You could be forgiven for asking why Jeep engineers would take an already impressive off-roader and make it well, more off-roady. Is that even a word? Anyway, you know what I mean.
The Jeep Grand Cherokee – with tricky diffs and off-road modes – was already a more than competent dirt track warrior, but now the 2017 Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk is even more capable and it’s all thanks to the addition of ‘Trailhawk’ to the title.
That’s the answer Collin Shaw – Global Jeep Marketing and Brand Management – offered when we posed the question as to why the Grand Cherokee needed to be toughened up even more.
“Because we’re Jeep,” he said.
As such, with the Grand Cherokee attaining Trailhawk specification, only the Wrangler sits above as Jeep’s most capable off-roader.
“The Grand Cherokee is very important to us,” said Mark Allen, head of Jeep design. “In fact, it’s equally as important as the Wrangler. Its versatility is impressive and you’ll see that on-road it’s as comfortable as it is capable off-road.”
That point is perhaps the most relevant in 2017. Land Rover reset the all-round bar with the Discovery – a vehicle that was luxurious and comfortable on-road around town, but mightily capable off-road. As such, expectations have been raised and any high-end SUV must be able to get to the off-road trail with composure and comfort, something that was rarely an option inside the cabin of a proper 4WD.
Outside, there’s not a lot that’s changed, but what has changed has been effected to toughen up the Grand Cherokee’s exterior. Most of the brightwork is gone, replaced instead with darker tones, there are new alloy wheels, and specially designed Goodyear Adventure off-road tyres with Kevlar reinforcement. You’ll also notice Jeep’s signature heavy-duty red tow hooks front and rear. Mopar rock rails toughen up the sills and there are four skid plates fitted to protect vital components underneath the vehicle.
Under the skin, there is Jeep’s Quadra-Drive II 4WD system with an electronic LSD at the rear, a bespoke version of the Grand Cherokee’s Quadra-Lift air suspension and Selec-Speed Control with hill-ascent and hill-descent. Approach angles are an impressive 29.8 degrees (up to 36.1 degrees with the front fascia removed for hardcore off-roading), while the departure angle is 22.8 degrees. Ramp over is 27.1 degrees and with the suspension maxed out at its highest setting, there’s a serious 274mm of clearance.
Inside the cabin, the most noticeable change is the addition of sporty SRT seats as part of a unique black interior with leather and suede trim. There’s red accent stitching, brushed piano black highlights, gunmetal finish for all painted interior parts and Trailhawk badging. The standard Uconnect infotainment system features an 8.4-inch touch screen with updated off-road pages that relay information like wheel articulation, suspension height and Selec-Terrain modes.
In the United States, the Trailhawk will come standard with the 3.6-litre Pentastar V6 engine with both diesel and Hemi V8 engines as options. In Australia, the 3.0-litre turbodiesel V6 engine is guaranteed, while FCA isn’t yet sure whether either of the petrol engines will be available in Trailhawk guise. On test in Nevada, we drove the 3.6-litre petrol engine, but it's worth reviewing the specifications of the diesel engine.
With 179kW at 3600rpm and 569Nm at 2000rpm, the oiler makes sense for anyone wanting to head off-road often, and it works beautifully with the low range transmission as we’ve experienced before. While the base petrol engine is up to the task off-road, you’d be silly to opt for anything other than the diesel for travel into remote areas in Australia.
We tackle 95km on-road first up at launch as we head for the Valley Of Fire National Park outside Las Vegas. The V6 petrol engine is quiet and refined at highway speed, has more than enough poke for roll on overtaking and gets about the job at hand in pretty unruffled fashion. The impressively smooth highway network in and around Las Vegas doesn’t challenge the road suspension tune, but the Jeep’s air suspension is nonetheless impressive. We’ll be better able to report on the Cherokee’s urban ride though, once we introduce it to some of Sydney’s finest roads.
The ZF eight-speed auto is as refined as always, once again impressing regardless of the engine it’s working with. Shifting up through the gears under acceleration, no matter how hard you’re working the engine is always smooth. Eight ratios really does present itself as the sweet spot in terms of conventional automatic gearboxes, and the Grand Cherokee never feels like it’s hunting or shifting gears for the sake of it.
All good on-road then, but this is the most capable Grand Cherokee ever according to Jeep, so the desert is where we’ll find out if that’s true.
Our first off-road task is a gnarly rock crawling exercise that requires the assistance of guides (because the inclines and drops offs are so steep and uneven) and every bit of suspension travel and ground clearance the Trailhawk can muster. You can see just how nasty some of the driving was in the video.
We select rock mode via the Selec-Terrain system before we head into the valley, and while the various drive modes undoubtedly work, experienced off-roaders might not want to use them often. Likewise hill decent and ascent, which I prefer not to use and rather work the gears and brakes to get the result I want. The system works, though, and is adjustable through 1km increments as well. Jeep claims it is the only manufacturer to offer that option in forward and reverse.
Two things become immediately clear the minute you start working your way along the rocky trail. The alacrity of the 4WD system in low range makes this kind of terrain as close to effortless as you could hope for, and the throttle pedal modulation makes progress smooth too. The previously quoted approach and departure angles come into play, as does ramp over. Likewise the LSD, which directs drive to the tyre with most grip at all times. We cover ground most average punters would avoid at all costs and Grand Cherokee does it all easily.
The next part of our off-road drive is a discipline so torturous on vehicle and driveline, that I almost feel guilty putting any 4WD through it – powdery sand. This Nevada powder is as thick and difficult as any sand I’ve ever driven though and yet, the Grand Cherokee once again makes short work of it. There’s no doubt the petrol V6 has to work hard, as does the transmission, but the Grand Cherokee ploughs through so long as you keep the throttle pinned.
Momentum is key in heavy sand, so you need to keep moving at a speed that can sometimes feel uncomfortable and yet, the Trailhawk’s suspension provides enough rebound and compression to ride through without bottoming out. Given the Grand Cherokee is so composed on-road, the way it performs in difficult off-road conditions is impressive to say the least.
The 2017 Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk will take an important place in the Grand Cherokee lineup when it launches in Australia, and it will need to help the brand gain back some of the ground it has lost thanks to issues with the current model. It’s a competent vehicle though, especially off-road, which is exactly what it is designed to be.