Payne: Jeep Renegade, Chevy Trax crowd pleasers

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

From the torrid Cadillac CTS-V to the lovely Lincoln MKC to the elegant Chrysler 200, Detroit automakers have done yeoman's work catching up to competitors in segments where they had been left for dead. Great sedans. Great performance. But great isn't enough. To rule a segment requires invention. That good ol' American pioneering instinct.

Could Green Ford have jump-started Lincoln if had been first to develop an electric rocket like the Tesla Model S? What if Chevy had beaten the Toyota Prius to market with the Volt? What if Corvette had leveraged its legendary name — like Porsche — to build a lineup of affordable, earth-scorching Corvette crossovers? Woulda' coulda' shoulda'.

So put your hands together for the Jeep Renegade and Chevy Trax, the Lewis and Clark of subcompact SUVs.

The pair map a new road at a time when Americans are hungry for crossovers. Not just hungry, starved. We can't get enough of them. Sedan and station wagon sales have flattened as manufacturers have flooded the market with midsize and compact utes. SUVs aren't just family haulers anymore. They are car-based, all-wheel-drive commuters. Jeep Grand Cherokees. Toyota RAV4s. Mercedes Benz GLAs.

Paleontologists may one day unearth sedanosaurus bones.

In truth the station wagon variant of sedans never died — it just went into a Witness Protection Program. Changed its name. Put on lifts. Came back as a crossover. Good timing for Detroit.

The Renegade is a refined Jeep with impressive off-road abilities that targets Gen Y buyers.

A Jeep sedan is an oxymoron. And Americans only trust Chevys with V-8 or SUV in their name. So make Jeep and Chevy subcompact utes and Americans will be beating down the dealer doors to get at 'em.

Jeep marketing guru Jim Morrison (no, he never fronted for the Doors) predicts the already booming segment will explode from 200,000 to 300,000 units in a few years. He's not alone.

"The segment is growing on buyer interest in SUVs, as well as the impressive level of technology and features available," says Stephanie Brinley, senior analyst with HIS Automotive. "We will see the higher percentage growth this year."

Until this year, browsing the subcompact market was like shopping the subculture boutiques of San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district. It was full of strange styles. Nissan's cockamamie Cube. Hamster-chic Kia Souls. Wall-eyed Nissan Jukes.

I recently drove a Juke — its headlights on top of its hood like the eyeballs of a mechanized frog — with a yellow exterior and red interior. If you like to wear ketchup and mustard, this is your vehicle.

The Renegade boasts best-in-class cargo room of 50.8 cubic feet. The removable roof panels can be stored flat behind the rear seats.

But with the entrance of Chevy, Jeep, Mazda (CX3) and Honda (HR-V), everything's changed. It's like they opened a giant mall on Haight Street anchored by Macy's, Brooks Brothers, the Limited and Banana Republic. Goodbye subculture, hello establishment.

And like big box retail, these automakers offer wildly different products drawing from their well-worn brand DNA.

Take Chevy and Jeep, the Brooks Brothers and Banana Republic of autos.

Jeep invented the SUV in the 1980s and continues to set the trend as crossover fashion sweeps the globe. In 2014 Jeep sales ballooned 44 percent, the brand eclipsed the 1 million sales mark worldwide — and is poised to go even higher with the globally-marketed Renegade.

Should Americans worry that Jeep has lost its roots by making Renegade in Melfi, Italy on a Fiat 500X platform (Fiat's own entry in the subcompact market)? Fuhgeddaboudit. This pasta dish is as American as a Pizza Hut pie with stuffed cheese crust. Like Jeep Jr. trying on Grandpa Jeep's WW2 uniform, the little guy is an adorable chip off the old block.

"The Renegade is true to the brand," says Morrison. "It's defined by the Wrangler delivering open air freedom."

Wrangler, of course, is the iconic, everyman Jeep coveted by generations of youth. If the Grand Cherokee redefined Jeep as a refined, unibody family hauler, the open-top Wrangler is still old school warrior. Sure, the refined Renegade ditches the Wrangler's antique body-on-frame and loud-as-nails interior.

But right down to the available olive drab "Commando" paint job, the Renegade wants to get up at the bugle call with Wrangler and eat some dust.

