Crossovers are swarming American roads, and the latest infestation is a new offshoot of the breed known as the mini-SUV. These diminutive boxes on wheels aren’t new, but younger consumers on tighter budgets have willingly adopted them for their low prices, decent fuel economy, weather-beating practicality, and undeniable utility. Smart car companies are rushing new, smaller, more affordable crossovers to market, equipping them with plenty of personality and the latest infotainment technologies in the hope that happy Gen-Y owners will become brand loyalists.
For 2015, Chevrolet introduced the Trax, and Jeep debuted the Renegade. They join vehicles such as the Buick Encore, Nissan Juke, Mitsubishi Outlander Sport, and Subaru XV Crosstrek in the quest for bite-sized crossover market share. Some might even consider the Kia Soul a member of this group, because all it lacks for club membership is an optional all-wheel-drive system.
Honda joins the fray for 2016, adding the new Fit-based HR-V to its lineup. The HR-V went on sale in mid May, preceding the arrivals of the Fiat 500X and Mazda CX-3 to the mini-SUV segment, but not by much. We grabbed one of the first examples of the HR-V in order to pit it against the Chevy Trax and Jeep Renegade. The goal: determine which of these three most recent newcomers is the best of the trio.
2015 Chevrolet Trax LT: $23,815
Chevy’s new Trax is based on the Sonic compact car, which is most plainly evident from the driver’s seat. Our Trax arrived in Blaze Red paint, rolling on 16-inch aluminum wheels and sporting front-wheel drive. We all thought it looked like a rental car, inside and out. The Trax averaged 29.3 mpg during testing.
2016 Honda HR-V EX: $22,045
Honda builds the HR-V on the Fit platform, and as a result it includes all of the functionality of one of our favorite little cars but with a slightly more powerful engine. We tested a front-drive HR-V EX equipped with a manual gearbox that few dealers will stock; the optional continuously variable transmission (with paddle shifters) would cost an extra $800. The HR-V averaged 32.3 mpg during testing.
2015 Jeep Renegade Latitude: $26,360
Built in Italy on a Fiat platform, the spunky little Renegade is sold all around the world. Because it included an optional all-wheel-drive system that the Chevy and Honda lacked, for comparison purposes, chop a whopping two grand off of our test Renegade’s price. Omaha Orange paint on a Jeep Renegade virtually ensures that you won’t go unnoticed. The Renegade averaged 25.7 mpg during testing.
Design, Comfort, and Utility
First Place: Jeep Renegade
Personality goes a long way, and that’s just as true of cars as it is of people. When it comes to a Jeep Renegade, especially one dipped in orange paint, you can’t help but smile.
That grin stays plastered on your face when you get inside the Renegade, for Jeep has placed a number of what it calls “Easter eggs” throughout the cabin, surprise-and-delight iconography that regularly reminds occupants of Jeep’s history and capabilities.
Simple, traditional controls made the Renegade less complicated to operate than the Chevy and Honda, and the roomy interior provided comfortable seating and plenty of room for luggage. Like the other vehicles in this test, the front passenger’s seat folds in half to carry longer items when the rear liftgate is closed.
Second Place: Honda HR-V
Clean, modern, tasteful, and balanced design characterizes the new Honda HR-V, which looks and feels more expensive than it is. Honda, however, has made some missteps with its cute-ute’s cabin.
Our larger and taller drivers did not find the driver’s seat to be comfortable, though in terms of rear-seat room the Honda was the limousine of the group. Plus, it had the most usefully shaped cargo area, as well as the hugely practical Magic Seat setup, a hand-me-down from the Honda Fit upon which it is based.
More than anything else, though, the HR-V’s touchscreen infotainment and climate controls earned demerits for their difficulty levels while driving.
Third Place: Chevrolet Trax
A 6-way power driver’s seat sure makes the Trax comfortable, though, and the Chevy offered the best forward visibility of the trio. Storage nooks and crannies abound, and the Trax actually has fabric-wrapped windshield pillars, a feature commonly reserved for luxury vehicles.
