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Trailhawk: More Than a Fancy Badge

Jeep takes its ‘Trail Rated’ designation seriously. Learn what makes a Trailhawk off-road ready and how the four models that currently wear the badge measure up in output and capability.
By: Craig Simons

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Trailhawk: More Than a Fancy Badge

When you hear the name “Trailhawk,” what image does it conjure? The one-off concept SUV spotted at the 2007 North American International Auto Show? The limited production 2013 Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk, of which only about 2,000 were built?

Both would be correct, but this is 2017. So picture this, if you will: a daily driver SUV that can comfortably handle your commute to work, haul the kids to soccer games, and still follow your friend’s Wrangler down rutted forest trails on the weekend.

Style and Performance

You will spot a Trailhawk by the red recovery hooks protruding from its front bumper, the signature matte-black anti-glare appliqué on the hood, red stitching on the steering wheel and shifter, and embroidered Trailhawk logos on the seats.

And let us not forget that snazzy Trailhawk badge on the rear liftgate. That badge is always accompanied by a much more important badge: the “Trail Rated” endorsement, which Jeep takes very seriously. It means the chassis beneath is the most off-road-capable version the manufacturer offers. That includes a long list of built-in features that makes the Trailhawk far more than a bolt-on accessory.

The factory has established standards for traction, water fording, maneuverability, articulation and ground clearance that must be met to receive this coveted badge of honor. These standards are measured not only with tools and calculations worked out on paper, they are tested in real-world trail riding through very specific obstacles.

Nuts and Bolts

Craig Simons is a member of the Ocala (Fla.) Jeep Crew. He has the rundown on all four of the off-road-ready Tailhawk models available in the 2017 model-year:

•Jeep Renegade Trailhawk

•Jeep Compass Trailhawk

•Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk

•Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk

The Trailhawk Lineup

There are currently four vehicle platforms that have a Trailhawk version, each seating five passengers:

1. Jeep Renegade Trailhawk
The Renegade is the entry-level small SUV powered by a 2.4-liter, four-cylinder engine mated to a nine-speed automatic transmission. The Trailhawk version sets itself apart from the other models with standard all-wheel drive and the addition of “Rock” mode to its Jeep Active Drive 4×4 system, which includes 4WD Low, 4WD lock, Auto, Snow and Sand modes.

Each mode makes changes to the throttle input, stability control and transmission shift points. Don’t mistake this vehicle as an off-road poseur. It is far more than a reskinned Fiat 500X. It may not be a Wrangler, but it’s still very much a Jeep, with 8.7 inches of ground clearance, 30-degree approach angle, 34.3-degree departure angle and 25.7-degree breakover angle. Low range is accomplished by using the nine-speed transmission’s first gear at a 20:1 ratio. The 4WD lock is a computer-controlled brake application to keep the wheel with traction rolling. The Jeep Renegade is designed to spend most of its time on asphalt, but still be very competent in heavy rain and snow and your favorite forest trail.

2. Jeep Compass Trailhawk
The Compass shares a similar platform with the Renegade, but it’s stretched to accommodate the larger dimensions of this crossover. Using the familiar 2.4-liter, four-cylinder engine and nine-speed transmission from the Renegade, the Trailhawk gains 0.5 inches of suspension lift over the standard Compass, includes 17-inch wheels with all terrain tires, and unique front and rear bumpers to achieve 8.5 inches of ground clearance, a 30.3-degree approach angle, 33.6-degree departure angle, and 24.4-degree breakover angles.

The Compass Trailhawk also includes high-strength steel skid plates protecting the important components lining the underbelly of the small SUV. The nine-speed transmission is also recalibrated to use first gear as a 20:1 low range. The vehicle starts standard acceleration in second, similar to the Renegade. Also like the Renegade, it is intended to be used mostly on-road with the occasional off-road adventure.

3. Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk
The Cherokee nameplate has been around for quite a while. Most hardcore off-roaders will fondly remember the solid axles of the Cherokees of yesteryear. But the 2017 Cherokee (or “KL” in Jeep speak) is an Alfa Romeo Giulietta-based crossover SUV with four-wheel independent suspension and a transverse engine under the hood.

The Trailhawk model is not your father’s Cherokee, but it retains the soul of what made the older Cherokees so popular. It is practical, functional and dynamically useful. It’s one vehicle for many roles.

Powered by either a 3.2-liter V-6 or 2.4-liter, four-cylinder engine mated to a ZF nine-speed transmission, the Cherokee is the largest of the Fiat-based Jeeps. The Trailhawk model features full-time four-wheel drive, 48:1 low range in the V-6 model, 56:1 low range in the four-cylinder variant, a true mechanical locking rear differential in addition to brake lock differential up front, “Rock” mode for the Selec-Terrain system, more suspension travel than the other Cherokee models, full undercarriage skid plates, and optional steel rock rails.

