CARS.COM — With the debut of the 2017 Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk earlier this year, we wondered how this newcomer — which purports to offer a ton of off-road ability without sacrificing comfort and everyday civility — stacked up against the undisputed king of the off-roaders, the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon Hard Rock.
For two days, we tested them over the gridlocked highways, canyon switchbacks and coastal routes of Southern California, as well as through the challenging Hungry Valley off-road park about an hour north of Los Angeles, to find out which is the better go-anywhere machine.
In our head-to-head, we tested the 2016 Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon Hard Rock. For the uninitiated, the Jeep Wrangler comes in two styles: Wrangler (four passengers, two doors) and Wrangler Unlimited (five passengers, four doors, long wheelbase). The Rubicon is the top trim level, featuring the most capable off-road equipment Jeep offers from the factory: Dana 44 heavy-duty solid axles front and rear with electronic locking differentials, an electronically disconnecting front sway bar, a Rock-Trac part-time four-wheel-drive system with 4:1 creeper gear, rock rails, skid plates for the transfer case and fuel tank, hill start assist and chunky BFGoodrich Mud Terrain T/A tires.
All Jeep Wranglers are powered by a 3.6-liter V-6 engine making 285 horsepower linked to a six-speed manual transmission. Our tester had the optional five-speed automatic and 4.10 final drive ratio. In our test, the Unlimited was the Hard Rock edition, which takes the Rubicon and makes it even crazier with Mopar rock rails, a fuel filler door, power dome hood, leather interior, steel bumpers, red tow hooks, the Alpine premium sound system and more. Our Hypergreen Wrangler Unlimited also had the body-colored three-piece Freedom Top hardtop in place of the vinyl soft top and a navigation system for a total price of $48,120, including a destination fee. That’s a lot of scratch for a rig with live axles and very little sound insulation.
If you want posh, you’re more likely to enjoy our challenger in this test, the new-for-2017 Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk. A five-passenger mid-size SUV, the Trailhawk trim is the off-road-intended level of Grand Cherokee — slotting in below the Summit, Overland and SRT trims, which are more luxurious, but above the Laredo and Limited. Like the Wrangler, it uses Jeep’s 3.6-liter V-6 engine, but makes 293 hp and is mated to a standard eight-speed automatic transmission (a diesel V-6 or Hemi V-8 are optional). Unlike the Wrangler, it has full-time all-wheel drive, the Quadra-Drive II with the adjustable Quadra-Trac off-road system that adapts the SUV’s various traction, throttle and suspension settings based on the terrain you tell it you’re traversing. The Trailhawk has an adjustable air suspension with higher increased travel than the normal Grand Cherokee for better off-road abilities. The front air dam is removable to increase your approach angle for getting over obstacles.
It’s got the same red tow hooks as the Wrangler, as well as a leather-and-faux-suede interior with red accents. While the Wrangler rolls on chunky off-road tires, the Trailhawk goes for all-terrain all-season meats meant primarily for on-road comfort. All this can be yours for a sum that’s fairly comparable to the Wrangler: $50,125.
On paper, these two top off-road Jeeps are within spitting distance of each other on price, but how do they stack up in abilities? Which is a better everyday driver? Can the Trailhawk modifications make a Grand Cherokee as capable in the rough as the top Wrangler? Los Angeles Bureau Chief Brian Wong and I put them through their paces, and this is what we discovered.
Both of these SUVs are good-looking trucks but in different ways. The Wrangler Unlimited has a classic style, a big, rugged chunkiness to it that hasn’t changed much since the original Willys in 1941.
“The Wrangler looks more off-road and rugged than the Trailhawk, even though the Trailhawk is trying really hard,” Wong said. “Those big black fender flares alone do the trick, but then you add the tubular bumper and venting on the hood to the mix, and this is one rugged machine that looks primed for war.” This isn’t to say that the Grand Cherokee isn’t also good looking, but its streamlined shape looks more practical and built for efficiency, whereas the Wrangler’s looks more purposeful. The Trailhawk is identifiable by its black hood decal, special wheels, red tow hooks and badging on the tailgate. Special mention has to be made of the Wrangler’s paint, a special DayGlo shade of green that looks as if someone colored it with a highlighter pen, and which caused havoc with camera settings. On the street, it made it easy to find the parked SUV; out in the bush, it seemed more at home.