The number of small crossover utility vehicles on sale is burgeoning, so buyers have more options than ever before. Two of the most popular smaller SUVs are likely to be the Honda HR-V and the Jeep Renegade. The HR-V is a smaller sibling to the immensely popular CR-V compact crossover, while the Renegade slots in below both the Liberty and Cherokee SUVs in the Jeep lineup.
They're very different vehicles, with different focuses. The Honda is perfectly suited to city and suburban use by couples or young families, with optional all-wheel drive offering the security of better traction on muddy athletic fields and unplowed roads. The Jeep can tick those boxes convincingly, but it also provides considerably more off-road ability, especially in the Trailhawk model with added equipment meant for that purpose.
Both small SUVs have exaggerated styling that works to disguise the "tall hatchback on wheels" shape of most utility vehicles. The littlest Jeep is squared off, with oversized design elements--big headlights, big wheel arches, and lots of Jeep logos--to underscore its toughness. The whole package is just this side of cartoonish, but it's effective. The rakish Honda uses the brand's usual styling language--a thick chrome top bar for the grille, swept-back front light units, and strongly etched side accent lines--to give the HR-V more design pizazz. The rear end, however, looks like nothing so much as a shrunken version of the latest Acura MDX.
Under the hood, the Honda deploys a 141-horsepower 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine, paired with either a continuously variable transmission or a six-speed manual. All-wheel drive is an option, but only with the CVT. The Jeep Renegade, on the other hand, offers a choice of two powertrains, both with all-wheel drive as an option. A 1.4-liter turbo four, rated at 160 hp, is paired only with a six-speed manual gearbox, and a 180-hp 2.4-liter four comes solely with a nine-speed automatic transmission. The most fuel-efficient model of the HR-V (front-wheel drive and CVT) delivers a combined 31-mpg EPA rating, against the less efficient Jeep's best rating of 27 mpg for the smaller powertrain in front-wheel-drive form. Note that the Renegade's smaller engine is recommended to run on premium fuel, by the way.
The HR-V has adequate power, but it's not notably quick--although it feels strong enough for safe highway merges and dignity-preserving stoplight launches. . The heavier Renegade, on the other hand, is more powerful, and Chrysler finally seems to have tamed its temperamental nine-speed automatic. While buyers of either vehicle will largely opt for automatic shifting, we found the manual-gearbox Jeep more fun to drive and lighter on its toes. Both little SUVs, based on car underpinnings, handle well enough, although their high seating positions make body roll more obvious.
One of the Honda's biggest advantages over the Jeep is interior volume. The rear seat of the HR-V will accommodate two adults with generous head and leg room, as well as two up front. To get four adults into the Jeep, you really have to horse-trade--it's comfortable up front but tight in the rear. The HR-V is by far the roomiest vehicle in the segment, and it also provides Honda's unique "Magic Seat," which folds and flips the second-row seat like a lawn chair to offer multiple storage and seating configurations. The Jeep has substantial cargo room behind the rear seat, which folds flat, as does the front passenger seat—allowing long items to be carried diagonally inside.
Both vehicles are pleasingly quiet and refined inside on good road surfaces, far more so than even mid-size SUVs of a decade ago. The Jeep in particular is sensitive to harsher pavement, and the Trailhawk model's beefier tires can be noisy on certain types of surface. But drivers and passengers will find most on-road travel to be peaceful in either one.
As new entries, the Honda HR-V and Jeep Renegade have both been designed with all the latest crash tests in mind. Neither vehicle has been rated either by the NHTSA or the IIHS yet, though Honda has said it expects the HR-V to earn top scores and get a best-in-class rating. Jeep made no predictions about the Renegade's safety ratings.
The Jeep offers seven airbags as standard, along with a rearview camera. Its available electronic safety systems include Forward-Collision Warning Plus with automatic braking, lane departure warning and correction, blind-spot monitoring, and rear cross-traffic alert. The HR-V comes standard with a rearview camera and tire pressure monitors, along with the usual traction systems and airbags, and Honda's nifty sideview LaneWatch camera is an option. But blind-spot monitors and adaptive cruise control likely won't arrive on the HR-V for a couple of model years.
At a base price of $19,995, all Honda HR-V models include power windows, locks, and mirrors; a rearview camera; a tiling and telescoping steering wheel with audio controls; and Bluetooth with audio streaming. Higher trim levels add a large touchscreen interface; the LaneWatch camera; pushbutton start; paddle shifters; satellite radio; navigation; leather; a sunroof; and heated front seats.
The Jeep Renegade starts $1,000 lower, for the base Sport 2WD version with manual gearbox. The mid-level Latitude is $22,290, and the top-of-the-line Limited starts at $25,790. Each can be ordered with either powertrain and with front-wheel drive or, for $2,000 more, all-wheel drive. Then there's the Trailhawk model ($26,990) with its greater off-road capability, which only comes with all-wheel drive and the larger 2.4-liter engine with the nine-speed automatic.
Both the 2016 Honda HR-V and the 2015 Jeep Renegade are surprisingly comfortable and accomplished small utility vehicles. The Honda wins decisively on interior room, as well as fuel economy, while the Jeep clearly triumphs in off-road capability and probably in style. But they're SUVs, so interior room is important--meaning the HR-V scores slightly higher than the Renegade. But we expect that buyers of either car should end up relatively satisfied.