The 17-inch wheels shod in all-terrain rubber contribute to the Trailhawk’s 8.7 inches of ground clearance, 29.9-degree approach angle, 32.2-degree departure angle and 23.2-degree breakover angle. The new Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk is not quite the off-road enthusiast ideal platform on which to build a hardcore wheeling rig. But it shines as an outside-the-box solution for someone who wants excellent on-road manners combined with more than adequate off-road ability for everything except the most extreme trails.

It’s a well-balanced vehicle blending modern comfort and amenities on the highway with off-road prowess. What also must be noted is that, while all the Fiat-based Trailhawks lack the ability to be lifted enough to fit 35-inch tires under them, they can still be driven most places if you pick your line carefully.

Pride and Joy

Name: Black Widow
Model: 2013 Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk with 5.7-liter Hemi V-8
Owner: Craig Simons
Our story: This vehicle is the achievement that followed a lifelong quest to own a Jeep. I grew up in the foothills of the Berkshire mountains in Western Massachusetts. Ever since my dirt road and logging trail childhood days, I’ve dreamed of owning a Jeep. Naturally, I wanted a Wrangler, and I followed their progression from CJ-5 through the new, about-to-be-released LJ. But this Grand Cherokee Trailhawk caught my eye in 2012, when I first saw it demonstrated as a concept vehicle. It could tow like a Ram pickup, carve the highway up like a Charger, and tear its way off-road like a Wrangler. It was this very blend of do-anything engineering that caused me to trade in my Toyota Tundra for this “Black Widow” earlier this spring. When I saw this rare find on the lot as I drove by my local Jeep dealership, I had to have it. I have never been so happy with a vehicle.

4. Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk
The 2017 Grand Cherokee Trailhawk marks the return of the off-road model to the SUV’s lineup after a three-year hiatus. Initially debuted in 2013, only 2,000 units were built. The current-generation Grand Cherokee chassis is named “WK2” in Jeep speak, a platform that is derived from the Mercedes-Benz W166 platform.

The Grand Cherokee Trailhawk has three engine choices: the venerable 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6 it shares with the Jeep Wrangler JK, a 5.7-liter Hemi V-8, and a 3.0L EcoDiesel V-6, all of which are mated to the ZF eight-speed automatic transmission with a proper 4×4 transfer case with a 2.72 low-range ratio.

The standard 18-inch wheels are wrapped in 30-inch all-terrain tires. With Quadra-Lift adjustable air suspension, ground clearance can be raised to a max of 10.8 inches — more than a stock wrangler and higher than the other GC models with Quadra-Lift. The WK2 is one of the most popular overlanding vehicles in Australia with its 25.7-degree approach and 27.1-degree departure angles, which can be increased even more by removing the lower front air dam with the hand twist of seven locking connectors.

The Trailhawk is the top of the line for off-road enthusiasts who want to travel in luxury and style, both on- and off-road. A 22.8-degree breakover angle helps it traverse obstacles, and the full-undercarriage skid plates and optional steel rock rails keeps the WK2’s guts intact.

The phrase “lockers over lightbars” is often heard when someone asks what to upgrade on their Jeep first, but this is a moot point with the Trailhawk’s Quadra-Drive II 4×4 system. Its electronic limited slip differentials are automatically adjusted between full open and full lock as the system delivers up to 100% of engine torque to a single wheel if needed. This is full-time four-wheel drive taken to the next level.

Like the other Trailhawk variants, the Grand Cherokee Trailhawk features a “Rock” mode in addition to the standard Auto, Sand, Mud and Snow modes. It also features hill ascent and descent in addition to 4WD Low. There is simplicity in the seamless integration between the engine, suspension, transmission and steering response. Just rotating the knob tunes each of these systems to perform best for the terrain selected. For instance, selecting Rock mode engages 4WD Low, lifts the suspension to its maximum “Off Road 2” ride height, softens the throttle response and holds gears longer for better low speed control and changes the stability control programming.

Even wearing humble street tires, the Grand Cherokee Trailhawk can chase your friend’s Wrangler down most trails and over most obstacles. Don’t get me wrong: None of the Jeep Trailhawk models can be lifted as easily as the Wrangler to gain more ground clearance, nor are they solid-axle vehicles with the suspension articulation to match.

Then again, they are not trying to compete directly with the Wrangler. They are just additional options available to choose from when you want a comfortable and capable SUV that you can live with every day, all year long, both on- and off-road.

The views expressed by the authors and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Jeepin' Central Florida or any employee thereof.

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