Four-wheel drive, upright windshield, straight-up-seven-slot grille, flat roof, trademark "X"-marks in the rear taillights taken from original military Jeep gas cans. Heck, the instrument panel even features the splash of a paintball gun.

The urban cool Trax also is geared to first-time buyers but also seeks inroads in other demographics.

The Chevy Trax, by contrast, is all urban cool. If you never soiled it through a muddy stream it wouldn't resent you in the least.

Like Renegade, Trax is also aimed at the first-time youth buyer (note its hip spelling). Its interior may bear the marks of the subcompact Sonic sedan with which it shares a platform, but the hatchback is Son of Honda Fit. The front passenger seat, for instance, folds flat like the middle chairs so you can throw a surfboard inside. But Trax also wants to appeal to a wider demographic: Empty nesters, oldsters, Dinks (couples without kids).

Renegade's interior and exterior — air vents shaped like Pixar's Wall-E robot, removable roof panels, orange and black trim inspired by base jumper suits (I'm not making this up) — scream Gen Y. But Trax's softer, more conventional, lines won't scare off seniors. Or females.

If you wear a baseball cap to work, the Renegade calls like a siren. If you're a pretty siren who needs a vehicle for tight downtown parking spots, Trax X's the box.

Manufacturer introductions of the two vehicles say it all.

I flogged a 180-horse Renegade from San Jose, California to the Hollister Hills State Vehicular Recreation Area (a kind of Waterford Raceway for off-roading) where the Renegade was as happy as a pig in slop. We played in the mud, bounced off rocks, charged down insane 45-degrees slopes (standing O for the engineers' Hill-descent Control).

My 138-horsepower Trax 4-banger never left San Diego. We had a nice quiet date along palm tree-lined beaches and urban byways. While the Renegade's 4x4 claws (set 'em to Snow, Sand, Mud or Rock) will climb Mount Rushmore, the Trax's more modest AWD system strives only to get you through a Detroit blizzard (though both have Wi-Fi hot spots giving you connectivity from anywhere). That modesty pays dividends in dry conditions. The Trax is no 'Vette, but it's noticeably nimbler than the Wrangler-esque Renegade.

Bottom line? These are fantastic, fuel-efficient, $20K products for a new segment. Mazda's CX-3 will woo the performance crowd. Honda's HR-V the reliability nerds. But the Chevy Trax brings GM's formidable ute reputation in a small package. And Jeep just found a whole new hill to conquer.

That ol' Detroit pioneering spirit is back.

Cargo space with the Trax is listed at 48.4 cubic feet. The middle and front seats can fold down, making enough room for a surfboard.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

2015 Jeep Renegade

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front or four-wheel drive, five-passenger sport ute

Price: $18,990 base ($27,355 "Omaha Orange" Latitude 4x4 as tested)

Power plant: 1.4-liter, turbo, in-line 4-cylinder; 2.4-liter, in-line 4-cyl "Tigershark"

Power: 160 horsepower, 184 pound-feet of torque (turbo 4); 180 horsepower, 175 pound-feet of torque (turbo 4)

Transmission: six-speed manual (turbo 4-cyl engine only); nine-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 8.6 seconds — turbo 4-cyl (Motor Trend est.); 0-60 mph, 8.0 seconds — 2.4-liter 4-cyl (Motor Trend)

Weight: 3,044 pounds (4x2 turbo 4-cyl); 3,573 pounds (4x4, 2.4-liter Trailhawk edition)

Fuel economy: NA

Report card

Highs: Best-in-class cargo room; as happy in the outback as on the road

Lows: Upright front end and broad C-pillar create blindspots; lumbar support-challenged seats

Overall: ???

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2015 Chevrolet Trax

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front and all-wheel drive, five-passenger sport ute

Price: $20,995 base ($28,305 AWD LTZ as tested)

Power plant: 1.4-liter, turbo inline 4-cylinder

Power: 138 horsepower, 148 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: Six-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 9.0 seconds (Motor Trend)

Weight: 2,805 pounds (FWD); 3,208 pounds (AWD)

Fuel economy: EPA 26 mpg city/34 mpg highway/29 combined

Report card

Highs: Best-in-class fuel economy; clever interior package

Lows: Another engine option, please?; tastier-but-still-vanilla exterior

Overall: ???

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