Our Aussie introduction to the 2018 Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk wasn't a long one, but it was amply explosive. Does the seat-of-the-pants on-track experience live up to the hype?
So, the 2018 Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk has lobbed into Australia, and what a brief if surprisingly telling insight the local launch event was: a morning messing about at Victoria’s high-speed Phillip Island Circuit, no on-road appraisal on the program. But this was less some sandbagging stage in a slow striptease of discovering the complete Trackhawk picture – we got a more panoramic view of its broader road and track attributes in the US last year – more a brief hot and heavy dalliance designed to shock the user by the mega SUV’s ultimate performance capabilities.
Go-to-whoa thrills, some European Elk Test swerve and recovery hilarity, a handful of white-knuckled hot laps on Australia’s fastest permanent race circuit, all fiery with little opportunity to appraise finesse. We’ll have to wait for a full garage review to unearth how the Trackhawk tippy-toes through the urban jungle gathering groceries and negotiating the school run once it lobs into the CarAdvice garage soon.
There’s no treading lightly on this crisp autumn morning. My first introduction to the Trackhawk and its 522kW/868Nm supercharged 6.2-litre Hemi V8 firepower involved climbing into a black example sat burbling at idle on Phillip Island’s main straight, strapping on the seatbelt, pinning the brake pedal hard (left foot) until a brake pressure meter reads ‘1200kg’ on the driver’s screen, trouncing on the throttle (right foot of course), side-stepping the anchors then, well, hanging on for one wild ride.
Four things instantly grab your attention and slap it around the face. The sheer roar, a mix of supercharger whine and gargling eight-cylinder roar consumes the ears. And it’s met with a sudden and breathtaking amount of forward thrust. Meanwhile, the 70 per cent of maximum torque fired to the rear axle scrabbles the near foot-wide (295mm) Pirelli P Zeros: viewed from outside, it paints the track surface with black rubber in two neat ellipses, but in the cabin you sense the tail squirm and buck about through the seat of your pants. This instantly alerts you to start sawing at the wheel to keep the Jeep’s grille pointed over the blind crest on the main straight towards the looming ocean on the horizon, and presumably a set of safety cones out of sight about 200m further down the track.
At the 200m mark we’re already north of 140km/h when I drive back onto the left pedal, the largest brakes ever to be fitted to a Jeep – 400mm six-piston fronts, 350mm four-pot rears – pitching a formidable 2.4 tonnes on its nose, tail squirming around a little with the full ABS stop – in 78m, for the record – as if to make doubly sure the experience is maintaining your attention.
And all of that attention, believe me, is on the road/track ahead, rather than the Performance Pages data-logging not just recording trap speed and stopping distance, but even my embarrassingly poor reaction time to the Trackhawk’s novel ‘Christmas tree’ timing function and, of course, my 0–100km/h ET, which comes up as 3.6 seconds, one-tenth quicker than Jeep’s claimed best.
Now, I’m not claiming that this Jeep’s in-car smarts are telling porky pies, but I reckon with full traction at a proper drag strip and a bit of a fiddle with the neat RPM-adjustable launch-control system, there’s some more time/thrust/thrills still in hand to be had. Even the Christmas tree function, which digitally simulates the 500 Sportsman Tree used in drag racing in-dash and allows you to test your reaction time, is geekily cool… Though given the only place you’d logically and legally use it is on an actual drag strip (with actual timing lights), perhaps limits its functional practicality somewhat, yes?
Frankly, practicality be damned. The Trackhawk isn’t some practicality machine with thrill added. It’s defiantly and ostentatiously the other way around. There’s something almost homicidally focused about the package that’s out to provide the driver, occupants and even bystanders maximum jollies, be it in sheer sonic volume – it will be the loudest ADR-certified vehicle in your neighborhood, guaranteed – or the amusement factor in having something this heavy and high-riding being so stomach-sickingly quick to bolt off the mark.
Rarely covered off in the media’s Trackhawk narrative are the tweaks and changes below what’s really a conventional SRT-spec’ appearance bar some strategically placed badges (there’s a prominent pair along the front doors yelling 'supercharged'). Jeep just didn’t merely drop a huge donk in any old Grand Cherokee.
The eight-speed Torqueflite automatic is a bespoke unit, not just in strength (it's 950Nm rated), but also in heightened response and shift times, as is the full-time active transfer case (forged sprockets, wider chain). The electronically controlled mechanical rear LSD is beefier, the 42 per cent stronger half shafts are made from a steel alloy of a grade used on aircraft landing gear, and the adaptively damped Bilstein suspension has firmer spring rates (nine and 15 per cent up front and rear). Available, if optionally, are forged 20x10in rims with the aforementioned Trackhawk-specified P Zero rubber in lieu of the standard same-size alloys with all-season Scorpion Verde tyres.
The Selec-Track system also varies the on-demand all-wheel drive’s fore-aft torque split depending on chosen mode. In Tow, it’s 60:40 front-rear, with a decent 2950kg braked towing capacity in complement. Snow presents an even 50:50 balance, while Auto (40:60), Sport (35:65) and Track (30:70) progressively skew more rearward bias, and it’s the latter we used exclusively for our morning at Phillip Island, including some entertaining Elk Avoidance manoeuvre frivolity.
