When you think of California you probably picture sun-soaked beaches leading out to the Hollywood Hills, but just two hours outside Los Angeles you’ll find a landscape so harsh, so unforgiving and so alien that it’s become a test area for NASA’s most experimental vehicles.
Where the Mojave and Colorado deserts collide, you’ll find the Joshua Tree National Park – over 1240 square miles (3212 square kilometres) of sand and rock.
Thousands of U2 fans make the pilgrimage here every year to find the tree made famous by the band’s 1987 album, appropriately namedThe Joshua Tree. And from the very moment you enter the park, you know you have come to a very special place. It might be only a couple of hundred miles outside the gridlocked jungle of LA, but it feels like a million light-years away. There’s simply nothing like it anywhere in the world.
Getting here is easy. But in a place where daytime temperatures can reach 50 degrees centigrade and night brings absolute blackness and sub-zero readings, getting out again has the potential to be more difficult.
With that in mind, we’ve chosen the new Jeep Renegade for our Joshua Tree voyage. Jeep’s newest and smallest SUV, the Renegade shares its platform with the Fiat 500X. It might be ‘city sized’ in its dimensions, but the Renegade is one of the few vehicles in the segment that is as comfortable in a place like this as it is cruising down Santa Monica Boulevard.
Our US Renegade is a Latitude model, the lineup for New Zealand hasn't been confirmed (it'll arrive in early 2016). Powered by a 129kW/230Nm 2.4-litre four-cylinder petrol engine, our tester pairs a nine-speed automatic transmission with four-wheel drive.
It’s a combination that’s exclusive to the range-topping Trailhawk model back in Oz, but stateside you get it with the mid-spec variant.
Trim wise, our Renegade is equipped with plenty of standard features including Bi-xenon headlights and a five-inch touchscreen display with Bluetooth and integrated voice command.
Creature comforts include heated seats and a heated steering wheel, auto lights and rain-sensing wipers, rear parking sensors, reversing camera and ambient LED lighting to name just part of the inventory.
Like some of the other unique propositions in the sub-compact SUV segment – such as the Kia Soul, Mini Countryman and Nissan Juke – the Renegade looks a little odd. Mind, we don’t mean that in a bad way. But it does look more like a grown-up version of a Tonka toy than a fully-fledged member of the hardcore Jeep family.
Truth is, the quirky styling definitely grows on you – helped by our test car’s funky Sierra Blue paint job. Clearly cuter than it is tough, the upright stance, trademark seven-slat Jeep grille, chunky taillight protectors and trapezoidal wheel arches all point towards the Renegade’s off-road intent.
If you look hard enough, you’ll find Jeep heritage cues all over this diminutive off-roader. For instance, the taillights are stamped with an ‘X’ as homage to the pressed steel Jerry cans carried on Jeeps in service during World War II.
Inside, there are plenty more nods, such as the map of Utah’s Moab region in the centre console storage bin, the hallmark Jeep grilles on the speaker covers and the robust Wrangler-style grab handle for the front seat passenger.
The unusually low beltline, tall roof and upright windscreen mean there’s excellent all-round visibility, and the seats are well bolstered and comfortable, even after hours behind the wheel. Rear-seat legroom isn’t great, however, so shorter trips are recommended for taller passengers.
For those who want that proper ‘open-air’ feeling offered by the larger Wrangler, the Renegade gets what Jeep calls the ‘My Sky’ open-air removable roof system. Only you’ll need to be keen, as the unit requires a key to unlock the roof panels, before popping them off for storage in the relatively spacious cargo area.
That said, it’s a lot easier than the process required to do the same in the Wrangler.
On the road, the Jeep Renegade never really feels like the genuinely off-road-capable SUV that it actually is. Built on Fiat Chrysler Automobile’s Small-Wide 4×4 platform, it drives more like a punchy hatch than a vehicle bound for desert duelling.
It’s well balanced and there’s plenty of grip, so no need to hold back through the Canyons above Palm Springs, though at a hefty 1550kg (a much lighter 1295kg with the smaller 1.4-litre turbo engine), there is an expected amount of body roll. That’s a pity, because the steering is nicely weighted and quick to respond, so it’s more fun to punt along than it might otherwise look.
There’s no shortage of go from the 2.4-litre unit. Off the mark you’ve got the advantage of power to all four wheels, before the Renegade’s SelecTerrain system reduces torque to the rear axle above 65km/h for better fuel efficiency.
Around town, the nine-speed auto continuously hunts for a lower gear, but at least with a wide set of ratios on offer, there’s always plenty of punch when you need it, and it’s noisy and unrefined like some less powerful rivals.
Even off the beaten track, Joshua Tree National Park isn’t overly challenging (at least for the first twenty miles), so there’s no need to shift out of the default ‘Auto’ mode – a real confidence booster even in the soft sand.
We’ve travelled a lot in the US, but rarely have we encountered anything quite so unique as this place. It’s both harsh and beautiful at the same time, and the colour palate out here is spectacular. There is simply no tree like a Joshua tree – for which the park is named – and they are literally everywhere, along with some of the most extraordinary rock formations on the planet.
Despite its ‘desert’ classification, there’s actually a thriving ecosystem that supports over 700 plant species, including cacti and succulents, wildflowers, desert palms and seemingly indestructible shrubs capable of surviving the harsh climate.
Wildlife is equally abundant and includes 25 species of snakes (which the National Park Service guy conveniently forgot to mention to us while we were there), as well as the tarantulas and scorpions that also call this place home.
When you’ve seen enough of the park, the luxurious Palm Springs is less than 50 miles away. Known as home away from home for LA’s rich and famous, there’s no shortage of luxury accommodation and wonderful restaurants.
And if you think Hollywood is the best place in America for star spotting, think again. Just pop the roof off the Renegade and look up for a cosmic treat.
By Anthony Crawford, CarAdvice.com.au •