The Jeep Grand Cherokee is pretty much tops among mid-size SUVs when the road beneath isn’t actually a road. That said, there’s a difference between being capable of performing a task and being purpose-built to master it. And while every Wrangler is born to play in the dirt, none of the 10—yes, 10—different Grand Cherokee models offered for 2016 were configured specifically for the activity upon which Jeep built its brand. Such a model seems like a no-brainer, if for no other reason than to give Renegade Trailhawk and Cherokee Trailhawk drivers something to move up to. But more important, it would nod to Jeep’s avid off-road enthusiasts, some of whom may be aging, adding offspring, or for whatever reason might find the Wrangler Unlimited a bit too spartan. Jeep certainly has had the know-how (and most of the existing parts) to build such a thing all along, and it came to pass with the unveiling of the 2017 Grand Cherokee Trailhawk last spring. Now, we’ve tackled trails in one, drove it to our West Coast base, and conducted our instrumented testing.
This isn’t the first time Jeep has offered the Grand Cherokee in Trailhawk form; such a version first appeared as a 2013 model, boasting the Grand Cherokee’s most sophisticated off-road components, a generous but not lavish level of creature comforts, and stylistic flourishes equivalent to jeans and a flannel shirt. At around $42,000, the 2013 price was reasonable enough that folks who spend their weekends in a tent by a campfire still might afford it. But the Trailhawk quietly disappeared when the facelifted 2014 model arrived.
The Dirty Parts
As before, the Trailhawk starts with the best off-road gear in the Jeep pantheon: the Quadra-Drive II four-wheel-drive system with its two-speed transfer case, Selec-Terrain dial, along with an electronically controlled limited-slip rear differential, hill-descent and -ascent control, a full gamut of skid plates, and Jeep’s nifty off-road app. The standard air springs can rise to provide up to 10.8 inches of ground clearance (0.4 inch more than any other air-spring-equipped Grand Cherokee) or lower the vehicle to ease ingress and egress. The rolling stock is no joke: Kevlar-reinforced 265/60R-18 Goodyear Wrangler All-Terrain Adventure all-terrain tires wrapped around aluminum wheels with matte-black inserts.
Our test example was powered by FCA’s ubiquitous 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6, making 295 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque, with an eight-speed automatic doing the shifting. The 360-hp 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 and the 3.0-liter diesel V-6 with 240 horsepower and 420 lb-ft of torque are available as well.
Statement Styling, Cavelike Cabin
The Trailhawk’s mission is evident at first glance. Chrome has been banished from the headlamp bezels, grille, mirrors, roof rails, bumpers, and badges in favor of argent gray or black, while two red tow hooks and matte-black hood decals visually tie it to other Trailhawks in Jeep’s portfolio. Some of us could do without the hood stickers, but the Trailhawk is still handsome, even in our example’s bright Redline Pearl paint—a tough color for a big SUV to pull off. And there’s something about a lack of chrome that makes a truck look good when it’s dirty.
Things are even more intense inside, where pretty much everything other than some chrome trim pieces and red stitching is rendered in solid black (the only color available). The Trailhawk borrows several items from higher up the Grand Cherokee food chain, such as a 506-watt premium sound system and FCA’s 8.4-inch Uconnect touchscreen infotainment unit, although by far the best upgrades are the deeply bolstered front sport seats from the Grand Cherokee SRT, upholstered here in leather and microsuede. Our example also boasted a $450 UConnect navigation upgrade and the $2695 Trailhawk Luxury package that adds HID automatic headlamps, LED fog and running lights, a power-adjustable steering column, and a panoramic sunroof.
Trailhawk On- and Off-Trail
On a winding, closed, dirt course that Jeep charted through the Santa Monica Mountains, we were able to see how the whole package comes together. Not surprisingly, the Trailhawk handled everything we tossed its way, from traversing body-bending staggered ruts to climbing steep, silt-covered hillsides to navigating down even steeper slopes on the back side. With its combination of hill-ascent and -descent control—the off-road equivalent of cruise control—the Trailhawk kept a steady pace over all but the craggiest of rocky paths while those awesome seats anchored us firmly in place. The most remarkable aspect of driving on that diverse terrain was how little we had to think about it. And while it may never feel natural to keep one’s foot off the brake pedal during steep descents (especially when hanging from the seatbelts and seeing nothing but earth through the windshield), our inability to match the steadiness of the hill-descent control on our own while descending a particularly steep hill vividly illustrated the technology’s benefits.
Off-road-oriented vehicles usually perform more poorly than their on-road counterparts in instrumented tests, and the Trailhawk is no exception. Powered by the same engine and weighing within 100 pounds of a 2016 Grand Cherokee Summit V-6 4x4 we previously tested, this Trailhawk was a half-second slower to 60 mph at 7.6 seconds, and trailed by the same amount in the quarter-mile (15.9 seconds and 88 mph). Manual shifts yielded our best times, as the eight-speed automatic tended to upshift well short of the V-6’s redline. We also learned to activate the Sport mode upon startup, which adjusts shift points and throttle settings to keep the 5077-pound beast on a fleeter footing, even if it dragged our observed fuel economy down to an abysmal 15 mpg.
That same button also firms up the air springs, which helps rein in body lean and brake dive, but the objective test numbers were lackluster. The Trailhawk’s 198-foot 70-mph-to-zero braking distance is 17 feet longer than the Summit’s, and its 0.71-g skidpad figure trails the Summit’s 0.76 g (which itself is nothing to boast about). Blame the tires—the Kevlar-reinforced rubber doesn’t exactly claw a paved road, resulting not only compromised performance but vague steering, too. On the flipside, ride quality is firm yet remarkably civilized for anything so capable, and the tire noise at highway speeds is scarcely any louder than that of more street-friendly rubber.
The 2017 Trailhawk starts at $43,990—the third cheapest of the six 2017 Grand Cherokee models—which is $1700 less than the cushy Overland but $5100 more than the Limited. The price swelled to $50,125 once the aforementioned extras were added plus another $900 for Mopar roof rails, $595 for blind-spot warning and rear cross-path detection, and $1495 for the Jeep Active Safety equipment package (adaptive cruise control, forward-collision warning, lane-departure warning, and parallel/perpendicular parking assist). Although it seems like a hefty sum, at least you get even more capability to go with the additional tech and creature comforts, and maybe the Trailhawk will stick around for more than one year this time.
VEHICLE TYPE: front-engine, 4-wheel-drive, 5-passenger, 4-door hatchback
PRICE AS TESTED: $50,125 (base price: $43,990)
ENGINE TYPE: DOHC 24-valve V-6, aluminum block and heads, port fuel injection
Displacement: 220 cu in, 3604 cc
Power: 295 hp @ 6400 rpm
Torque: 260 lb-ft @ 4800 rpm
TRANSMISSION: 8-speed automatic with manual shifting mode
Wheelbase: 114.8 in
Length: 189.8 in
Width: 76.5 in Height: 69.3 in
Passenger volume: 106 cu ft
Cargo volume: 36 cu ft
Curb weight: 5077 lb
C/D TEST RESULTS:
Zero to 60 mph: 7.6 sec
Zero to 100 mph: 22.9 sec
Zero to 110 mph: 25.9 sec
Rolling start, 5–60 mph: 8.0 sec
Top gear, 30–50 mph: 3.9 sec
Top gear, 50–70 mph: 5.5 sec
Standing ¼-mile: 15.9 sec @ 88 mph
Top speed (governor limited): 117 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 198 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad*: 0.71 g
EPA city/highway driving: 18/25 mpg
C/D observed: 15 mpg