Car reviews - Jeep - Cherokee - Trailhawk
One-car versatility, impressive rock-hopping ability, unique looks, on and off-road comfort
Room for improvement
No diesel option, fuel consumption
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12 Nov 2014
On paper the two Jeeps appear to have a lot in common. The $47,500 Cherokee costs just $500 more than the most comparable Wrangler Unlimited Overland, both have five doors and offer a similar amount of interior space and both are powered by the Pentastar V6 via an automatic transmission.
But it is when you peer beneath the skin that you start to see the differences between the two models.
Where the Wrangler has a bomb-proof tried and tested recipe of ladder-chassis and solid axles at either end, the Cherokee has a far more car-like monocoque shell and independent suspension – indeed, its platform is shared with the Alfa Romeo Giulietta hatchback.
Those key differences alone should put the venerable Wrangler way ahead of the car-related Cherokee as soon as the blacktop ends, but during a day of varying off-road challenges, the Cherokee had a few surprises up its sleeve.
Negotiating the unsurfaced but straightforward trails that our journey started along offered a chance to get to know the interiors of the two models. The Cherokee has comfortable supportive leather seats and a good driving position with a clear view of the surroundings – perfect for taking in the stunning spring mountains near Bright.
Little of the rough surface noise came through in to the cabin and progress to the more technical trails was relaxing.
For a majority of our day, we piloted the shorter wheelbase Wrangler and a similar section of track immediately highlighted the three-door Jeep's more agricultural underpinnings with a more upright commercial seating position, a view limited by thick pillars and a firm ride.
We love the Wrangler's theatrical and functional interior with grab-handles, hose-out flooring and fabric check-straps, but for eating up the miles, its newer sibling wins hands down.
As the trails narrowed and steepened, the Wrangler started to claw back respect. The exit of a tame river-crossing was covered by large smooth boulders offering little in the way of traction but without any adjustment to settings other than the engagement of four-wheel drive the boxy Jeep bit in without wheel-slip or hesitation.
The same challenge caused the Cherokee to pause and redistribute power to other wheels before continuing out of the water section.
Back on drier surfaces the Cherokee made progress with ease and considerable comfort for the occupants.
With a ground clearance of 222mm and approach/departure angles of up to 30 and 32 degrees respectively, the Cherokee didn't rub its nose or tail in the dirt once, despite some respectably steep climbs and descent – although the parking sensors liked to give unnecessary warnings and were turned off.
An occasional belly-out was caused by large boulders but the Trailhawk's underbody protection plates prevented anything worse than a scrape.
The Cherokee's four-wheel drive system looks after itself compared to the Wrangler, which needs two or four-wheel drive manually selecting with levers, giving the Cherokee a more point and fire feel, but for very steep passages we engaged the low-range ratios with the push of a button.
Attempting very steep and boulder-strewn ascents seemed effortless in the Wrangler with its tough solid axles and tight 16-inch turning radius compared with the Cherokee's 27-inch radius, but, while the Wrangler may have more confidence inspiring ability, occupants of the Cherokee were more comfortable.
The only thing upsetting the smooth progress on board the Cherokee was an excessively light throttle spring, which allowed accidental stabbing of the throttle caused by large jolts from the trail.
Power from the excellent Pentastar V6 is smooth and adequate but the Wrangler's larger 3.6-litre engine gave it an edge over the 3.2-litre version in the Cherokee. Given the nature of our travel, fuel consumption in both cases was more a case of gallons per mile rather than miles per gallon.
The low-down torque and lesser fuel consumption of a diesel engine would lend itself perfectly to either Jeep model, but unfortunately Overland and Rubicon variants of the Wrangler, and Trailhawk versions of the Cherokee are only available with relatively thirsty petrol engines.
Chunky Yokohama Geolander 245/65R17 tyres fitted to the Cherokee grabbed a variety of surfaces well and stubbornly resisted ruts, allowing us to steer out of already deep channels where other vehicles would have to commit to following the track most trodden.
Its six speed automatic transmission did a decent job of keeping the revs where the power was and rev-wringing was not necessary to pull the Cherokee over even the largest obstacles, and selecting low-range took even more strain off the engine.
The transmission is also good at sensing descents and holds a gear to make use of engine-braking rather than changing up and putting strain on the brakes.
For almost all off the highland excursion we allowed the Cherokee to handle the traction, leaving the switchable Selec-terrain in Auto mode but towards the end of the trail we encountered the steepest and most rocky climb.
An initial attempt in Auto setting and normal-range ratios stopped the Cherokee in its tracks, but after only a short roll-back and with Rock Selec-terrain and low-ratios engaged we had another try.
The Cherokee clearly had a bit more of a think the next time round with the various traction-control and torque distribution systems frantically juggling power between the wheels.
With slow but impressive conviction, the most hardcore Cherokee grabbed hold of the loose rocks and pulled itself to the summit with agility that had to be experienced to be believed.
Just a few meters after successfully completing the hardest climb of the day, the trail suddenly turned again in to smooth asphalt, and it was then that the Cherokee confirmed its most surprising attribute.
It might not devour obstacles with quite the same pace and efficiency of the hardcore Wrangler, but when the way ahead turns back into far more routine roads, the Cherokee is quiet, comfortable and effortless.
Having the ability to scale high peaks one day and the high street the next makes the Cherokee Trailhawk a true all-occasions car, and while the Wrangler keeps its crown as king of the hill this time, the Cherokee Trailhawk wins as the everyday all-round hero.
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