Two of the highest-volume new entries in the red-hot subcomapct SUV segment are likely to be the Chevrolet Trax and the Jeep Renegade.
Offered by all-American brands, they're smaller than their "compact" siblings, the Chevy Equinox and Jeep Cherokee, respectively. But they offer two very different approaches to designing, packaging, and equipping the smallest all-wheel-drive utility vehicles you can buy from each carmaker.
While the Trax has Chevy design cues at the front end, it's otherwise almost the generic small SUV. It's not bad, just bland. The littlest Jeep, on the other hand, uses oversized design flourishes--big headlights, big wheel arches, numerous Jeep logos--to underscore its toughness even in a small package, to the point where it's almost cartoonish.
Both vehicles are impressive inside, however, with comfortable seats, quiet rides on decent pavement, and a roster of the latest infotainment and electronic safety systems that would have been seen only in luxury cars not so many years ago. Neither of these vehicles is likely to be used off-road all that much, with the possible exception of the Renegade's toughest Trailhawk model, so they're tuned for on-road finesse and comfort.
Each comes as a base model with front-wheel drive, and offers all-wheel drive as an option. The Chevy Trax has only a single powertrain: a 1.4-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine, making 138 horsepower and paired to a 6-speed automatic transmission. The Jeep Renegade, on the other hand, has two powertrains: its own 1.4-liter turbo-4, putting out a stronger 160 hp, but mated only to a 6-speed manual gearbox, or a 180-hp 2.4-liter inline-4 paired with a 9-speed automatic transmission. Both Jeep powertrains offer all-wheel drive as an option.
The Chevy is adequately powered, but not particularly quick; the Jeep is more powerful, but also heavier, and Fiat Chrysler's engineers seem to have tamed their temperamental 9-speed automatic at last. We found the manual-gearbox Jeep more fun to drive and lighter on its toes, but in reality, most buyers will opt for the automatic.
Fuel economy ratings for the Trax are 29 mpg combined for the front-wheel-drive version, dropping to 27 mpg if you add all-wheel drive. Final ratings for the Jeep aren't out yet.
The two small utes differ quite a lot in their packaging, however. Rather to our surprise, the Chevy Trax can hold four adult-sized people in reasonable comfort. Five is a very tight squeeze, and rear-seat riders will have to stagger their shoulders, but it's definitely possible. The Jeep Renegade, on the other hand, has a smaller rear compartment that's tight on knee room, and fitting four adults into its cabin will require negotiations to get the folks up front to sacrifice some of their own legroom.
The Jeep's interior conveys ruggedness in its materials, shapes, and surfaces, while the Chevy is straightforward, practical, and adopts a number of clever convenience features from the Sonic subcompact on which it's based. The Trax in particular has lots of trays, bins, cupholders, and the like to hold your gear. Both have front seats that can fold flat to carry long items diagonally.
Chevrolet has achieved top safety ratings for the Trax from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), which designated it a Top Safety Pick. It also earned five out of five stars overall from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which gave it five stars in every category except rollover safety, where it received four stars. The Jeep Renegade earns only a four-star rating from the NHTSA and doesn't offer a standard rearview camera.
In the end, the Chevy Trax outscores the Jeep Renegade, despite the fact that the Jeep wins on styling and performance. The Chevy wins on safety, by a wide margin. If rear-seat room is more important than styling panache, the Chevy is your choice; if toughness and design flair, plus optional off-roading ability (in the form of the Trailhawk model) are high on your list, the Jeep is it.