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Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk review- 12,000 mile update

Posted in Vehicle Reviews on July 16, 2016
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Photographers: Rick Péwé

That new kid who just started at your high school doesn’t quite fit in, even though his name rings a bell. He just looks a bit … odd. And while you and your buddies are open to change and not prejudiced in any way, it seems that that new kid still has to prove himself to be accepted.

That’s exactly how the new Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk started when it cruised into town. In fact, a few bullies even threw sticks and stones at it, but with a heritage of 70-some years of Jeeping, the Trailhawk simply crawled over those sticks and stones to get some trail cred while ushering in a host of new technical developments. Admittedly, the Trailhawk model is a big upgrade over the standard Cherokee, but even the base model has some fine points not to be dismissed.

While our Jeep experience spans the whole gamut from the original MB to the Fiat-based Renegade, we never had a chance to actually live with the Cherokee Trailhawk in Jp. Living with a vehicle means much more than a three-day magazine test or a quick drive at the dealership. Living with it means using it as your own—from overloading the back with kids or groceries and commuting in the worst LA traffic around to car camping (also now known as overlanding) out in rocks of the deepest darkest desert night. Throw in plenty of four wheeling and even some towing and one starts to find out the good and the bad about any vehicle.

Styling and Interior


The Trailhawk is a nimble little scooter up the hills and dales. There’s not a lot of articulation available, so the 4x4 system helps get the Jeep where it needs to go. The extra height of the Trailhawk package and tires help as well.


Right up front, we can say that the Cherokee Trailhawk’s styling is polarizing. The lizard-like front end styling belies the fact that it really does have round headlights—the squinty lights are actually DLRs. It’s compact and swoopy design is modern and inventive, without the boxy look of earlier Cherokees. In fact, if Jeep hadn’t used the Cherokee nameplate on this model, the outcry from the old-timer Jeep community wouldn’t have been as loud. We appreciate the new look, and yes, it takes some getting used to, but the size and style is compact and sleek, and we like that in an SUV. The interior is also spot-on. It’s well laid out, is comfortable on long rides, and has an instrument cluster that you can see and manipulate easily. The quality of materials and design isn’t cheap or tacky either. It almost feels like a nice leather glove when you settle into it. Sound deadening material helps to reduce the interior noise level, but the annoying mute button on the radio is by far the Cherokee’s worst feature. It defaults back to on after engine shutdown, so after a driver change, it blares on startup.

Axles and Suspension


Equipped with a McPherson strut front and four-link rear coil suspension, the on-road ride is superb. Off-road, it can handle the punishment of rocks and washboard roads with ease. Extensive use of aluminum helps save weight, and as the battle scars show, we never had an issue. The air dam, on the other hand, could be a great item for the aftermarket to redesign. Ours became a bit tattered over the course of the loan.


No, it doesn’t have solid axles. In fact, it’s basically a front-wheel-drive car with a tag axle on the back end. That means the engine is in sideways as well! In fact, it doesn’t even have a real transfer case, but it does have low range and a unique way of distributing power via a PTU—a power transfer unit. With an effective 48:1 low range, it can crawl better than any other CUV, and the selectable locker is spot-on in function. The locker allows this little gem to go where it has no right to be, and if the suspension was just a bit higher, you could get into all sorts of trouble off road. Yes, the Trailhawk sits taller than a regular Cherokee and has more suspension travel as well. The issue is that it is still too low to the ground and drags the soft underbelly over rocks and twigs.

Fortunately, the skidplates on the undercarriage are fully functional. We even upgraded our unit with the Mopar steel rock rails after ripping the plastic ones to shreds. That one upgrade alone helped in many situations, as we could drag the steel rails over rocks instead of being stuck or hung up. On the road the ride is superb- taught yet not harsh, with control over your domain. Only the flimsy Firestone A/T tires hinder the drive as they lose grip long before they should, and sticks kept finding their way through the sidewalls.

Engine and Powertrain


We easily flat towed our flatty across the Sierras to the Rubicon trail. Although we exceeded the GVWR of the Trailhawk, it still delivered around 19 mpg during the 1000-mile trip!


One awesome aspect is the power from the 3.2L “baby” Pentastar V-6 engine. While it’s small, it’s still powerfully well matched to the rest of the vehicle and can throw your head back into the headrest in an aggressive driving mode. Coupled with the ZF nine-speed tranny, there’s a ratio for everything. Even with an average mpg of 23, we never felt the engine lacked power or torque. Even towing over 5000 pounds over mountain grades was a breeze, and sticking it into low range delivered any extra grunt the Cherokee needed. An interesting feature is the engine start/stop system. At first it’s incredibly annoying, with the first thought being “oh, crud, why did the engine die in the middle of an intersection?” But rest assured, it fires right back up, and after getting used to it, the feature is fun to use on unsuspecting passengers. Not so good features are the adaptive cruise control and the worse nanny around: crash mitigation. Adaptive cruise control works fairly well but can’t anticipate changes so you are now relegating speed control to the car in front of you. It’s best left off. The same goes for the crash mitigation system. Again, it works well, but by using it, you give up control to the vehicle, which at one point had us nearly in an accident as it slammed on the brakes when only acceleration could prevent a mishap. We will leave those features in the Off position, thank you very much.

Overall Opinion


We were sad to see the Trahilhawk go, even with the hindquarters dented from an awesome wheeling trip.


