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Renegade is the latest Jeep variant from a rebounding Fiat Chrysler

FCA US LLC Jeep RenegadeFCA US LLC Jeep Renegade
An off-road Mopar-equipped Jeep Renegade Courtesy of PRNewsFoto/FCA US LLC/AP

One of the most intriguing numbers issued a few weeks ago in Detroit by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV was 1,017,019.

That’s the number of Jeep-branded vehicles sold globally in 2014, an eye-opening total that stands in contrast to 337,716, the total number of Jeeps sold worldwide by the former Chrysler Group LLC when it filed for bankruptcy in 2009. FCA (FCA) forecasts that Jeep sales worldwide rise to 1.9 million in 2018.

A key strategic element of FCA’s push to reach the front ranks of the global auto business is its expansion of Jeep, a brand known from Rio de Janeiro to Shanghai that had underperformed relative to its potential under previous Chrysler managements. FCA’s latest thrust is its introduction of the Jeep Renegade, a small crossover built in Italy that will begin reaching U.S. showrooms in March.

Renegade will contend in the U.S. against models like Kia Soul, Chevrolet Trax and Nissan Juke, as well as Honda’s new HR-V, the latter soon to go on sale. These are entries in a red-hot market segment known as subcompact crossovers. In Europe it’s already grown to two million units annually, heading upward. In the U.S. the category has broken from the larger compact crossover segment that includes slightly larger models like the Ford Escape and Toyota RAV4 – a two million-unit segment that grew 14.5 percent last year in a market that was up about six percent.

The new Jeep shares its mechanical architecture (designed in Auburn Hills, Michigan) with the Fiat 500X crossover and is built in the same factory in Melfi, Italy. For the time being, Renegades sold in the U.S. will be imported from Italy. But FCA executives say they expect the new model to be a hit and will manufacture it in China as well as in a new factory in Brazil.

Jeff Schuster, senior vice president for forecasting for LMC Automotive told USA Today that Renegade “provides a lift to the brand.” Last year, Jeep’s new midsize crossover sold 178,508 units, almost as many as the slightly larger Grand Cherokee. Affection for crossovers of every size and flavor is intense and growing; and FCA has positioned itself to deliver what consumers are buying.

The new model looks and feels like a Jeep, with its characteristic seven-slotted grill, dating to 1941 when Ford was making military versions for use by American soldiers in World War II. Starting in price at about $18,000 for a two-wheel-drive version, a fully-loaded Trail Hawk edition with four-wheel-drive could cost as much as $30,000. Two engines are available, with 1.4-liter and a 2.4-liter displacements.

FCA chief executive officer Sergio Marchionne has done a remarkable job cobbling together a global automaker from a weak Fiat and a weak Chrysler that is exhibiting discipline, creativity, financial stability and growth during the five years of brisk recovery – especially in the U.S. – since the 2008-2009 collapse. But FCA has a ways to go: The automaker still must prove it can withstand the inevitable downturn in sales, which always looms ahead.