Nothing else about the Trax, however, comes close to imparting an upscale look or feel.
|Aaron Gold:||“Innovative instrument panel, simple controls, lots of little storage bins, just-right driver’s seat.”|
|Michael Harley:||“Appears more classic and retro than fresh and modern – I’d call it sparse and underwhelming.”|
|Christian Wardlaw:||“You sit up nice and tall in this car, with an outstanding, fishbowl view of the world ahead. Most cramped trunk of the trio, though.”|
|Aaron Gold:||“Silly grille and goggle-eyed taillights, but a pretty overall shape.”|
|Michael Harley:||“I was unimpressed by the seats. The lower cushion is short and flat, which immediately started to give my back issues. Excellent side bolstering, but no lumbar.”|
|Christian Wardlaw:||“The driver’s seat is awful. It has a manual height adjuster, but the bottom cushion is flat and lacks thigh support. Plus, there isn’t enough seat track travel. I wound up sitting splay-legged behind the wheel. Ugh.”|
|Aaron Gold:||“Love the colors and the interior ‘Easter eggs.’”|
|Michael Harley:||“As goofy and cumbersome as it appears at first glance, it screams Jeep — right down to the signature round headlights.”|
|Christian Wardlaw:||“It looks great in person, has lots of character, and is unmistakable for anything other than a Jeep Renegade. This is the manly cute-ute.”|
Technology and Innovation
First Place: Honda HR-V
When you’re driving the HR-V in economical fashion, a green ring illuminates around the speedometer. Everyone liked that about the Honda, as well as how the HR-V’s tablet-style touchscreen infotainment system looked.
Equipped with HondaLink Connect technology with text-messaging functionality, and featuring a large, clean, 7-inch display supporting swipe, pinch, and touch gesture control, the HR-V’s infotainment system was the favorite among our tested vehicles. Everyone, however, wished for a handful of traditional knobs and buttons to make it easier to use while driving.
With the debut of the HR-V EX, Honda also introduces a touchscreen automatic climate control system. At least one of our test drivers found it completely unacceptable to use while driving, calling it an outright dangerous design. But he’s an old guy.
Honda’s LaneWatch technology is also included in the EX trim level, deemed of dubious value by a couple of drivers, but everyone appreciated the HR-V’s multi-angle reversing camera and HondaLink Assist automatic collision notification system.
Second Place: Jeep Renegade
Equipped with a basic version of Jeep’s Uconnect infotainment technology, which equips the Renegade with a small, 5-inch touchscreen display flanked by traditional buttons and knobs, our test vehicle impressed with the simplicity of its complexity.
Depending on your budget, you can upgrade a Renegade with a long list of safety technologies, and the larger version of Uconnect provides a bigger, 6.5-inch touchscreen display. Among infotainment systems, we find Uconnect exceptionally easy and intuitive to use, and once you’ve got it set up the way you want it, the system makes it easy to adjust volume, change a station, and more without looking away from the road.
The Jeep is a real off-roader, too, and can be fitted with a range of driving assistance technologies designed to help it travel places the Honda and Chevy simply cannot. Add an unmatched menu of available safety technologies, and the Renegade rocks.
Third Place: Chevrolet Trax
While Chevrolet supplies several useful technologies as standard equipment for every version of the Trax, our testing team downgraded the Chevy for what it didn’t offer.
Starting with what impresses, every Trax has a MyLink infotainment system that includes a 7-inch touchscreen, Siri Eyes Free technology, and a reversing camera. Chevy’s OnStar services technology is also included, providing a limited-time subscription to a 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot, automatic crash notification service, and more.
