Ultimate Jeep Head-to-Head: Wrangler Rubicon Versus Grand Cherokee Trailhawk

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.

Related: Jeep Renegade Deserthawk, Altitude to Debut in L.A.

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 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 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.

Styling

Winner: Wrangler

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.

Powertrain

Winner: Grand Cherokee

You wouldn't believe that both of these trucks have the same engine; they feel completely different thanks to everything that's between the engine and the road. The Trailhawk's eight-speed automatic transmission is smooth and makes the most of the available power, resulting in easy driving, excellent highway manners and plenty of passing power. The taller 3.45 final drive ratio also helps keep revs down when cruising, adding to the quiet, serene environment in the cabin, while the additional gears help with acceleration.

The Wrangler, by contrast, feels poky and slow. That's partly due to its transmission that's geared for better off-road usability, but also a factor of its big, chunky tires and long throttle travel. Having only five gears to play with also means that the engine revs considerably higher at highway speeds than the Grand Cherokee, and when you combine that with a notable lack of sound insulation in the Wrangler, the winner in this category becomes obvious.

On-Road Manners (Mall Rated)

Winner: Grand Cherokee

I've likened the experience of driving a Wrangler on city streets to driving a brand-new vintage car: It's bouncy, steers poorly, has terrible directional stability, mushy brakes, feels tall and tippy, and is generally unpleasant as a commuter vehicle. Wong was more succinct in his assessment: "Not good. Not good at all."

The Trailhawk isn't perfect, either, with both of us noticing that it rode a bit more stiffly than other versions of the Grand Cherokee, likely a combination of its all-terrain tires and different shock tuning. Its steering is a bit soft as well, not providing much in the way of feedback to the driver on pavement. That said, compared to the Wrangler's abominably messy on-road driving dynamics, the Trailhawk is a veritable Formula 1 racecar in its abilities.

Off-Road Manners (Trail Rated)

Winner: Wrangler

This is where the differences in philosophy about how to go off-road start to really appear. Starting with construction: The Wrangler uses a body-on-frame design with two live axles front and rear, a manually activated part-time four-wheel-drive system that you have to shift into yourself, a dedicated low-range creeper gear, significantly more wheel articulation, tires that grip rock as if they're made of glue — the list of equipment and abilities goes on and on. That translates into a rig that can crawl over anything with so little drama that you continually look for increasingly tougher challenges to see if anything can stump it. That crazy-steep hill climb over there with the moguls that would give a downhill skier pause? Pull right up to the bottom, shift into four-wheel drive and then 4-Low, push the button to lock the front and rear axles, push another button to disconnect the front sway bar for better wheel articulation, give it some gas and just climb on up, happy as you please. Over obstacles that had half of the unibody Trailhawk's wheels in the air, the Wrangler kept all four wheels planted in the dirt. "This thing was born and bred to do this, and it shows," Wong said. No matter what we threw at it, the Wrangler never lost grip, never got hung up, never so much as protested.

Surprisingly, the Grand Cherokee Trailhawk can do just about everything the Wrangler was able to do, but it did it through electronic means, not the mechanical force that the Wrangler uses. Pull up to the bottom of that same hill climb, and you've got other buttons to push and knobs to twist — one to raise the air suspension to its highest setting, one to select the kind of terrain you're about to cross and one to engage 4-Low if you want it (and only while in certain terrain settings). Once you've dialed in the right settings, the Trailhawk climbs up the same terrain that the Wrangler does but with more bumping and scraping, and with some tilting to the vehicle that can be unsettling.

The Trailhawk has 10.8 inches of maximum ground clearance when you extend the air suspension to its maximum setting, which is just slightly more than the 10.5 inches the Wrangler offers. The independent front suspension doesn't have the same range and articulation that the Wrangler's solid axle does, but through careful electronic management, it has many of the same abilities. The tires are a noticeable weak point off-road, with the Trailhawk's all-seasons skewed toward on-road driving comfort and quietness versus the Wrangler's purposeful knobbies. The grip they had over smooth rock was not as good as the Wrangler's, which never lost traction on any surface.

The ultimate decision came down to which SUV felt most comfortable traversing challenging terrain, and for that, we gave the nod to the one that feels born to do it.

Comfort

Winner: Grand Cherokee

There's a night and day difference in comfort between the Wrangler and the Grand Cherokee, and it comes down to design philosophy. The Grand Cherokee is a luxurious SUV first and off-roader second; that order is reversed for the Wrangler.  From the top-notch materials; large, comfortable seats; and latest-and-greatest Uconnect multimedia system with premium audio, the Trailhawk is the truck you'd want to commute in or drive cross-country via the interstate highway system. There's a panoramic sunroof, automatic climate control, heated and ventilated front seats, tons of creature comforts for its passengers and sound deadening to eliminate the outside world.

