We took a quick spin (two of them, actually) in the latest Trailhawk model, which joins Renegades and Cherokees with the same badge and off-road bent for 2017. Our time was limited, and so were our initial findings. After driving on and off pavement at Fiat Chrysler's proving grounds in Chelsea, Michigan, we can tell you that on the road, this Grand Cherokee has the same refined driving dynamics as any other. As for off-roading, the capability is still somewhat of an open question.
- The suspension and off-road system tuning are what really set the Trailhawk apart from other Grand Cherokees. Jeep tweaked the four-corner Quadra-Lift air suspension to improve articulation and suspension travel, while retaining the 10.8 inches of ground clearance of lesser Quadra-Lift Grand Cherokees. Paired with the standard Quadra-Drive II four-wheel-drive system, rear electronic limited-slip diff, and 20-inch Goodyear Adventure off-road tires, the Trailhawk is not short on capability (at least on paper).
- Unfortunately, paper is almost where this stops. The Trailhawks we drove were pre-production models with unfinished software calibrations. The throttle on the 3.6-liter V6 Trailhawk we took on the off-road course was super touchy and hard to modulate, regardless of which Selec-Terrain off-road mode was selected. Without a reliable throttle, we were bounding over obstacles instead of negotiating them patiently. This was back in June, and Jeep's PR reps assured us at the time that the engineers knew about the oversensitive throttle and have since confirmed that the issue has been fixed for production models, which are rolling off the line in Detroit now. We're planning to get into one of those vehicles as soon as one becomes available for a full review.
- Like the standard model, the Trailhawk's air suspension offers more comfort than the double-wishbone front and four-link rear suspension on the 4Runner. Automakers generally tune off-road suspensions to maximize suspension travel, but that off-road capability often comes at the expense of on-road ride quality – it's why a Wrangler or a 4Runner tends to porpoise up and down over undulating pieces of road where a more on-road-friendly vehicle remains level. The Jeep's air suspension keeps it pinned down and stable over whoops and crests. In fact, despite the Trailhawk-specific tweaks, it rides almost like any other air-suspension-equipped Grand Cherokee. The more aggressive tires, meanwhile, are about as noisy as a normal GC's 20-inch rolling stock.
- Aside from the throttle issue, the 3.6-liter V6 negotiated inclines with ease – there's no shame in ordering the base engine. We only drove a Trailhawk with the 3.0-liter EcoDiesel V6 on a road loop, but its 420 pound-feet of torque and 700-plus-mile range should suit the off-roader very well, especially for anyone interested in overland-style excursions. The Hemi V8 is also available.
- Aesthetics are a big part of the Trailhawk line's DNA, and the Grand Cherokee has all the same stylistic calling cards as the Renegade and Cherokee that wear the badge – a prominent black hood decal, red tow hooks, more aggressive tires on unique wheels, and off-road-friendly front and rear bumpers. But the execution is more mature here, partly because the Grand Cherokee has a more adult design to begin with. Despite the oversized hood decal and tow hooks, the restyled front and rear fascias and dark gray accents aren't as showy as they are on the Renegade or Cherokee. Whether that's good or bad is a matter of opinion, but we're digging the cleaner GC.
- Jeep's designers exercised similar restraint in the muted, business-like cabin – black is the dominant color, like on other Trailhawk models, with red stitching on the door panels, seats, and steering wheel. Jeep threw in a few piano black trim elements and dark silver accents, but the Grand Cherokee Trailhawk is still a restrained piece of design. Perhaps the best interior feature is a functional one – the supportive Alcantara-and-leather seats keep you comfortable and stuck in place while bounding down trails.
So at this point we know the Trailhawk is a comfortable way to get to an off-road park. Once we get an updated model out on the trails, we'll bring you the complete picture. For now, the top 4Runner is at least on notice.