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OFF-ROAD TEST

Off-Road Test: Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk





4 January 2015


The Trailhawk is supposed to be the most off-road capable Cherokee in Jeep’s new line-up, able to tackle terrain that would normally be the reserve of hardcore rock crawlers. So does the new Cherokee live up to its name? Is this SUV a true Trailhawk, or is it a sitting duck?

Trail Rated – this is how Jeep describes its SUVs that have conquered the infamous 22-mile Rubicon Trail in the US.

Of course, the Wrangler is Trail Rated, but so are the Grand Cherokee, Compass and even the Patriot. So it isn’t particularly surprising that Jeep’s latest offering, the Cherokee, also has a badge touting the fact that it has been Trail Rated.

This is despite the fact that the Cherokee is essentially a crossover (it shares its underpinnings with the Dodge Dart and Chrysler 200).

The Cherokee name, after all, holds quite a bit of cachet for off-road fans. The name has been around since 1974, and the early Cherokee models were pukka off-roaders. When the vehicle became flabbier, softer and more road-oriented in 2002, it was renamed the Liberty in the US.

But when the latest model was launched in the US it was once again called the Cherokee, signalling the return of the iconic name to its homeland. So there were quite a few rumblings from hardcore Jeep fans when it became clear that this new Cherokee was essentially a crossover vehicle with an independent suspension set-up and a distinctly on-road bias.

But Jeep was quick to point out that, while the new Cherokee was available in front-wheel drive, the all-wheel-drive Trailhawk still boasted the sort of 4×4 capability the Cherokee was famous for. It was perhaps not quite as capable off-road as the Wrangler, but far more proficient than its competition.

Could Jeep be telling the truth? Could the company’s new “soft-roader” really tackle a 4×4 trail? We decided to find out by venturing onto the Hennops 4×4 Trail, just north of Johannesburg.

**** FEATURES AND EQUIPMENT

As mentioned, the 2014 Jeep Cherokee is available in front-wheel drive, and most buyers will probably go for this affordable option. Should you need all-wheel drive, however, two options are available. The medium-spec Limited model is available in 4×4 and has Jeep’s Active Drive I 4×4 System. This has no low range and switches seamlessly between two-wheel and four-wheel drive.

The four-wheel-drive performance derives from a fully variable wet clutch housed in the rear drive module. The clutch supplies the proper amount of torque for any driving conditions, including slippery surfaces, aggressive starts and dynamic driving.

Sophisticated algorithms enable the system to contribute to the driving dynamics while interacting with the electronic stability control (ESC) system when approaching the traction limits of the road surface. A rear-axle-disconnect feature engages the 4×4 system only when necessary for improved fuel efficiency.

The Trailhawk has a more robust 4×4 system called the Active Drive Lock 4×4 System, which adds low range to the equation, as well as a rear differential lock that can be engaged with the touch of a button.

The Trailhawk also has traction control and Jeep’s Selec-Terrain system (similar to Land Rover’s Terrain Response) which allows the driver to automatically configure the Cherokee for rock, mud, sand, snow or sporty driving with the turn of a dial.

Finally, the SUV is equipped with bash plates to protect its under-side, and 18-inch rims that allow for the fitment of tyres with respectable profiles.

*** PERFORMANCE

The Trailhawk is powered by Jeep’s 3,2-litre V6 petrol Pentastar powerplant, which develops 200 kW of power and 315 Nm of torque. The engine is mated to a nine-speed automatic gearbox.

The engine obviously has the oomph to push the Cherokee along on tar. The SUV’s performance is not blistering, but power is more than adequate. Mated to that nine-speed auto ’box, the Pentastar mill provides a very pleasant ride, and overtaking at highway speeds is easy.

On a 4×4 trail, the 3,2-litre engine has all the power necessary to tackle steep inclines. Since it is a petrol powerplant, though, its torque figure isn’t particularly impressive (315 Nm), and we couldn’t help but wish that the Cherokee was available with an oilburner. Not only would it make the SUV more economical (the V6 is pretty thirsty) but it would also improve performance on an off-road trail.

That said, there’s nothing wrong with the way the Pentastar performs on an off-road trail. The gearbox doesn’t do as well. With low range engaged, we found it rather unpredictable and indecisive. It would hang on to first when we wanted it to swap over to second, and switch to second when we needed to deal with an incline by staying in first.

Thankfully, this wasn’t a massive issue, since the gearbox has a manual mode, which allowed us to take over gear-swapping duties. Once we were in manual mode, the ’box stuck to the gear we selected and performed well.

Far more of an irritation was an over-sensitive accelerator pedal. Despite switching the Selec-Terrain system to “Rock”, the throttle remained too delicate for hardcore off-road driving. The slightest throttle input resulted in a jerk forward.

 *** ACCOMMODATION

If we had been evaluating the Cherokee’s accommodation purely on the road, the cabin would have scored four stars. Indeed, when we tested the 3,2-litre AWD Limited on the road a few months ago (issue 123, page 24), that is what we gave it.

On a 4×4 trail, though, visibility is a problem. The SUV’s sloping bonnet makes it very difficult to know exactly where your Cherokee’s nose and wheels are, which doesn’t inspire a whole lot of confidence.

The seating position is designed more towards on-road driving, and consequently doesn’t offer the commanding driving position one really needs in an off-road environment.

