Trailhawk 101: How Legit are Jeep’s Off-Road Oriented SUVs & Crossovers?
When it comes to the Jeep brand, the model most associated with serious off-road chops is naturally going to be the Wrangler. But vehicles like the Cherokee and Grand Cherokee have historically also had large followings in the 4x4 community.
And in recent years with the growth of its “Trailhawk” package for most of its SUVs and crossovers, Jeep has done an admirable job at spreading its “Trail Rated” cred across its lineup. But what exactly is a Trailhawk and how do each of the four available models compare? Let’s take a look.
Grand Cherokee Trailhawk
First up, we have the oldest and the most traditional member of the Jeep Trailhawk family, the Grand Cherokee.
The Grand Cherokee Trailhawk is the only one of the four models built out of a traditional RWD-based SUV, although the Trailhawk version naturally comes standard as a 4x4.
The key differences that set the Trailhawk apart from other Grand Cherokees are of course its 4WD system, the top of the line Quadra-Trac II setup which features and electronic limited slip rear differential and Jeep's Selec-Terrain system.
Suspension-wise, the Grand Cherokee Trailhawk gets additional travel along with adjustable air suspension, along with off-road oriented tires mounted on 18" wheels.
Last but not least are some of the things that make the Trailhawk model most noticeable to the outside observer, including full skid plating, large red-painted tow hooks in the front and rear and unique badging.
Engine choices for the Grand Cherokee Trailhawk are either a 3.6L V6 that makes 295 horsepower or the 5.7L Hemi V8 with 360 hp. Despite the fact that the current Grand Cherokee is one of the older vehicle platforms currently on sale, the Trailhawk model is easily one of the most off-road capable and practical SUVs available now.
Not to be confused with the larger and more expensive Grand Cherokee, the "regular" Jeep Cherokee is a crossover SUV that competes in the highly popular segment against vehicles like the Honda CRV.
Yet, despite being a car-based crossover with a transverse FWD-based layout, the Cherokee Trailhawk is considered one of the most capable crossovers ever made.
Among its tricks are a an Active Drive II 4WD system which on the Trailhawk model also includes a locking rear differential and a Selec-Terrain system complete with a rock mode—features that are unheard of in just about any other crossover vehicle.
Along with that the Trailhawk also gets a 1" higher suspension when compared to other Cherokee models, along with off-road specific tires and the same red tow hooks that help identify all of Jeep's Trailhawks.
The Trailhawk version of the Cherokee is available with two different engine options. The lower level engine is a 271 hp 3.2L V6 naturally aspirated V6 with an optional 2.0L turbocharged four-cylinder that makes 270 hp but at 295 pound feet of torque has a significant advantage over the V6 in low end power. Both engines come mated to a nine-speed automatic.
A crossover like the Cherokee Trailhawk is never going to be the first choice of serious off-roaders, but for someone looking for a family-friendly, relatively inexpensive crossover that delivers off-road capability that goes far beyond what's typically found in the segment, the Cherokee Trailhawk is an intriguing choice.
If there's a middle child of the Jeep Trailhawk family, then the Compass would be it. Similar to Cherokee, the Compass is crossover and at a glance doesn't look much different than its slightly larger cousin.
Unlike the Grand Cherokee and Cherokee Trailhawk, the Compass Trailhawk has just one engine choice, a 2.4L naturally aspirated four-cylinder that makes 180 hp and is connected to a nine-speed automatic transmission.
The Compass Trailhawk of course packs AWD and gets a unique "crawler gear" as part of its Active Drive setup. And like the Cherokee, it also gets a "rock mode' as part of its Selec-Terrain system.
Elsewhere, you'll find the other Trailhawk goodies like skid plating, additional ground clearance, and, of course, those signature red tow hooks.
Like the Cherokee, the Compass Trailhawk isn't a trail monster but it still delivers much better off-pavement talent than the small crossovers it competes against. Most buyers in this segment have no intention of going off-road, but we like the fact that Compass Trailhawk exists nonetheless.
Last but not least we get to the smallest, cheapest but also perhaps the most interesting of the four—the Renegade Trailhawk.
The Italian-built Renegade has been the subject of mixed opinion ever since it was released. Despised by some for its very "un-Jeep" roots, but also enjoyed for its fun image and boxy but character-laden approach to the crossover formula.
Like its cousins, the Renegade Trailhawk packs some pretty legit off-road stuff for what's basically a tall hatchback with some extra ground clearance. Active Drive 4WD is standard of course, and the Trailhawk also gets a "low" setup with a 21:1 crawl ratio. It also gets a hill descent control setup as part of it Selec-Terrain system.
For 2020, the Renegade Trailhawk has just one engine option: a 1.3L turbocharged four-cylinder engine that makes 177 hp and 210 pound feet of torque, again with a nine-speed automatic transmission.
Improved ground clearance, skid plating, larger tires and red tow hooks round out the Trailhawk treatment for what was already a small crossover not short on personality.
Again, no one is going to pick a Renegade Trailhawk as their dedicated off-road rig, but with its small size, decent fuel economy and relatively cheap price it could potentially make a solid daily driver that's much more fun than other tiny crossovers when the pavement ends.
No, they may never be "real" Jeeps in the eyes of certain purists, but in a world where SUVs and crossovers have come to dominate the market, we see no reason not to appreciate Jeep's effort at spreading its trail-oriented DNA across its lineup.
And, for a Jeep on the other end of the spectrum, you can see our review of the new Nitto NT420V tire on the high performance Grand Cherokee SRT right here.