The Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk is the most off-road-capable mid-size SUV on the road today, but that comes both at the expense of on-road ride quality and with a steep price tag.
Versus the competition:
The Trailhawk is a clear winner once the road ends, but for all the miles between adventures, the competition strikes back.
The Jeep Grand Cherokee gets only very mild updates for 2017, but it does add an exciting new trim level that raises the level of the mid-size SUV’s off-road capability: the Trailhawk.
A five-seater, the Jeep Grand Cherokee is sold in six trim levels: Laredo, Limited, Trailhawk, Overland, Summit and SRT. Compare the 2017 Grand Cherokee with the 2016 model here.
Jeep’s goal with the Trailhawk was to make the most off-road-capable mid-size SUV on the market, a title that probably already belonged to one of the model’s other trim levels. The Grand Cherokee’s competition, such as the Nissan Murano, Ford Edge and Kia Sorento, are much more pavement-oriented. Compare the Grand Cherokee with those models here.
In fact, the 2016 version of the Grand Cherokee recently took on these three SUVs (as well as the 2017 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport) in our 2016 Midsize SUV Challenge at the end of last year. And it finished… dead last. One of the reasons was its more truck-like ride, but that isn’t something I mind in an SUV — especially if it comes with added capability. And the Trailhawk takes that concept even further, adding a slew of mechanical upgrades that make it an off-road savant — plus rugged styling touches to match.
Exterior and Styling
The Grand Cherokee stands out from the rest of its class with its old-school, rugged styling, and the Trailhawk takes that motif further still with a few unique styling touches. Each Trailhawk features flat-black appliques on the hood, plus front and rear tow hooks that are painted bright red. There are also gray side mirrors and roof-rack accents.
To protect its underbody, the Grand Cherokee Trailhawk has standard skid plates front and rear. Mopar rock rails are optional if you require rocker panel protection. The front air dam is removable for added clearance when traversing obstacles.
How It Drives
Under the hood, the Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk I tested came with the standard Jeep Grand Cherokee engine: a 293-horsepower, 3.6-liter V-6 that makes 260 pounds-feet of torque. A 360-hp, 5.7-liter V-8 that makes 390 pounds-feet of torque is available, as well. Jeep says that a 240-hp, 3.0-liter EcoDiesel V-6 that makes 420 pounds-feet of torque will be an option on Trailhawk and Summit models, but it wasn’t available as of publication; according to the EPA, it violates the Clean Air Act and has not been certified for use in 2017 models (though the latest word is that it will be). An eight-speed automatic is the only transmission option.
Jeep outfitted the Trailhawk with Quadra-Drive II full-time all-wheel drive with an electronic limited-slip rear differential and an adjustable air suspension that’s unique in this price range. It takes the Grand Cherokee to another level of off-road prowess, raising the Trailhawk as needed for added ground clearance and greater suspension travel. The all-wheel drive also includes an advanced traction control system called Quadra-Trac II, which can anticipate wheel slippage and send more torque to the wheels with traction. It also adds a Low range suitable for slower crawling.
A control panel behind the shift lever gives the driver full control over off-road settings, including hill ascent and descent control, raising and lowering the air suspension, Low range and a knob for the Selec-Terrain traction control system, which has five settings for types of terrain (Snow, Sand, Auto, Mud and Rock).
These changes all pay huge dividends off-road, where the Trailhawk truly shines, especially with its smart traction control system. There was a point where the Trailhawk was up on three wheels, and the system immediately halted power to the wheel that was up in the air and directed it to the other wheels, helping pull the Trailhawk over the obstacle.
We took the Trailhawk out with a 2017 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon on the same trails and obstacles. Though it wasn’t as naturally suited to the exercises as the Wrangler was, the Trailhawk made it through everything with its combination of ground clearance, excellent traction control, all-wheel drive and plenty of power from the V-6, delivered in a linear fashion that was easy to control.
There are tradeoffs to the Trailhawk’s emphasis on capability, however. The unique suspension is great off-road but offers a worse ride on pavement. The suspension, with its extra travel and softer tuning, didn’t really feel settled on the highway — much less so than other Grand Cherokee trims I’ve driven. It was prone to rebounding on road imperfections, which gave the ride an undulating quality.