Apart from that, the cabin is pleasant enough when you venture off the beaten path. A single cluster of controls allows the driver to set up the vehicle for off-road driving. There are buttons to engage low range and the rear diff lock, and a dial to configure the vehicle for the appropriate surface via the Selec-Terrain system. Overall, the 4×4 controls are intuitive and straightforward.

 *** TRAIL CAPABILITY

The Cherokee, quite obviously, is not a Jeep Wrangler. If you plan on attacking grade-5 obstacles, Jeep’s latest SUV isn’t for you. While it does boast an impressive collection of off-road gadgets, the Cherokee has a couple of very noticeable shortcomings when it comes to the rough stuff.

Let’s start with the positive side. The ground clearance is pegged at 221mm, which isn’t as good as the Wrangler’s 254mm, but is nothing to scoff at. A lot of compact SUVs have to make do with around 180mm, so 221mm is impressive. Indeed, it’s the sort of clearance you would expect from a double cab bakkie.

Similarly, the departure angle is respectable (at 32,1 degrees, exactly the same as that of the Wrangler), and it is very agile and manoeuvrable on a tight trail. But its approach angle is a problem. With that long nose, the Cherokee doesn’t like a sudden, steep incline.

The approach angle of the Wrangler Unlimited is 43,2 degrees while the Cherokee’s is a far less impressive 29,8 degrees. The Compass’s approach angle is similar at 29,6 degrees.

The Cherokee’s articulation is another problem. As the pictures show, the vehicle has a tendency to stick a wheel in the air when things get tricky, and this is because it doesn’t have the greatest wheel articulation.

Jeep offers a ramp travel index for most of its vehicles. The figure is determined by driving a vehicle up a 20-degree ramp until one wheel starts to lift off the ground. So, the higher a vehicle’s ramp travel index (RTI) figure, the better its articulation.

The Wrangler’s rating is 638. With its sway bar disconnected, this number jumps to 822. The RTI of the Compass and Patriot are both 360. The company doesn’t disclose the rating for the Cherokee, but it’s probably closer to that of the Patriot and Compass than the Wrangler. This is understandable, since few Cherokee owners will actually take on difficult obstacles. Most of them will want an SUV that handles well on tar.

Once again, it is clear that the Cherokee is geared more towards on-road performance than off. Yes, the Trailhawk is capable off road, but tar road performance remains the priority.

Overall, however, we were impressed with the Cherokee’s 4×4 performance. We took on several steep inclines and axle twisters, and it handled them admirably. Yes, it stuck its wheels in the air, but thanks to the rear diff lock and traction control system, it kept going.

We wouldn’t recommend charging at grade-4 or grade-5 obstacles in a Cherokee, but anything milder and the vehicle should be OK. For a compact SUV, the Cherokee is remarkably capable.

 **** OVERLAND SUITABILITY

As an overland vehicle, the new Jeep Cherokee should perform very well. Thanks to the engine and nine-speed gearbox, open-road travel will be a pleasure, and once you start hitting those gravel and off-road tracks, the Trailhawk should be more than up to the task thanks to its 4×4 system, good ground clearance and plethora of off-road features.

It is also good to see that the Trailhawk’s wheels haven’t been shod with low-profile tyres that will deflate at the first sign of a gravel road. The vehicle runs on 17-inch rims sporting P245/65 R17 all-season tyres, which is what a vehicle like this needs when it takes on a rocky track.

The interior of the Cherokee is spacious enough for an extended overland trip. There is 591 litres of cargo space, and once the rear seats have been folded down, it swells to 1267 litres.

On the downside, the Trailhawk’s V6 petrol engine is thirsty (Jeep claims 10 l/100km, but you’ll be very, very lucky to average that). With a 60-litre fuel tank, total range should be around 600km at best.

The positive thing, though, is that you won’t need to worry when filling up north of our borders because you’ll have a petrol engine and won’t have to go searching for 50ppm.

  **** CONCLUSION

Let’s be clear: the new Cherokee is no Wrangler Rubicon, so don’t think that you’ll be able to keep up with the hardcore off-roaders in your new Trailhawk. Yes, the vehicle has low range, a rear diff lock, good ground clearance and all sorts of 4×4 gadgets, but it is hampered by mediocre wheel articulation and a problematic approach angle.

A Wrangler feels at home on a tough 4×4 trail. The Cherokee Trailhawk doesn’t. It is like a dog being forced to walk on its hind legs. It does so when coaxed, but it never appears at ease with the process. The Cherokee just seems more at home on the road than on the trail.

However, there is no question that the Trailhawk is a phenomenally capable compact SUV. Once you stop comparing its off-road prowess with that of the Wrangler, and start comparing it with the SUVs in its segment, you realise that the Cherokee is in a league of its own.

It is a fact that very few compact SUV owners (even those who splurge on the top-spec 4×4 models) ever tackle difficult 4×4 trails, so the Trailhawk is actually far more capable than it needs to be.

If you want a vehicle that is capable off road but still very easy to live with on a daily basis, the Trailhawk is worth looking at. It is nimble around town, pleasant on the highway, fun on a twisty road, and also capable of holding its own in an off-road environment.

Short of opting for a true off-roader with solid axles, a front diff lock and 300mm of ground clearance, you’ll struggle to find a more capable 4×4. The Cherokee Trailhawk is the new benchmark in its segment when it comes to off-road ability.