Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Review: Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk

The Sport Utility market has erupted over the last 10 years. The long lost ancestors of todays soft roaders stood out thanks to their ability to mount curbs, and if you believe the hype, potentially leave the tarmac long enough to actually traverse a bubbling brook. However, todays unlikely rising star of Jeep Australia is finally putting some trail rated substance back into medium SUVs. 

What once drew the crowds, now is par for what has become the default family transport. I suspect that if any of todays SUVs didn't have at least some ground clearance, they would be seen for the modern minivans that they are (not that there's anything wrong with that).

In fact the capabilities of most modern SUVs so similar that the decision to purchase often comes down to aesthetics. Even that sometimes doesn't help. Just try to split the Honda CRV from the Hyundai Santa Fe from outside. They look so similar, I'm confused as to why the don't just get it over with and use the same 'H' on their badge.

That's not an accusation you could aim at Jeep. They have had a consistent number of SUVs over the last few years which have all come equipped with polarising looks. From the XXL Jeep Commander to the Compass and Nitro, Jeep Australia has been raising (and possibly furrowing) more eyebrows than any other company.

That is, however, what strong US flavoured design has always done.

The Jeep Cherokee Sport maintains that standard and the Trailhawk amplifies the polarity even further. In fact the question I got asked most was, "uh.....What...... is...... that".

Note the pause between words. It was always the same, as was the subsequent "You bought a Jeep?!".

To be totally honest though, from the first second our eyes met, until the last second I dropped it back, I was transfixed by the mid sized marauder. I like things a little different and the Cherokee definitely qualifies.

Eye to Eye

First, let's address that exterior. I'm a functional man. That means I appreciate anything that has a purpose. The Cherokee Trailhawk is dripping in functional bits and pieces.

Most prominent is that nose. Unlike the non Trail Rated versions, this model has an improved approach angle which presents itself as an unusual looking overbite. Inset are the red recovery points which, yes, are real steel and do actually work (more on that later).

There is also the RADAR cruise control sensor, trade mark slotted grille, and the matt black bonnet patch, which technically doesn't have a function except that it hints that this isn't the bargain basement model.

Move around to the back and you get the same treatment, with a bezelled rear end allowing improved departure angle and chrome exhaust tips which barely sit proud of the bumper, unlike the other red recovery hook.

The Trailhawk also sits slightly higher than it's less capable stable mates, and with good reason. This SUV actually likes to get dirty. Chest plate is also pretty decent.

The Cockpit

The Cherokee Trailhawk is the second from the top of the range but for $47,500, the cabin features are plentiful, including a trick colour LCD instrument panel with switchable menus providing flashy display of trip information and guidance instructions.

Leather seats, GPS, power tailgate and multi adjustable second row seating make you wonder what exactly you are missing out on. Comfort and space is good without being cavernous but there is a general feel of the whole thing just being the right size for a little trail blazing. Not too big. Not too small.

The quality of the leather is not exceptional and the only other real concern is the luggage area which isn't really big enough to allow you exploit the full potential of the Trailhawk. I would recommend a roof pod. It's worth the compromise.

Heart and Soul

Unlike most of its "competitors" the engine and drivetrain are defining features of the Trailhawk. Power from the 'Pentastar' 3.2L petrol V6 (200kW@6500 and 316Nm  @4400) in regular duties, is driven to the front two wheels, and rearward on demand, via a 9 speed gearbox.

As the figures suggest, power delivery needs some revs to get a move on, which can be detrimental offroad, as often you are starting from rest or travelling at low speed. Fortunately, there is also dual range transfer case meaning you can select 4L and get better access to some of that torque.

Should things get a little more serious, there is also an e-locking rear diff.

Of course, for science, I tested each capability at my secret forest test track and came away rather impressed. The main short fall is articulation. Independent suspension all round is great for ride comfort, but on a few spots I found one wheel cocked in the air meaning there was less traction on the comparably small tyres. Nonetheless, the ESP settings worked ok, the locking diff did its business and over all, it felt like it could go a lot more places than your run of the mill soft roaders.

But don't fool yourself. This won't challenge a Wrangler or Grand Cherokee offroad, but it will put a smile on your face and you'll be able to blast off into the distance when the opportunity arises.

On road it drives just like any other SUV though the mass of the drivetrain manifests itself as understeer if you get too adventurous.

In a straight line, acceleration is less entertaining than the nice little yodel it lets out as you mash the pedal into the carpet, but still better than expected.

 Best of all is there is (obviously) no diesel rattle. Cabin quiet is only interupted by the obnoxious levels of base from the stereo.