Fuel economy figures vary by engine choice. Our Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk with the V-6 engine gets an EPA-estimated 18/25/21 mpg city/highway/combined on regular gas, while the V-8 is rated 14/22/17 mpg on mid-grade fuel. The potential EcoDiesel engine had been the mileage champ, rating as high as 30 mpg in the city with rear-wheel drive; that would make it as attractive as its high torque rating should it be cleared for sale.
Other than some Trailhawk badging on the seats and steering wheel, the interior is what you’ll find in most other Grand Cherokee trims — good materials and plenty of room, front and rear.
And even though there’s a beefy all-wheel-drive system, there isn’t a floor hump, so three passengers can fit more comfortably across the rear seat and won’t be forced into playing footsie.
Ergonomics and Electronics
Though Apple CarPlay and Android Auto aren’t offered, their absence is mitigated by Uconnect, which is a solid multimedia system in its own right. The system hasn’t changed much throughout the years and remains one of my favorites to use, with intuitive operation. The optional, larger 8.4-inch screen in our test vehicle was easily visible and reachable from both front seats. The standard screen is 5 inches.
One part of the Grand Cherokee’s interior design that I really appreciated was the back of the center console, which houses not only vents for air circulation but also a pair of easily accessible USB charge ports and a 110-volt household outlet. This provides plenty of charging options for backseat passengers, and the outlet means a larger mobile device or laptop can be charged while on the go, as well.
Cargo and Storage
The Grand Cherokee Trailhawk has 36.3 cubic feet of cargo space behind its 60/40-split folding backseat, which expands to 68.3 cubic feet when the seats are dropped. That places the Grand Cherokee in the middle of the pack compared with other members of this class, ahead of the Murano (32.1/67.0 cubic feet) but trailing the Edge (39.2/73.4 cubic feet).
With standard towing capacity of 6,200 pounds (up to 7,200 or 7,400 pounds with the other engines, depending on driveline), the Trailhawk obliterates the Murano, Edge, Sorento and Explorer, which can tow only 1,500 or 2,000 pounds in their standard forms.
The Grand Cherokee received a score of good (out of a possible good, acceptable, marginal or poor) in each of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s tests except the small overlap front test, where it’s rated marginal. This makes it one of the lower performers in the Institute’s mid-size SUVs class.
The Jeep Grand Cherokee includes a standard backup camera. The Trailhawk I drove also came with the Active Safety Group option package ($1,495) that adds adaptive cruise control; forward collision warning with autonomous emergency braking that operates at all speeds; lane departure warning; and parallel/perpendicular park assist that will steer the Grand Cherokee into a parking space while the driver controls the gas and brake. It also came with optional blind spot warning ($595).
Value in Its Class
The Trailhawk has a base price of $44,990 including destination charge and comes standard with many convenience features in addition to the mechanical upgrades mentioned previously: heated and ventilated front seats, heated outboard rear seats, an 8.4-inch touchscreen display with Uconnect, 18-inch off-road wheels, a heated steering wheel and power front seats.
Our test vehicle came with several option packages not already mentioned, including the Trailhawk Luxury Group (automatic high beams, panoramic moonroof, LED daytime running lights and a power-adjustable steering column, among other options) for $2,695. Rock rails ($900) and navigation ($450) gave it a final price of $50,125 as tested.
Considering that the price cap for our 2016 Midsize SUV Challenge was $45,000, the Trailhawk would be in the higher echelon of that class. But then again, it’s much more capable, and for a consumer who puts a priority on off-road capability, the Trailhawk is a welcome addition to the field.
It may be more apt to compare the Trailhawk to two other SUVs with more of that focus — the Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon Hard Rock (which starts at $43,240 but was $48,120 in the configuration we tested against the Trailhawk) and the Toyota 4Runner TRD Pro, which starts at $43,340. Neither offers the same towing capacity as the Grand Cherokee, with the Wrangler Unlimited towing just 3,500 pounds and the 4Runner 5,000 pounds.
It should be noted that the Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk is much better on pavement than these two, plus it offers extra creature comforts and safety features that justify its price premium.
Cars.com’s Editorial department is your source for automotive news and reviews. In line with Cars.com’s long-standing ethics policy, editors and reviewers don’t accept gifts or free trips from automakers. The Editorial department is independent of Cars.com’s advertising, sales and sponsored content departments.