Jeep’s Trailhawk models have been successful for both the Renegade and Cherokee, two small SUVs that definitely needed to prove their off-road credentials when enthusiasts sneered at their Fiat car-based roots and lack of old-school thinking. Having driven both of them on difficult trails, they clearly surpass the ability of most crossovers and would give some truck-based SUVs a run for their money, thanks to sophisticated electronics and other modifications that are far more than what most people would need in inclement weather.
But being a Jeep, most people want them to feel invincible. That’s why the 2017 Jeep Grand Cherokee features a new Trailhawk trim.
Off-road Ability Without Compromise: Grand Cherokee Trailhawk
On the Grand Cherokee, the $42,995 Trailhawk model is partly a way to get the most heavy-duty off-road setup with the selection of just one trim, as many of the features that come standard on this model are available on many other Grand Cherokees. Thick off-road tires on 18-inch wheels are standard, as is the full group of skid plates to keep the Jeep’s underside intact over rocks. Four-wheel drive is mandatory, but the Trailhawk gets the more sophisticated Quadra-Drive II setup that’s optional on most other Grand Cherokees. It includes selectable modes for various road surfaces (sand, snow, rocks, etc.), a height-adjustable air suspension and a rear limited-slip differential.
And on an off-road course Jeep prepared for us in Malibu, California, the Grand Cherokee Trailhawk is predictably tough. A hill descent control makes for easy trips down steep hills, but it can also be used as a crawl control for going up those hills so you don’t have to fret over modulating the accelerator pedal precisely. That adjustable suspension also means the sound of rocks thudding against the bumpers is kept to a minimum.
But what sets the Grand Cherokee apart from other off-roaders is how plush it feels when on these bumpy courses. Impacts are surprisingly muted and it feels solid. While some faithful may miss the way bumps and thuds feel through the steering wheel and chassis, those who aren’t into feeling uncomfortable all the time will prefer the plush setup.
Part of what also makes the Trailhawk appealing is that none of the changes made to it really translate into changed on-road performance. Its handling and acceleration are on par with premium-badged crossovers. The standard 3.6-liter V6 is responsive enough to keep up in most situations, though the 5.7-liter V8 will undoubtedly feel less stressed. And the 3.0-liter turbodiesel V6’s generous torque and improved fuel economy should be appreciated on and off road.
High-end Luxury: Grand Cherokee Summit
Like the Trailhawk, the Summit is the ultimate Grand Cherokee, but on a different end of the spectrum. Whereas the Trailhawk ticks all of the off-road boxes, the Summit selects pretty much everything to make the Grand Cherokee really “Grand.”
Sparkling details in the grille and wheels set the Summit apart from lesser Grand Cherokees. It will no doubt look good in the eyes of prospective Lexus and Mercedes-Benz buyers, and even manage to hide the fact this generation Grand Cherokee first made its public showing way back in 2009. And it had better, since the Grand Cherokee Summit starts deep in luxury territory at more than $51,000 for a rear-wheel drive version.
But the changes are more felt inside, where just about every surface is padded and stitched. And a $5,000 premium leather package covers even more surfaces in high-quality hides and the seats with a nice diamond-pattern stitching.
You’d think all of these niceties would make the Summit an on-road-only performer, but it’s available with the same Quadra-Trac II system with air suspension and skid plates as that Trailhawk. Which means its off-road prowess could likely get very close to the Trailhawk’s if you don’t scoff at the prospect of scratching its pretty wheels or fear your passengers will muck up that light-colored interior.
For $60,000 with four-wheel drive and a few other extras, the 3.6-liter V6 starts to feel a little pedestrian now that luxury SUV rivals typically have turbocharged engines. Still, the eight-speed automatic transmission (found in all Grand Cherokees) is as sophisticated as you’d find in German competition. Well-heeled buyers will likely feel more comfortable springing for the added fuel cost of the V8 or the $4,500 initial price of the torquey diesel option.
But both models are a testament to how broad and versatile the Grand Cherokee range has become. There is pretty much a version for everyone, including fuel-conscious buyers (diesels), high-end buyers (Summit) and, of course, those who above all else want a Jeep.