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First drive: 2017 Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk

'Trailhawk' means more than a badge on Jeep's crag-crawling Grand Cherokee

More than just a badge, the Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk is purposeful both on and off the road.

“Uh, are we going the right way?” I wondered aloud as I followed a colleague through a particularly dicey section of our off-road trail in the Malibu Hills. Watching as big ruts forcefully shoved the Grand Cherokee Trailhawk in front of me from side to side, a legitimate sense of concern washed over me. But the episode turned out to be brief, as the SUV quickly recomposed itself after navigating the section and continued on as though nothing had happened.

I theorize that part of that concern comes from the Trailhawk’s fairly restrained aesthetic, especially when looking at the rear of the vehicle. There’s also some history at play here – it’s been a few years since Jeep launched a Trailhawk model of the Grand Cherokee, and last time around the package saw its fair share of criticism for not amounting to much more than visual upgrades and more substantial tires.

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But the story is different this time around. The visuals may be restrained, but the capability is not – Jeep touts this new Trailhawk as being the most off-road focused Grand Cherokee they’ve ever produced. And yet with the crafty use of different technologies, its on-road behavior – a characteristic that is often at odds with off-road prowess – is not all that different from the more pedestrian versions of the Grand Cherokee. And that’s a clever thing indeed.

A new breed of Trailhawk

Now sharing the off-road focused moniker with the Renegade and Cherokee Trailhawk models for 2017, this Grand Cherokee takes a much more comprehensive approach to off-roading than the previous generation GC Trailhawk did.

Jeep touts this new Trailhawk as being the most off-road focused Grand Cherokee they’ve ever produced.

The fundamentals of the package include a specially tuned version of Jeep’s Quadra-Lift air suspension that’s been dialed in for additional suspension travel and articulation, Quadra-Drive II four-wheel-drive system, an electronic rear limited slip differential, Goodyear Adventure all-terrain tires with Kevlar reinforcement, and the Selec Terrain off-road system, which includes hill ascent and descent functionality.

Ground clearance is identical to other Grand Cherokees equipped with the air suspension system at 10.8 inches. Jeep explains that the Trailhawk has a standard approach angle of 29.8 degrees, and a 36.1-degree approach angle is possible with the lower front fascia removed when off-road driving. Breakover angle is 27.1 degrees, while the departure angle is 22.8 degrees.

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Visually, the Trailhawk sets itself apart from other Grand Cherokee models with an anti-glare hood decal, red tow hooks, unique 18-inch and optional 20-inch wheels, grey mirror caps and Trailhawk badging. Much like the exterior, the interior also opts for functionality over bling, though red stitching, Alcantara-trimmed sport seats, and gunmetal accents help set the Trailhawk apart from the rest of the lineup.

Uconnect with an 8.4-inch touchscreen display is standard here, and it includes an updated version of Jeep’s Off-Road pages, which displays information about the SUV’s four wheel drive system, wheel articulation, suspension height, and other relevant information for trail excursions. 

On (and off) the road

With the air suspension lifted and the terrain mode sorted, I made my way to our designated off-road trail on the Calamigos Ranch compound. It’s a narrow, rocky, rut-filled ascent up the hill – while not the domain of rock crawlers, I’d wager it’s more than most drivers would put their own vehicles through in regular use – even potential Trailhawk owners.

The Selec Terrain stability control software is perhaps the most impressive piece of the Trailhawks’s capability puzzle

Although the electronic rear limited slip differential and all-terrain rubber undoubtedly play a part, it’s the Selec Terrain stability control software that’s perhaps the most impressive piece of the capability puzzle here. I’m convinced that this Grand Cherokee Trailhawk could handle this trail on garden-variety street tires because of it. The system’s ability to sort out which wheels need power (or braking) without a lot of fuss is confidence inspiring, and the Trailhawk was never felt out of sorts when faced with deep ruts on steep ascensions or the loose dirt of a quick decline.

Hill ascent and descent functionality allow the vehicle to maintain a pre-determined speed, bringing a hint of autonomous driving to the realm of off-roading. Tap the right or left paddles to increase or decrease the Jeep’s speed and you can let the software take over throttle and braking duties entirely, allowing the driver to just focus on steering the Trailhawk where it needs to go.

My test vehicle was equipped with the standard 3.6-liter, 295 horsepower gas-powered V6. The 5.7-liter Hemi V8 is also available, as is a 3.0-liter EcoDiesel that outputs 240 horsepower and a hearty 420 pound-feet of torque. An eight-speed automatic with paddle shifters is standard regardless of the power plant it is hooked to.

2017 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk
Bradley Iger/Digital Trends

The base V6 is certainly up to the job – when off-road, the Jeep’s 4WD Low setting typically makes short work of crawls up steep terrain. But with 260 pound-feet of twist on tap, the Cherokee’s curb weight of almost 4,900 pounds does cause the base power plant to sweat on occasion. It’s more noticeable on the street, where the motor is often called up to pick up speed in rapid succession rather than to provide consistent low-speed push when traversing a dirt trail.

It’s typical for off-road focused vehicles to sacrifice ride quality when navigating urban streets for the sake of capability where the road ends, but the Grand Cherokee Trailhawk’s air suspension does a fairly admirable job in both scenarios.

While discernibly firmer than the tuning you’d find on, say, a luxury-focused Grand Cherokee Summit, the Trailhawk’s behavior on-road is far from objectionable, and even the SUV’s all-terrain tread is relatively free of high-speed tire roar. The takeaway here is that while the Trailhawk can handle the dirt, Jeep engineers didn’t have to turn it into a one-trick pony to accomplish that, and in turn it shouldn’t punish owners during their daily commute simply for the sake of off-road prowess.

Getting back to the basics

Inside and out, the Grand Cherokee Trailhawk seems to champion functionality above all else. Yet I don’t feel like the Trailhawk is sparse or lacking in some way. Instead, the Grand Cherokee Trailhawk package as a whole seems to be something of a callback to the original mission statement of Jeeps, and in turn, the characteristics that gained the brand such a loyal following: Purposefulness above all else. While, infotainment systems, 20-inch wheels and ventilated seats are concessions to consumers’ need for modernity and some semblance of luxury, at its core, the Trailhawk seems most at home being put through its paces where the road ends and the fun can begin.

Highs

  • Solid off-road capability
  • Choice of powertrains includes diesel, V8
  • Air suspension offers great ride quality on-road

Lows

  • Lethargic acceleration with base V6