Trail Rated: Jeep Trailhawk

Trail Rated: Jeep Trailhawk

Story and photos by Jordan Allan

With the vast majority of Jeep-related headlines these days focusing on the new Wrangler JL and the even-newer Gladiator mid-size pickup, it may be easy to forget that Jeep does offer other SUV options, which of course share in the brand’s off-road-capable mantra. In December of last year, Jeep decided to invite a small group of Canadian journalists out to the mecca of off-roading here in North America – Moab, Utah – in order to showcase just how capable the off-road versions of some of these other SUVs can be. Waiting for us upon arrival was a fleet of Grand Cherokees, Cherokees and Compasses, all in the off-road-oriented Trailhawk model, waiting to be taken out into the desert and put through their paces to see just how truly capable they are.

Before getting in to how they performed, let’s talk about what exactly a Trailhawk model is. Offered in the Grand Cherokee, Cherokee, Compass and Renegade (which was absent from this event), the Trailhawk models come with Jeep’s Trail Rated 4×4 badge, which means improvement on five key attributes that relate to better off-road performance – ground clearance, tractive effort, articulation, manoeuvrability and water fording. In order to achieve these improvements, each Trailhawk vehicle boasts the highest available crawl ratio for its model, an electronic limited slip differential and axle locker, off-road-specific hardware such as select speed and hill descent control, all-terrain tires, and body protection such as skid plates and tow hooks.

In addition to all of that, each Trailhawk model is fitted with a Selec-Terrain 4×4 system that allows the driver to choose from a number of different settings based on what their current environment is, such as Sport, Snow, Sand, Mud, Rock and Auto. This system also allows you to select 4WD Low, which did come in handy for some of the more challenging, low-speed obstacles we would eventually come across.

In order to first see how the Jeeps would perform on-road, Jeep first flew us to Grand Junction, Colorado and had us drive to Moab (approximately 182 km) to give us a sense of how they handle some city, but mostly highway, driving. My ride for this journey was a Grand Cherokee model and although I’ve driven many of them in the past, I’m always pleased with how smooth and comfortable of a ride it provides. As a result of this drive, and many others in the past, I can assure you that the Trailhawk models of any of the three SUVs do not sacrifice any of their on-road characteristics for their off-road prowess in the least.

The morning of the trail ride, we were introduced to Nena Barlow of Barlow Adventures, who would serve as our trail master in a lifted 2018 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon. Having grown up and worked in the area for many years, she knows the trails like the back of her hand and would surely be able to guide us through some of the more challenging obstacles. She told us we would be tackling the Seven Mile Rim trail, which is rated at difficult and does not usually see the likes of Cherokees or Compasses making the journey.

In addition to the already difficult terrain, a small blanket of snow appeared to be sticking to many areas of the desert, which is something that the locals said does not happen often. This would make things a bit more difficult but with our fully capable vehicles and guide, we set off into the rocky and scenic terrain to see what these vehicles could handle.

Although the snow did cause some slippage where there otherwise wouldn’t be, it became immediately clear that these vehicles were at home in this environment and would be able to get us through the day. Though we weren’t tackling any crazy boulder crawling or anything like that, we did hit some quite challenging obstacles that would force us to approach with precision, and even had us up on only three wheels at times. Each vehicle does have its unique characteristics and feels quite different from the others, but the common theme was that all three were more than capable for this environment and let us enjoy the breathtaking scenery offered up by one the prettiest landscapes I’ve ever seen (usually) without worrying about sliding off or getting stuck.

If you were to ask which of the three performed best, the answer, which probably wouldn’t shock you, would be the Grand Cherokee. This should come as no surprise as it is more expensive (MSRP $49,167 for Trailhawk) and possesses more power than the rest and sits on a Quadra-Lift Air Suspension System that provides up to 10.8-in. of ground clearance at its highest point, which is something not offered on the Cherokee and Compass. This clearance came in handy when coming across some higher-speed sections full of small whoops that claimed the life of a fender trim piece and caused some other damage underneath of a Cherokee model when my driving partner and I bottomed out a little too hard. Aside from that, the Grand Cherokee tackled obstacles with a smoothness not found on the other models and really gave the best sense of security throughout the day.

Not far behind the Grand Cherokee in terms of performance on the day was the Cherokee, which comes in a little cheaper (MSRP $33,059 for Trailhawk) and slightly less-equipped, but was able to perform admirably on the trail as well. Powered by a standard 3.2L Pentastar V6 or a new-for-2019 2.0L Turbocharged I4 that actually makes more power, the Cherokee also features a facelift for 2019 with a now much better looking front end, and still retains its overall capability. Without question, you definitely felt every little bump in the road (trail) just a little bit more in the Cherokee but it still executed each manoeuvre well and left no question that it would be able to handle the challenging terrain.

There was a bit more of a drop-off from there to the less-expensive Compass ($27,959 for Trailhawk) but that is to be expected as it is smaller, less powerful and was probably built with cost effectiveness as its first priority. In saying that, the Compass didn’t ever come close to getting stuck in this environment and accomplished everything its larger brethren did that day albeit with a bit more effort. Given that going in, I probably expected the Compass to perform worse than it actually did, it’s safe to say that it was definitely the biggest surprise of the trip.

Although none of the vehicles I drove on the trip are as capable as the trail-eating Wrangler ultimately is, I’m sure it’s a huge feather in the cap for Jeep to say without a doubt that they possess the most off-road capable vehicles in each of the Grand Cherokee’s, Cherokee’s, and Compass’ respective segments. Having seen the Trail Rated badge on many Jeep vehicles throughout the years, it was good to finally see how they earned it.