I’m unsure about elk dodging – in Oz, the roos I’ve come across on the road tend to leap at you, kamikaze style – but presumably they stand still while you swerve and recover in rapid-fire manner at an EU-mandated 80km/h, thus assessing a vehicle’s agility and stability chops. On our test track, the forum is arranged in a configuration of safety cones, which even our pro drivers scatter by way of demonstration. Do as they say, not as they do, then…
Executing a clean run demands violent steering input without using throttle or brakes to aide trajectory, and make it through we do. At least, that is, on the first pass. The Trackhawk is surprisingly obedient to shift its 2.4-tonne mass hard left, somewhat tardier when asked to spear back right, where the SUV’s inertia doubles. Encouraged to up the pace in the second pass, I send half-a-dozen safety cones flying, bar one that wedges itself under the front cross-member. Whoops. Despite what’s clearly a high centre of gravity, agility-wise there are positive signs.
But it’s really the ‘track’ part where the Trackhawk presumably must shine the brightest, yes? And a fast and generally flowing circuit such as Phillip Island should logically offer the hefty people mover with the monstrous donk the most illuminating track environment.
The ferocity with which the third-most powerful new vehicle money can buy piles on speed around perhaps Australia’s fastest race circuit is breathtaking. But it only takes a handful of corners – admittedly tricky corners at that – to realise that there’s much more mumbo under the right foot than the dynamics package can comfortably handle a lot of the time.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Even in its firmest damper settings, through turn one, Doohan, there’s some lean and slight yawing as the big Jeep leans onto the outside tyres, while the tricky second double-apex turn, Southern Loop, demands patience with the throttle as the chassis squirms and settles, and it’s a gradual squeeze as the Trackhawk wants to run wide on exit. The super-fast and sweeping third, Stoner, demands a constant throttle and measured steering inputs, while deep on anchors into turn four, Honda, the SUV pitches forward hard while its tail shimmies about.
Gathering the Trackhawk up is a big part of the game. Wherever you point it, it thrusts forth with more vigour and tends to arrive quicker and with more velocity than you’d quite anticipated, at which point the chassis, brakes and tyres work overtime to adjust the trajectory, to scrub off speed, to hang onto the black stuff for dear life. Thrilling one moment, unnerving the next, it’s quite a ride for all occupants and reasonably entertaining for the driver.
Dynamically, the Trackhawk is a frisky beast as a default character, quite a departure from high-performance SUV convention that has tended towards a more benign, stable and grippy nature. When you’re talking heavy machinery with dynamic aspirations, there’s always some trading off of liveliness for safe and predictable passage. But there’s so much fire in this Jeep’s belly that it’ll take more than a handful of laps – which is all we’ve been budgeted – to get on top of this monster and fully understand its whims and responses.
What’s clear from a couple of low-fliers is that while the big Jeep can be manhandled at decent speed, at a more cracking pace it demands smoother and more measured guidance from behind the wheel. Its centre of gravity feels high, and the more its formidable mass is thrown about, the more inertia takes command over proceedings, and the more animated the driver inputs need to be to elicit dynamic responses.
A fast lapper? Sure it is. It’ll certainly carry itself – and you – with dignity at your local track sprint day. Worth some consideration, though, is that track time might get expensive, not merely in fuel to feed the beast, but with so much energy being consumed in the process, you might want to be on first-name terms with your local tyre and brake pad supplier.
Gripes? The big one is the AEB system. Autonomous emergency braking not only offers no benefit on the track, it’s downright dangerous in braking zones and when in close convoy. And while the Trackhawk’s system has three-level proximity adjustment, unlike old Grand Cherokees it cannot be switched off or defeated. The pedal feel on our test car, too, was a little soft and lacking in tangible confidence, though. That said, its stopping power remained enormous and consistent throughout a proper track thrash.
Another is the seating. Those nice, waxy (optional) Laguna leather-trimmed seats might well cosset the tyranny of distance on the open road, but on the track they lack the kind of high-level lateral support required for a vehicle pitched as a circuit-savvy device.
Does the Trackhawk live up to its namesake? To a large degree yes, if in the context of being a track-hungry device born of a much humbler donor. But that it does what it does on a circuit for merely a family hauler is surely a big part of the attraction. Think of the scenarios. On one hand, you could sneak off to the track day while the kids are at school, then swing by to collect them afterwards. Or you could haul your race car to a circuit, unhook the trailer, and then lap the tow car just as effectively, and probably just as quickly, as your fair-weather trailer queen.
Whatever the case, such circuit-friendly ability in a vehicle that should easily slip, Hyde to Jekyll-like, into a low-compromise SUV experience – it’s still a 16.8L/100km combined consumption prospect – for a not-unreasonable $134,900 list price will certainly compel some well-to-do redheads needing an answer to life's pragmatic practicalities.
Thing is, track prowess isn’t the Trackhawk’s great party trick. It’s the stonking, head-pinning, mid-three-second acceleration and accompanying sonic warfare that pays the biggest dividend and elicits the largest grins. And it’s going to be more easily accessible more often in the ownership experience, too.
Perhaps it should’ve been called the Striphawk instead…