In a sea of crossover vehicles that are mostly boring, the Cherokee Trailhawk shines. It’s fun to drive, wheels well, and has plenty of power. It’s not built for a family of 6, but still has enough room for half of that. Well-built and nicely appointed, the Trailhawk served us well for 9 months of daily duty. We put about 12,000 miles on it and had no real issues with it, other than the plastic rockrails and a few flat tires. This vehicle is a leap into the future for Jeep, and it has been very successful in the market place for a reason. Will most Trailhawks ever even hit the dirt? Probably more than you might imagine, and if we can ever afford one ourselves, we’d buy it. Not many long-term vehicles bring a smile to our face, but the Cherokee Trailhawk delivers fun.

Pros:
Powerful
Nimble
Capable

Cons:
Minimal ground clearance
Tires are not a good choice
Limited articulation

Specifications
General
Manufacturer: Jeep
Model: Cherokee Trailhawk
Base Price: $29,895
Price As Tested: $36,683
Options As Tested: $6,788
Engine
Type: V-6, liquid cooled
Displacement (L/ci): 3.2/197.7
Bore & Stroke (in): 3.58x3.27
Compression Ratio (:1): 10.7
Fuel Req. (octane)/ Capacity (gal): 87/15.9
SAE Peak Horsepower: 271 @ 6,500 rpm
SAE Peak Torque (lb-ft): 239 @ 4,400 rpm
Transmission
Type: Nine-speed planetary automatic Model 948TE
Ratios: First: 4.71:1; Second: 2.84:1; Third: 1.91:1; Fourth: 1.38:1; Fifth: 1.00:1; Sixth: 0.81:1; Seventh: 0.70:1; Eigth: 0.58:1; Ninth: 0.48:1; Reverse: 3.80:1
Transfer Case
Type: Fully disconnecting 4x2 mode with automatic 4x4 engagement, electronic 4x4 Low and neutral range shifting, full-time 4x4 mode with active on demand clutch
Model: Jeep Active Drive Lock
Low-Range Ratio: 2.92:1
Axles
Front Type: IFS
Front Diff: N/A
Hubs: Fulltime, Iljin USA Corp.
Rear Type: IRS
Rear Diff: N/A
Ratio: 2.73:1
Traction Aid: Brake-based electronic traction control (front), electronic locker (rear)
Suspension
Front: McPherson strut, long-travel coil springs, one-piece aluminum subframe, aluminum lower control arms, stabilizer bar
Rear: Four-link rear suspension with trailing arm, aluminum lateral links, isolated high-strength steel rear cradle, coil springs, stabilizer bar
Steering
Type: Electric power-assisted rack-and-pinion
Lock-to-Lock: 2.67
Turning Circle (ft): 38.1
Wheels
Size (in): 17x7.5
Material: Aluminum
Tires
Size: P245/65R17
Brand: Firestone Destination A/T
Brakes
Front: Tandem diaphragm, vacuum-assisted 13x1.1 vented rotor with 1.89 twin-piston floating caliper
Rear: 2.6x0.47 solid rotor with 1.69 single-piston floating caliper
60-0 mph as tested (ft): 116
Acceleration
0-60 mph as tested (sec): 8.6
Weight (lb): Curb Weight 4,108
Advertised GVWR: 5,500
Trailer Tow Capacity: 4,500
Mileage (mpg)
EPA Estimate (city/hwy): 19/26
As Tested: 16.24
Dimensions (in)
Wheelbase: 107
Overall Length: 182
Overall Width: 74.9
Overall Height: 67.8
Front/Rear Track: 63.5/63.5
Approach Angle°: 29.9
Breakover Angle°: 22.9
Departure Angle°: 32.2
Min. Ground Clearance: 8.7

The 3.2L “baby” Pentastar V-6 engine puts out 271 ponies and 239 lb-ft of torque. We got an honest 19-20 mpg average and even stayed around 15 towing a 5,000-pound load over the mountains. It’s no slouch in power or economy.

The Terrain Select knob changes the throttle and brake algorithms within the computer-controlled traction control system. Thank goodness it has a real locker in the rear as well. Low range is a hefty 2.92:1, which really helps to deliver the torque off-road.

The dashboard lights are incredibly good—even in bright sunlight most items are visible. All of the displays are changeable, and you can turn most of the nannies off from the driver seat.

A surprising amount of internal luggage room is available. If you go camping with a family of six, though, you might want to pack light or haul a trailer.

The Firestone Destination A/T tires are simply not up to the rest of the package. While they perform well for the most part, lateral Gs on pavement and sharp sticks off-road are not its friend. We even rubbed most of the white lettering off during its stay.

Our biggest performance upgrade was the addition of the Mopar rock sliders. These steel rails even helped us wheel harder as it protected the body. Because of the strength of the sliders, we could indeed slide them over rocks to continue wheeling instead of getting hung up and stuck on the stock plastic parts.

With the rear seat folded down, we had room to haul around our 37-inch Toyo Open Country tires. While we couldn’t fit a full set in, at least we could fit in a pair! We also upgraded to Rugged Ridge floor mats and cargo mats to protect the carpet. When we returned the Jeep the floors were in perfect condition.

Side by side with its brethren, the two Cherokees spec out interestingly. The XJ is about 3400 pounds, and the Trailhawk weighs in at 4108 pounds. The XJ 101.4-inch wheelbase compares to the newer 107. The horsepower and torque of the 4.0L six was 190/220, compared to the Pentastar 271/239.

A secret stash box under the front passenger seat rounds out the interior. We are surprised California models are even allowed to have this.

While the transmission functions flawlessly, its shifter is full-on Italian backwards. Yes, you pull the lever back to upshift, and forward to downshift. Not only that, it stays in the center position, so unless you look at the dash display or the console indicator, your hand can’t tell what gear you are in. We really like the display and function of the center stack, with the exception of the radio Mute function.

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