The Wrangler Unlimited is exactly the opposite. Yes, it's an older design, but it's also a reflection on how you can use a Wrangler. Case in point: You can still hose out a Wrangler's interior by pulling up the removable carpet and popping the drain plugs located in the floorboards. The doors and top are removable, so they're not sealed quite as well as the Trailhawk's more buttoned-up body. Those knobby tires that sail over the dirt practically roar over the asphalt. There's plenty of exposed sheet metal in the Wrangler's cabin, which is an easy way for road, tire and engine noise to get transmitted to the cabin, and the seats in the Wrangler are smaller and more upright. That's great for off-road driving position, but it's tiresome for a 70-mph highway drive.

Fuel Economy

Winner: Grand Cherokee

Both of these trucks use the same engine — the 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6, which is a powerful, smooth and perfectly matched engine to either of these SUVs. Neither Jeep gets great gas mileage due to the nature of what they are (although you can achieve some decent numbers with the Grand Cherokee's EcoDiesel engine option). The differences here are pretty obvious: The Grand Cherokee is actually fairly aerodynamic, has better on-road tires and even has an Aero setting in the air suspension that lowers the SUV for better highway performance; it gets an EPA-estimated 18/25/21 mpg city/highway/combined. In comparison, the Wrangler has all the aerodynamic efficiency of your average single-family bungalow. It's a rolling box, saddled with a five-speed automatic transmission to the Trailhawk's eight-speed, and a final drive ratio that is meant for low-end grunt instead of high-speed cruising. It gets 16/20/18 mpg.

We drove the two SUVs more than 250 miles around Los Angeles, through canyons and highways, with the Grand Cherokee using 11.9 gallons of gas and returning 21.7 mpg combined versus the Wrangler's 13.8-gallon consumption and observed 18.9 mpg. That's frankly not as big a difference as we might have expected, and it may have something to do with the Grand Cherokee being significantly heavier than the Wrangler, but the numbers are the numbers.

Cargo Room

Winner: Grand Cherokee

The Grand Cherokee Trailhawk and Wrangler Unlimited might look completely unlike each other, but they have similar interior spaces. The Wrangler features 31.5 cubic feet of room behind the second row, while the Grand Cherokee offers up 36.3 cubic feet. That advantage is reversed when the second row is folded however, with the Wrangler's 70.6 cubic feet of total room to the Grand Cherokee's 68.3 cubic feet. That's basically a wash, but there is one feature that the Grand Cherokee has that the Wrangler does not: roof rails for mounting extra cargo. The Wrangler's top is removable and not structural; if you want to carry more stuff, you can buy a full roof rack cage that bolts to the truck or a trailer-hitch-mounted carrier, but the Grand Cherokee already has the ability to carry more stuff right from the factory.

Conclusions

Jeep's newest Grand Cherokee Trailhawk trim is quite the total package — comfortable, useful, loaded with technology and able to do the things that the more off-road-intended Wrangler can do in the dirt.

"The Grand Cherokee Trailhawk is your smartphone camera — it's got bells and whistles, filters, it's easy to use and accessible. The Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon Hard Rock is a DSLR camera, much more powerful in capable hands but a bit unwieldy and not necessarily something you'd want to carry around day to day." Wong said. "For the majority of folks, the pictures you take with a smartphone are plenty good enough, but for the enthusiasts or those who want more options and control, a DSLR is the only choice."

And that's really what it boils down to: The Wrangler is for off-roaders who know what they're doing, who know how to adjust the settings themselves, when to lock the axles, when to disconnect the sway bars, when to use a Low gear and when not to. The Grand Cherokee Trailhawk is for people who want a comfortable everyday vehicle that they can sometimes take into the woods and do extraordinary things with, perhaps more often than someone who owns a Grand Cherokee Laredo or Limited would do.

The Wrangler is the better off-road vehicle here, but it's a one-trick pony. Going off-road (and looking cool) are the only things it does well. For everything else, the Grand Cherokee Trailhawk is far superior, a better truck to live with on a daily basis, and one that can just about match what the Wrangler does, even if it's not as happy doing it as a Wrangler is.

If you're willing to live with the compromises that come with Wrangler ownership, then only the Wrangler will do (disclosure: I am one of those people; I own a 2015). But with a category win tally of five to two, the Grand Cherokee Trailhawk is the winner of this Jeep comparison.

 

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