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Jeep Goes Small to Go Global

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By Paul A. Eisenstein, NBC News

Jeep is betting that big things will come from a small package — in this case the new Jeep Renegade that debuted at the 2014 Geneva Motor Show.

The pint-sized sport-utility vehicle is more than just the latest addition to the maker's lineup of SUVs. It's the anchor of an aggressive plan to take the Jeep brand global — a long-simmering strategy that, ironically, has only been pushed into high gear since the Detroit maker was taken over by Italy's Fiat following its 2009 bankruptcy.

The Renegade "will act as an entryway to our brand," explains Jeep CEO Mike Manley, noting that compact SUVs make up one of the world's fastest-growing market segments.

According to a recent report by consulting firm IHS Automotive, global sales of so-called B-segment models now account for about 2.7 million sales annually, with Europe generating 40 percent of the demand, Asia a wee bit more. The U.S. actually lags well behind, at only 250,000, but demand is expected to grow here, as well, as buyers continue to downsize.

In many ways, the new Renegade is a more traditional Jeep than the recently added — and somewhat controversial — Cherokee model. There are the brand's classic visual cues, including the upright, seven-slot grille and round headlamps, the high ground clearance, short overhangs and the tall roofline that can make the Renegade look, at first glance, a bit bigger than it really is with a modest 100-inch wheelbase.

And the Renegade Trailhawk model will continue to offer potential buyers the sort of off-road capabilities the brand has long been known for. But in this case, the mini-Jeep comes with a new terrain response system that, with a simple turn of the dial, adjusts the vehicle's brakes, throttle and transmission to automatically adapt to five different driving conditions – for rocks, snow, sand, mud or highway.

The Trailhawk will largely serve as an image model, Jeep officials acknowledge. The vast majority of buyers will never experience anything rougher than gravel roads or the sort of snow that has pummeled much of the country this winter. So, Jeep is giving the new Renegade more flexibility than ever before to meet regional needs. Among other things, the Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) subsidiary has developed a mix of 16 different gasoline and diesel powertrain packages targeting different markets.

But there are other features that Jeep hopes will increase the Renegade's appeal. The new SUV is more lavishly equipped than most of the traditional "cute-utes" that fill the segment, many of which are little more than high-riding econoboxes pitched primarily on price. Renegade will be offered — depending upon the market — with such niceties as an open-air roof system, big touchscreen infotainment system, a built-in WiFi hotspot, and even an access package allowing remote starting and door unlocking, as well as access to sports scores, movie timetables and nearby fuel prices.

Jeep has become increasingly daring since parent Chrysler's tie-up with Fiat. Despite its polarizing design, or perhaps because of it, the new Cherokee has become one of the market's hot new entries for the 2014 model-year. But in some ways, the Renegade is an even more radical departure from tradition.

The underlying platform is a heavily modified version of the "architecture" used for Fiat's far less capable 500L crossover. And the two models will be produced on the same Italian assembly line, the first time a Jeep has been produced outside of North America in many years.

"One of the key constraints to our growth has been the absence of a global manufacturing footprint," says brand boss Manley.

If anything, that is changing in a hurry. The Renegade will also be produced in Brazil and, eventually, China, which could become one of the biggest markets for the new model. Jeep was actually the first Western automaker to produce vehicles in China; its Beijing Jeep launched in 1984. But that operation was taken over by former German partner Daimler AG following the break-up of the ill-fated DaimlerChrysler AG. According to Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne, plans are falling into place for a new Chinese Jeep plant.

Even before then, the brand's sales have been setting records, rising 4 percent last year to an all-time global high of 731,565 — nearly a third of that volume coming from outside the U.S. Manley is nothing if not ambitious, pushing his forecast for 2014 from 800,000 to an even 1 million. With the new Cherokee already drawing in buyers, Jeep clearly has momentum going for it. Now the new Renegade will have to prove it packs a big punch in a small package.

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