At first glance it might appear the new Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk looks like any other slightly 'softer' variant in themodel range. On closer inspection and with the lengthy spec list at hand though, there’s no mistaking its genuine off-road intentions.
In fact, it’s the only ‘Trail Rated’ model in the new Cherokee line-up, a point Jeep makes conspicuous by affixing plastic badges to both the front guards and rear end of the vehicle.
Other more tell-tale 4x4 signs are the unique front and rear fascias that offer improved approach and departure angles of 30 and 32 degrees respectively, as well as the pointless (but tough looking) matte black bonnet decal.
It’s underneath the Trailhawk though where the most important 4x4 parts are hidden.
Jeep developed a special drive system called Active Drive Lock, which is standard on the Trailhawk and combines low range and a locking rear differential. It’s the most robust of the Cherokee’s three 4WD systems – the others being a single-speed unit called Active Drive I, and a two-speed, low-range set-up called Active Drive II, which will only be available on the upcoming Limited diesel.
Priced from $47,500 (before on-road costs) it’s also the current Cherokee range topper, at least until the $49,000 2.0-litre Limited diesel version arrives later in the year. That’s also a $3500 premium over the 3.2-litre V6 Limited petrol model.
Rival all-wheel-drive models include the $46,570 Mazda CX-5 Akera and $47,290 Toyota RAV4 Cruiser (both with 2.5-litre four-cylinder power), and the $45,790 Honda CR-V VTi-L ADAS with a 2.4-litre four-cylinder powertrain.
Not only is the Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk the only vehicle in its class to feature a V6 engine, it also gets the only nine-speed automatic transmission among its competitive set. The Mazda and Toyota are equipped with a six-speed auto, while the Honda makes do with a five-speed 'box.
Step inside and you’ll find the Trailhawk exceptionally well equipped, like the high-spec Cherokee Limited model on which it is based.
Key features include a premium 506-watt nine-speaker Alpine audio system, 8.4-inch touchscreen with satellite navigation, dual-zone climate control, power tailgate, auto dimming rear-view mirror, remote start and heated leather front seats are only a sample of the interior inventory.
Apart from the red stitching, embroidery, and all-season floor mats, there isn’t a lot to distinguish the Trailhawk from the Limited cockpit, but underneath it’s a very different story.
Just like its more serious Jeep Wrangler sibling, this more focused Cherokee also incorporates under-body amour including protective skid plates (for the engine, transmission and fuel tank) in addition to its Trailhawk-only off-road suspension set-up.
It also gets a heavy-duty cooling system, as well as a transmission oil cooler as extra protection for the engine, which is often put under far heavier loads during off-road driving.
Jeep chose the breathtakingly beautiful and often challenging Flinders Ranges in South Australia to demonstrate Trailhawk’s 4x4 capability.
Good thing, then, it wears smaller 17-inch wheels shod with higher profile tyres than the 18s on the Cherokee Limited, as the stiffer suspension setup produces a noticeably firmer ride from the get-go (at least on our short run on the bitumen). But it also feels rock solid on our first run through a twisty, rocky gorge.
The Jeep tech guys suggested we twist the Selec-Terrain dial around to the Sand/Mud setting before scaling a very, very steep hill, which looked to be littered with loose rocks. However, our progress had already been unstoppable all morning in the default Auto mode, so we thought, why not see how it climbs without the benefit of the locking rear diff?
The system automatically locks the diff in the Rock mode, though; it can be locked manually in any mode. It’s brilliant for steep rock climbing, when rear wheels can easily lose traction, but the Flinders’ isn’t that sort of country – more dirt than rock in these parts.
Despite the steep climb and loose surface, the Trailhawk passed this test-of-sorts all too easily and without so much as a single tyre slippage.
Another useful piece of Jeep technology we were happy to put to the test was Jeep’s Selec-Speed Control. It’s essentially a hill-descent and hill-ascent assist bundled under one system and used to maintain the vehicle’s pre-determined speed (between one and nine kilometres per hour) by controlling brake pressure and engine torque.
At first, the system demands a leap of faith (like a crazy theme park ride), but once it gains your confidence, you’ll be truly astounded at how the Trailhawk can creep down the steepest of slopes without any slip or complaint from the tires and without any real input from the driver, except of course, to steer the vehicle.
Also handy is the Jeep Cherokee’s larger and more responsive 3.2-litre V6 generating a useful 200kW and 316Nm, making those steeper climbs and sandy sections easier to tackle than the four-cylinder units found in rival models. It’s noticeably less busy and less strained, too.
We also tried out the front passenger seat, and it’s here where the Trailhawk also shines with the degree of comfort it offers over such harsh terrain.
Off-road, the beefier suspension set-up still offers plenty of pliancy, ironing out large bumps and providing a thoroughly comfortable ride.
It’s also surprisingly agile and easy to drive across dirt roads at higher speeds (again in the Auto drive mode), with the Jeep’s electric power steering providing quick response and solid feedback to the driver. It all feels nicely locked down and confidence inspiring on what was a slippery surface.
After a day off-roading, it’s easy to understand just how capable the Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk really is. This is a highly stylised SUV that combines proper 4x4 capability with comfort, quiet and loads of technology.
Unsurprisingly then, we think it’s destined to win over new buyers and put a glow on the faces of the Jeep faithful. If the Limited model is the sweet spot in the range for buyers who don't intend to head off road, the Trailhawk is definitely the model to have when the going gets tough.