and lesser-traveled roads. That still gave me the opportunity to turn on Snow Mode, but really only because I could. It certainly wasn't needed like it was last winter when I drove the Jeep Cherokee to Oregon.
Snow Mode sets the all-wheel-drive system to behave optimally in perpetually slippery conditions, readying itself for possible sliding events and limiting an overzealous/inattentive driver's wheel-spinning throttle inputs. Included with every all-wheel-drive Renegade, Snow Mode should in theory give the littlest Jeep a leg-up on most sub-compact SUVs, but we'll have to wait for a real test another day.
If your wintery road trip includes trips up and down a mountain, the Jeep Renegade is probably not the way to go. Its engine and transmission quite simply are not ideally suited to the task. That's a pity, since its handling, size and all-weather capability make it otherwise rather appealing for a single person or a young couple in a frosty climate — or those in a warm one looking for a brief taste of home.
James Riswick, New & Used Car Editor