On the Road Review: Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk

In the fall of 2010, Jeep rolled out a redesigned Grand Cherokee midsize SUV only months removed from being pulled from the brink of bankruptcy. In the works for several years, this vehicle used a modified Mercedes fully independent chassis that was a holdover engineering piece from the former Daimler-Benz/Chrysler shotgun marriage.

That platform has proven to be a valuable workhorse for Jeep. It continues to be the foundation for the Grand Cherokee in all of its mutations, as well as the Dodge Durango. For 2017, Jeep will employ this chassis further and add two more new models to flush out the Grand Cherokee lineup.

As the most awarded SUV ever, the Grand Cherokee gets another trophy to add to the display case with “Four Wheeler Magazine’s” 2017 SUV of the Year honors for this week’s Trailhawk edition. As if the competition wanted another Jeep model to have to compete against.

But wait, the Grand Cherokee — especially the Trailhawk — has few rivals that can do what the Jeep can do both on-road and off-road. No other midsize SUV offers four different engines, four different four-wheel drive systems, the towing ability of the GC or the off-roading cajones of the Jeep. No competitor offers the wide variety of models — ranging from $30,000 to start to $78,000 for a fully loaded SRT — and no rival packs as many features into its SUV as Jeep does.

And buyers notice. They embrace subtle pieces like the best (and safest) steering wheel controls for redundant audio functionality, the best in-dash entertainment/audio/information/navigation screen with U-Connect and the smoothest, easiest interfaces for modern electronic safety aids like FCA’s adroit dynamic cruise system. Add full-time four-wheel drive and you have an unparalleled all-season performer for the various price points. Sales were up 8 percent last year.

If you are the brand that consistently brags about its Trail Rated lineup, you had best be able to back that up with performance. So far, Jeep has done that with Wrangler, Grand Cherokee, Cherokee and even Renegade.

Yet, consumers are seeing more advances from Land Rover and others as the crossover-SUV segment benefits from more electronic traction aids. Jeep decided to push the envelope further with a more focused Trailhawk edition of the Grand Cherokee that not only earns another customer to the brand, but keeps what is truly an aging model (but gracefully) relevant.

Trailhawk equipment includes Quadra-lift air suspension, driver selectable Selec-Terrain system, electronic limited-slip rear differential, as well as the 5.7-liter Hemi V-8. Skid plates cover the underbody, red tow hooks adorn the front, while a 7,400-pound-rated receiver hitch exits the rear along with the chromed dual exhausts. Goodyear Wrangler tires wrap around 18-inch aluminum wheels, while black striping and black-out accents add zest to the handsome Redline Pearl paint. If nothing else, Jeep (and Chrysler) have got their mojo working on exterior and interior designs for the American market.

The Trailhawk also carries a healthy dose of interior accoutrements standard: leather and suede power sport seats with heating, ventilation and memory, heated steering wheel, auto-climate controls, Sirius radio, 506-watt Alpine stereo, plus ParkView rear camera and keyless access and ignition. Starting price, $44,090 all in — with the base 3.6-liter V-6 engine.

As shown, $53,515 with a host of additional pieces, such as adaptive cruise, lane departure warning, adaptive brake assist, forward collision warning, parallel and perpendicular parking assist, plus LED fog lamps, Bi-Xenon driving lamps that self-adjust and dim and a dual-panel panoramic sunroof. Add a power tilt/telescoping steering wheel with memory, blind-spot detection and cross-path detection systems and the Hemi engine (360 hp plus heavy-duty brakes, battery, amp and remote starting), and you have a serious off-roading machine for drivers who also enjoy their 95 percent on-road driving.

The Hemi engine gets you added oomph for towing — up to 7,400 pounds, tops in the class — and smooth power for all driving, but at an added cost at the pump. EPA mileage estimates are 14/22/17 with a realized 18.5 mpg during the Jeep’s wintry visit. Recent V-6-powered Grand Cherokees have fared better.

The Grand Cherokee has always stood out from its contemporarily sized rivals. A Nissan Murano is a better on-road driver, but would wilt under the pressure of off-roading that the Jeep can muster. The Edge and Sorrento are both nice on-road crossovers, too, but they really don’t want to see anything more than a little snow. Maybe Toyota’s 4Runner is the only serious rival that has a portfolio comparable to the Grand Cherokee, but the Toyota’s truck-based frame and chassis doesn’t deliver either the on-road manners or the off-road capabilities of the Grand Cherokee.

Left in a class of one, the Grand Cherokee is open to criticism, but few nit-picks are found. It would be nice if FCA employed a better controller for the rear wiper — combined with the lights, turn-signal and front wiper stalk, rear wiper activation is clumsy at best. And the cabin is not as roomy, spacious or open as some rivals. Discount the exterior measurements, and our latest Subaru Outback has more interior room than the larger Jeep.

Yet several pluses help to differentiate the Grand Cherokee and make this Trailhawk feel more like a premium class SUV-crossover than several of the vehicles that populate that segment. The memory seats and power steering wheel make ingress and egress much easier, the auto-braking and dynamic cruise worked great, and even the keyless access system is a plus — walk up to the GC and exterior lights come on and you just need to touch the door handle for the doors to unlock. Only excess sleet and ice on the windshield dumbfounded the auto-wiper sensors, causing the wipers to progress to frenetic speed.

After accepting the Four Wheeler of the Year honors, Jeep brand boss Mike Manley said, “Our new Trailhawk model is the most capable Grand Cherokee ever produced. Trailhawk instantly provided Grand Cherokee customers even more legendary Jeep 4X4 capability, quickly becoming one of the fastest-selling and most sought-after models in our lineup.”

Despite the maturation of this lineup, there are definitely more sales, profits and customers in the future for Jeep. The Trailhawk is a nice addition to the lineup, and buyers love additional choices.

Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.
Tim Plouff

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