Beyond these features, the Trax cannot be ordered with any safety-related driver assistance systems. Furthermore, while the colors and fonts used for the infotainment display are modern and pleasing, the tablet-style screen and surround trim looks as dated as an iPod. A lack of knobs and buttons for oft-used features, such as adjusting the volume and tuning the radio, also came under fire.
|Aaron Gold:||“The only USB port is in the glove box? That’s ridiculous!”|
|Michael Harley:||“The large touchscreen looks great, easily standing out as the most innovative part of the cockpit, but a lack of an analog dial for audio volume is maddening – especially when the climate controls are logically arranged directly below.”|
|Christian Wardlaw:||“Tablet-style touchscreen infotainment system uses a large, modern font and looks good, even if it is distracting to use. Provide a power/volume and a tuning knob at a minimum, please. Cool standard Wi-Fi and Siri Eyes Free, bro.”|
|Aaron Gold:||“Stereo doesn’t sound as good as the others. That’s a shame, as you need it to drown out the droning engine.”|
|Michael Harley:||“Although easily the most premium in appearance, flat panel touchscreens require the driver to remove their eyes from the road to operate the controls – that’s asking for trouble. I still can’t get used to Honda’s LaneWatch system, realizing afterwards that I drove the entire 55-mile loop and never noticed it.”|
|Christian Wardlaw:||“On the one hand, I like the modern, touchscreen infotainment and climate systems. They look good. On the other hand, I detest them for their ability to distract a driver. There’s a reason state and federal governments don’t want people using their smartphones while driving. Might as well lump the HR-V’s dashboard into those laws.”|
|Aaron Gold:||“Love the Jeep’s Uconnect infotainment system, even if the Renegade gets the cheap version.”|
|Michael Harley:||“While our Renegade had a relatively basic Uconnect infotainment system with a 5-inch screen, it is still highly functional. Count me as a fan.”|
|Christian Wardlaw:||“Though our test vehicle didn’t have them, a long list of driving assistance and safety technologies are available for the Renegade, not to mention some kick-ass off-roading hardware.”|
Under the Hood
First Place: Honda HR-V
Oozing engineering precision and refinement from every pore, the Honda HR-V overcame lackluster power delivery to earn our nod for its drivetrain, which returned the best fuel economy of the three SUVs.
While it is true that the driver must rev the 141-horsepower, 1.8-liter 4-cylinder engine for everything it’s worth in order to climb grades and pass other vehicles, the HR-V proves quick and nimble around town. Still, we agreed that this Honda would benefit from forced induction in the form of a supercharger or turbocharger.
Most buyers will choose the optional continuously variable transmission, which provides paddle shifters to help keep the engine within the thick of its power band. Likely proving a rare commodity, the 6-speed manual gearbox features precise shift action and a light clutch.
Second Place: Chevrolet Trax
Serving as a perfect example of how turbocharging can make a tiny little motor feel more robust than it has a right to is the 1.4-liter 4-cylinder engine tucked under the Chevy Trax’s hood.
Don’t be put off by its rating of 138 horsepower. This engine generates 148 lb.-ft. of torque starting at just 1850 rpm and continuing across a healthy portion of its rev range, giving the Chevy enough oomph to feel responsive no matter the situation. While it’s true that this isn’t the most refined of power plants, that extra dollop of torque right where drivers can most appreciate it made amends for the motor’s lack of refinement.
The 6-speed automatic transmission turned in a laudable performance, too, resisting an urge to hunt between gears and helping to make the Trax genuinely enjoyable to drive.
Third Place: Jeep Renegade
Though it might have an aggressive name in “Tigershark,” the Renegade’s 180-horsepower, 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine and 9-speed automatic transmission might just be the least appealing aspects of this Jeep.
Cited as rough and unrefined by our test team, and paired with a transmission that apparently has too many choices when it comes to selecting a gear ratio, this drivetrain combination delivered decent punch off the line but quickly ran out of steam once the Renegade was rolling.
