On Autos: Jeep, Fiat apply their own flavor to subcompact crossover class

The 2017 Jeep Renegade is a pint-sized crossover with more personality than most cars this size. (Brady Holt/The Current)

Visit Rome today, and you’ll probably encounter more Jeeps than the Italian capital has seen since 1945. Most of these are the subcompact Renegade, a spunky, boxy little crossover that’s filled with reminders of Jeep’s World War II heritage — but which is actually manufactured in Italy using primarily Fiat mechanical components.

Under the skin, the Renegade is a mechanical twin to the Fiat 500X, another common sight in modern Italy. Both models deliver the high seating positions and the all-wheel-drive availability of a crossover, but with tidy footprints that make them at home in a crowded city. And although D.C. is a haven for easy parking compared to Rome, Northwest buyers can surely also appreciate a crossover that’s not as long as even the smallest sedan.

The 2017 Fiat 500X is a mechanical twin to the boxier Jeep Renegade. (Brady Holt/The Current)

The Renegade and 500X are each bursting with flavor intended to distinguish the two. The Renegade is emblazoned with logos showing the Jeep grille and the text “Since 1941,” among other cues, and its exterior design is unmistakable for a generic crossover. The boxy shape seems designed for utility, but playful design touches keep it endearing.

The 500X, meanwhile, has a curvier body whose retro styling cues recall the 1957 500, which was Fiat’s answer to the Volkswagen Beetle. There’s no visual similarity between the two models’ exteriors, and you’d have to look closely to spot the parts shared between the two cars on the inside.

These two crossovers’ design exuberance helps distinguish them from pleasant but unexciting competitors such as the Honda HR-V, Chevrolet Trax and Nissan Rogue Sport. Their unique styling makes them potentially interesting even to buyers who wouldn’t otherwise consider a subcompact crossover — at which point their base prices around $20,000 are especially appealing. The Jeep and Fiat both exceed $30,000 fully loaded, but steep discounts are frequently available.

The 2017 Fiat 500X is essentially a subcompact hatchback with a high seating position, available all-wheel-drive and retro styling. (Brady Holt/The Current)

Note that the 500X may look a lot like the Mini Countryman, another retro-styled subcompact crossover, but the Countryman is a luxury car in comparison. Mechanically speaking, it’s a BMW wearing Mini clothes — and its base price of $27,540 and its costly options reflect that.

Functionally, the 500X and Renegade do have some drawbacks. They’re not as roomy as the HR-V or the Kia Soul, with skimpy rear-seat space. The curvier Fiat is even tighter than the boxy Jeep, with the sloping roof also cutting into cargo space and rear headroom. The 500X is also slightly longer than the roomier Renegade, making the Jeep the clear leader between the two for city-friendly space efficiency, though it’s still not best-in-class.

The 2017 Jeep Renegade’s boxy shape gives it some extra interior space compared to the Fiat 500X, and it has a smoother ride, but the Fiat has sportier handling. (Brady Holt/The Current)

These two models are also not ideal on the road. The Fiat has composed handling, but it doesn’t feel zippy like a sporty Mazda CX-3. Also, its ride quality can be stiff over bumps and unsettled even on smooth pavement. The tall, narrow Jeep, meanwhile, doesn’t look like it would be sporty — and it isn’t. Both cars also have noisy four-cylinder engines that aren’t especially powerful or fuel-efficient; EPA ratings with all-wheel-drive are a disappointing 24 mpg in mixed driving.

But for buyers who fall in love with the strong personality of the 500X or Renegade, these crossovers are certainly not bad options. With affordable prices and acceptable utility, they’re more sensible than most high-style vehicles sold today.

Shop them against the Kia Soul — which has its own unique vibe and is roomier and less expensive, but which doesn’t offer all-wheel-drive — and such mainstream models as the HR-V, Rogue Sport and Trax. And if you’re looking for a spacious interior but don’t necessarily demand a crossover, consider a hatchback like the Honda Fit or Civic, which are comfortable, functional and economical, and which avoid the marketing surcharge associated with SUV styling details.