Jeep is an American automotive staple, but it hasn’t done anything radically new in, well…ever. This signature Jeep American-ness on four driven wheels now gets its biggest injection of originality in the form of the Italian-made, Fiat 500L-based 2015 Jeep Renegade. Recently introduced at the New York Auto Show, it took the car world by storm, its radical mini-Jeep design marveled over by the cognoscenti and non-car folks alike.

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Really, the Renegade attacks the status quo with a three-pronged attack. First, it brings a new small CUV into the Jeep fold (and totally upstages the fugly Compass and Patriot brothers); second, it brings a Jeep vehicle to the global masses via the Fiat platform; and third, it makes a bold statement that the Jeep brand can innovate and deliver great design beyond what the automotive world expected.

The Renegade looks good. It could’ve had the aesthetics of Spongebob’s escape vehicle; instead, the Renegade avoided the Nissan Cube look yet managed to keep Jeep’s heritage cues. Its closest brother in the looks department is the Wrangler, and it’s boxier than the Cherokee and Grand Cherokee, imparting a more rugged look despite its small size (the Renegade’s the smallest Jeep vehicle).

It could’ve had the aesthetics of Spongebob’s escape vehicle; instead, the Renegade avoided the Nissan Cube look yet managed to keep Jeep’s heritage cues.

The Renegade manages to keep its very upright design from looking squarish and dumpy, a feat not easy for a CUV of this size. The matte black trim found on the grille, bumpers, rocker panels and roof provide just the right amount of sinister, while reducing the overall blockiness. The signature vertical slat grille and the X-insert bulging taillights that mimic military jerry cans add masculine character. Opt for the tougher, top-of-the-line Trailhawk, and you can get nifty red tow hooks and skid plates, as well — a bit more testosterone injection for the small ute.

Yet among these major exterior design changes, Jeep recognized that customers still love the small, creative touches that make their vehicles special. The matte painted trim pieces that match the exterior of the car pop in a brushed aluminum finish that looks and feels great. Then there’s the optional pair of removable composite roof panels named My Sky. The panels, available in manual or power tilt-and-slide, can be fully removed and placed in the rear cargo hold that’s flat and out of the way. The final interior touch is the quirky but very original map of Moab, Utah that’s molded directly into the liner of the Renegade’s storage bin.

But at the end of the day, the Renegade must still bear the Jeep name, and that means it’s got to make good dirt tracks and can’t just spend the day at the mall. Thankfully, the Renegade is the first four-wheel-drive version of the Fiat/Chrysler “small-wide” platform and provides the Renegade with off-road chops that don’t really exist for smaller CUVs. In four-wheel-drive configuration, approach and departure angles are solid (and the Trailhawk gets even more clearance). All this off-road readiness still comes without giving your wallet the full-nelson: expect 30 mpg highway for the two-wheel-drive models, and a base price under $20k.

Not every CUV/SUV buyer wants a big hulking piece of machinery — but of course a wimpy vehicle that can’t tackle gravel won’t work for some, either. This in-between is where Jeep’s carved out the Renegade’s niche. The car marks a bold new direction for Jeep design, and it’s a clear winner both from a design and an economic standpoint. The result is the unorthodox Jeep we’ve been waiting for.

Amos Kwon

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