Fuel economy also proved unimpressive, the Jeep traveling 6.6 fewer miles on every gallon of gas than did the Honda.
|Aaron Gold:||“Good around town once the turbo spools up, but it’s noisy and struggles to accelerate on hills.”|
|Michael Harley:||“Buzzy but eager to please. Turbocharging gives it torque where commuters need it — down low.”|
|Christian Wardlaw:||“Not as refined as the Honda, not as responsive off the line as the Jeep, but this is probably the best engine of the bunch.”|
|Aaron Gold:||“Noisy, but not as slow as I expected it to be.”|
|Michael Harley:||“The engine — in terms of engineering — is excellent. But it lacks the low-end torque that its competitors offer. In all honesty, it needs forced induction from a turbo or supercharger.”|
|Christian Wardlaw:||“Gotta keep this engine revved to 4K+ in order to extract power. Engine revs willingly and is refined, but a turbocharger would do wonders.”|
|Aaron Gold:||“Engine is powerful but noisy, vibrates significantly at idle.”|
|Michael Harley:||“The 9-speed transmission still needs a bit more software tuning. Occasional clunks and jerks at low speeds, and hunting at high speeds, mar its performance.”|
|Christian Wardlaw:||“Thirsty, but frisky, especially right off the line. On the highway, if you let your forward momentum wane, it’s a long wait to get back up to speed.”|
On the Road
First Place: Honda HR-V
Comfort issues with the driver’s seat aside, given a choice between these three mini-SUVs to drive, we prefer the Honda’s dynamics.
Around town, the HR-V feels light and agile — even tossable. At higher speeds, the suspension fails to attenuate bumps to a satisfying degree, but the HR-V securely cruises down a freeway at prevailing speeds.
Except for notations about steering that feels a little too light and vague, the HR-V was the most well-rounded member of our group in terms of driving dynamics. It even did better on a dirt trail than the bow-tied member of our trio.
Second Place (tie): Chevrolet Trax
Here again, a lack of refinement kept the Trax from securing a second-place finish on its own, rather than sharing the position with the Renegade.
All drivers complained about the level of engine, road, and wind noise within the Trax’s cabin, and Chevrolet’s decision to equip the Trax with rear drum rather than rear disc brakes produced negative commentary from our test drivers.
Otherwise, the Trax proved a pleasant surprise. While it feels tall and tippy from the driver’s seat, handling is secure, and the ride quality is commendable. Everyone commented upon the steering’s terrific weight, feel, and responsiveness.
Just don’t take a Trax on a trail, even one that’s well traveled. That low-hanging front air dam, the one that scrapes on just about every driveway apron the Trax encounters, instantly turns into a dirt plow.
Second Place (tie): Jeep Renegade
Depending on the situation, the Jeep Renegade is either fun or torture to drive.
Our test team disagreed the most over the Jeep, with some feeling the steering was too aggressive just off center while others characterized response as crisp. One driver said the brake pedal was spongy, another called it abrupt, and yet another claimed the Jeep provided good pedal feel.
The Jeep’s 18-inch wheel-and-tire combination and suspension tuning produced the most division, though. Undeniably stiff, and demonstrating impressive roll control, the Renegade’s underpinnings had some of us proclaiming that it provided the best ride and handling mix, while one person feigned readiness to visit a chiropractor.
One thing’s for sure. The Jeep Renegade simply shrugs, revs its engine, and kicks up a cloud of dust on a mountain trail.
