If you like the Jeep Renegade

To date, no one outside of Jeep has seen the new Renegade so much as dip a tire into mud. No consumer has sent one crawling up a rock, through a gully or across a stream. In fact, as far as anyone outside of the Chrysler subsidiary knows, the only thing the tiny Renegade is good at is looking adorable in Switzerland, where it made its global debut at the 2014 Geneva motor show.

Adorable from its cute Jeep grille all the way back to its square-with-an-X taillights, the Renegade looks like a Wrangler as reprocessed through the Beanie Babies design department. But while it’s fun to mock its charm-bracelet appearance, it’s also one of those rare vehicles that makes instant, intuitive sense. It’s small but tall, to maximise interior room. It rides high to overcome obstacles both off- and on-road, but it’s built atop corporate parent Fiat’s “Small Wide 4x4” architecture, which is the same structure used in the Fiat 500L small people mover. Such underpinnings suggest the Renegade should be comfortable enough to prowl parking lots from sea to shining sea.

And it will be crossing some seas, assuredly. This Jeep will be built at a Fiat plant in Melfi, Italy, alongside its brother, the upcoming Fiat 500X. Jeep expects the Renegade to be its biggest seller in Europe, with half the production earmarked for that continent and most of the rest setting sail for North America. Jeeps have been built other places before – China, Egypt, South America, Australia and even, back in the 1950s, Italy – but this is the first time a foreign-made Jeep will be exported back into the US. And Fiat Chrysler has already announced its intent to build the Renegade in Brazil later this year and in China by 2016.

Power for the new Renegade, at least in the US, will come from either a 1.4-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine rated at 160 horsepower or a 2.4-litre naturally aspirated four making 180hp. The turbo engine will be paired with a six-speed manual transmission while the 2.4 gets lashed to Fiat Chrysler’s nine-speed automatic. Both engines will be offered in either front- or four-wheel drive versions. Either engine should be enough to provide performance competitive with the wildly popular, slightly smaller Kia Soul. And the Soul isn’t – at least yet – available with four-wheel or all-wheel drive.

With its four-wheel independent suspension and transverse-mounted engine, the Renegade is engineered more like the unloved Compass and Patriot pseudo-Jeeps than the rugged, solid-axle Wrangler. Even so, Jeep promises genuine off-road ability in the Renegade, particularly from the line-topping Trailhawk model with its 20:1 creeper gear, raised suspension and advanced, off-road-oriented selectable driving modes.

For such a tiny little beast there’s already a lot to love about the Renegade. Whether it’s whimsical details like the storage bin with a map of Moab, Utah – site of the annual Jeep Jamboree – stamped into its bottom, the flashes of colour strategically placed around the interior or more substantial plucks like the standard, multi-piece removable sunroof.

The Renegade enters production this spring for European markets and makes North American landfall by December. Prices should start well below $20,000, where Kia prices the Soul. But if you don’t want to wait that long or spend that much money…

Then try…

Suzuki’s Samurai and Sidekick small 4x4s were remarkably popular in the 1980s and 1990s because they were, well, cute. But familiarity breeds contempt, and by the early 2000s both of these capable if somewhat tippy off-roaders were languishing on used car lots and taking up valuable classified advert space. But today, especially with the Renegade still months away, these ‘Zukis are looking good again.

“There’s still enough of them out there,” says Steve Kramer, whose CalMini builds parts and accessories for these prototypical cute-utes. “But I wouldn’t want to take a guess as to how many are still out there.”

Versions of the Samurai have been produced since 1969, but one didn’t make it to the US until 1985, as a 1986 model. (In much of the rest of the world it was marketed simply as the 4x4.) At 135in long, it is a whopping 31.6in shorter overall than the new Jeep, and with solid axles front and rear on leaf springs, it’s about as primitive as the Conestoga wagons that traversed the North American plains 150 years ago. Its 1.3-litre four-cylinder engine made all of 63hp, but the hardtop version weighed in at a flyweight 2,127lbs. The convertible – really a removable top that took expertise, time and some luck to re-install – came in at only 2,094lbs.

Primitive and tiny as it was, the Samurai was always nimble, and with its two-speed transfer case, shockingly capable off-road when operating in four-wheel drive. And with a base price of only $6,300 upon its introduction, supremely affordable. Suzuki sold about 200,000 of them over 10 years in the US.

“You can’t find a good $2,500 Samurai any more,” says Steve Kramer. “Prices have firmed up. For a Samurai that’s solid and complete, it’s four grand. There are a lot more Sidekicks out there.”

The Sidekick, which was also sold (in even greater numbers) as the Geo and Chevrolet Tracker, was introduced in 1989 as a slightly larger and more sophisticated step up from the Samurai. But at 143.7in long, it’s still almost 2ft shorter than the new Renegade. Built in Ingersoll, Canada, almost 1m of them made it out onto American roads, in two-door hardtop and convertible and four-door body styles, before production stopped in 1998.

Kramer reports prices for the capable Sidekick/Tracker are roughly $2,500 for a prime example. And with a variety of four-cylinder power plants ranging from 80 to 120hp available, these are easier vehicles to live with day to day.

While Suzuki has retreated from the US market, versions of the Samurai and Sidekick continue to be built around the world. And that means original parts are plentiful, and both vehicles are well supported in the aftermarket. Want a lifted, V6-powered, leather upholstered Samurai? Visit some of the online forums dedicated to the vehicles, hit the CalMini catalogue and you can screw one together for about half the price of a new Renegade.

And you’ll still be looking totally adorable.