|Aaron Gold:||“Steering is light, direct, lovely for everyday driving.”|
|Michael Harley:||“Wow, this is what sidewalls feel like! Nice and smooth, with most of the credit going to the 16-inch wheels and tire package with balloon sidewalls.”|
|Christian Wardlaw:||“Overall, the Trax is remarkably composed while delivering a decent ride. Not stiff like the Jeep, or bouncy and busy like the Honda. Lots of wind noise, though.”|
|Aaron Gold:||“Handling feels light and agile, like a Honda should.”|
|Michael Harley:||“Handling is better than expected — safe and predictable and the vehicle’s center of gravity felt low, adding confidence. I liked the HR-V’s suspension tuning the best, and other than being on the firm side of things, which I prefer, I wouldn’t change a thing.”|
|Christian Wardlaw:||“Suspension is busy on undulating roads, doesn’t feel particularly well connected to the pavement. Delayed reaction to imperfections allows the HR-V to wiggle this way and bobble that way. But in the city, this little guy sure proves lithe, nimble, and tossable.”|
|Aaron Gold:||“The ride quality is hard, and gets monotonous after a few miles.”|
|Michael Harley:||“Steering is decently weighted, but aggressive off-center.”|
|Christian Wardlaw:||“On center, the steering is a little vague and disconnected. Just off-center, it resists input. Charge around a sweeping corner, and the steering wavers. These traits make the Renegade feel darty and unstable from time to time.”|
The Final Verdict
First Place: Honda HR-V
Second Place: Jeep Renegade
Third Place: Chevrolet Trax
Think with your head, and you’ll find that the 2016 Honda HR-V is the better mini-SUV when compared to the Chevrolet Trax and the Jeep Renegade. Objectively, the Honda is the least expensive yet the best equipped, the roomiest and most versatile, and the most fuel-efficient member of our trio. Plus, if Honda’s reputation for quality and dependability proves applicable to the HR-V, it will last for a good, long time.
Think with your heart, and the 2015 Jeep Renegade is undeniably a keeper. While the Renegade does suffer flaws, and while you’d be right to worry about how it might fare in terms of dependability over the long run, this jauntily designed cute-ute has the power to form a close emotional bond with its owner. Don’t forget, either, that depending on how you specify it, the Jeep kicks ass off-road.
Where does this leave the Chevy Trax? Far from meritless, the Trax nevertheless lacks style, substance, and space. With refinement and more innovative approaches in terms of cargo-carrying capability and safety-related technologies, this Chevy would have a better shot at success.
|Aaron Gold:||“I thought this car would get its butt kicked, and it didn’t. Small, tidy, good to drive, the Trax is a surprisingly decent middle-of-the-road choice between the eccentricities of the Jeep and austerity of the Honda.”|
|Michael Harley:||“This thing screams rental car louder than the paper rental agreement itself.”|
|Christian Wardlaw:||“In LTZ trim, in a neutral color, the Trax is palatable. In LT trim, in Blaze Red paint, it just looks like it ought to have a bar code sticker in the window and a tourist behind the steering wheel.”|
|Aaron Gold:||“Roomy, practical, inexpensive, and will probably run forever. No question, this is the smartest choice, but it’s not the one that stole my heart.”|
|Michael Harley:||“Of the three, the HR-V has the most advanced design, with clean lines and upscale styling treatments, and the most innovative engineering.”|
|Christian Wardlaw:||“Like other Hondas, the HR-V is probably going to be bulletproof. Add brilliant packaging, impressive interior materials and design, outstanding fuel economy, and an affordable price tag, and the Honda checks most of the right boxes.”|
|Aaron Gold:||“Brimming with personality, eccentric, fun, and practical. The Jeep is my favorite.”|
|Michael Harley:||“The Jeep screams cute and excitement in a unique and practical package. It didn’t score as well as the Honda, but the Renegade is my personal favorite of this trio.”|
|Christian Wardlaw:||“Looking at, getting into, and driving a Jeep Renegade simply makes you smile. It is far from flawless, but its oversized personality makes up for its foibles. Consider the extended warranty, though. A Jeep, made in a Fiat factory, in Italy? Holy shnikes!”|
About this Test
Participating editors drove all three vehicles consecutively on an identical 55-mile test loop, back-to-back, individually rating each vehicle subjectively in terms of design, quality, comfort, technology, utility, driving dynamics, safety, and value. Ratings for each parameter carry equal weight for scoring purposes. The results reflect the aggregated ratings and opinions of the participants.
[Photography ©2015 Christian Wardlaw/AutoWeb, Inc.]