The compromise is fuel economy, which doesn't come near the amazing ADR rating of the dual range 2.0L diesel which apparently sips just 5.1L/100kms on the highway but this engine is not available in Trailhawk trim. No, the 3.2 likes a bit of a drink with the city/hwy/combined ADR reading 13.9/7.7/10.0. I can confirm the hwy rating but never got it that thirsty in town work. Off road consumption will make the real 4x4s blush. Try 16.0L/100kms on the beach. Anyone that has driven on soft sand would probably like to read that twice. "Proper" 4x4s would be closer to 22+L/100kms. In other terrain, I wouldn't expect economy to be too favourable and the tank is a rather modest 60L.

But could the mid sized American even dig it's own way out of the beach?

Don't Hold Back

Face to face, it looked like Captain America. Overt face, flashy red hooks and big alloys, a 'Trail Rated' badge emblazoned on its flank like a big old shield. My childhood was filled with comics and I kind of wanted to believe those heroes were real, but like Santa Clause, it's the hope inside that you can only hold onto if there is no real evidence to the contrary.

I'd seen the ads for Jeep with their soaring theme song from the Potbelleez which bears the same title as their tagline: Don't Hold Back. It doesn't end there. Don't forget "It's a Jeep thing", "You bought a Jeep?" and the more recent but less iconic "we're gonna need a bigger boat". No expense has been spared on creating the legend of Jeep in Australia, and I had hoped that maybe Captain America WAS real. In equal measure, I was concerned that all that marketing was about to be thrown out with last years wrapping paper.

There was no time to be concerned. My in laws were already on the other side of Noosa river, setting up camp and we were going to be late, and, setting up in the dark. Captain America was jam packed with our oversized tent and enough stuff for a young family of five to spend a weekend. Not a cubic centimeter more. In fact, the auto-tailgate thumbed its nose at our load a few times until I had made the necessary adjustments (namely putting more stuff under the kids feet in the sliding second row).

As I mentioned before, get a roof pod.

The Wilderness camp is a fantastic location to start your day. After a nights sleep we awoke to a view over the southern end of Teewah Beach. Literally right on the edge of the sand, it's necessary to book weeks in advance for off peak and months in advance for peak season. Then arrive on Wednesday or Thursday to secure your choice of camp site. Our spot was a perfect mix of access to the beach, amenities, and the shop for the occasional ice cream.

We headed down to the cutting after a hearty bacon-centric breakfast, I took a deep breath, selected 4H and guided Captain America onto the sand with a half throttle of encouragement. Of course it was barely a challenge and it flew through the sand with nary a blink of it's shark like projector eyeballs. We paused on the beach and waited for the rest of our party.

My brother in law, in his V8 dual cab Land Cruiser pulled up next to us and asked if we had plowed along the sand. Apparently there was a nice smooth flat path for him to drive over. We then saw a shiny black VW Toureg crawling past us on its belly. <-it was them. It was low tide and Rainbow Beach was calling, so it was time to see what the Trail Hawk really had to offer. Let's move on.

Cruising over the firm sand, it floated along at barely 1500 rpm. With the windows down, a cool onshore breeze brought the smell of the beach breaks on the right. To the left were the constantly evolving colours of the sand dunes as they progressed from pale white to the yellow, red and orange that give Rainbow Beach its name. This is a commute I could do every day.

The trip from the cutting to Leishas track takes in the entire length of Teewah Beach and lasts for around 36kms. By time you reach the end, it can take upto an hour depending on how many comfort breaks your junior burgers need and how many times you need to stop for photos.

Leishas track is a short cut which goes across the neck of Double Island point. There are trails to go right along double Island point, but they are not for amateurs or the faint hearted. I'm one of those but it doesn't matter which one! Getting it wrong often means a swim for the offenders vehicle. I don't think Jeep Australia would have accepted "I didn't hold back" as an excuse for why their $47,500 SUV was now a submarine.

The approach of soft sand which requires a fair amount of momentum. I ensured that Captain America had plenty. I could feel the grin on my face as we made it over the modest rise at the start of the track and it grew as we ambled along through the scrub. The track is actually quite wide and not overly challenging, but it's just satisfying that I didn't need to call on a recovery crew.

It's the corrugations on the final part of this short trail that try to rattle your fillings loose, but a soon as your eyeballs level out, you are greeted with a sweeping vista from Rainbow beach to Double Island point, of beach side paradise. We drive over the hard sand and find a place to set up for lunch on the waters edge. The water is crystal clear, the sand is pure and clean and the air is all that and more. It's one of those moments where you just let out a little "wow.....". It's hard to believe somewhere so amazing is less than one hours drive from Noosa.

After a splash in the water, some cold refreshments and a quick bbq, the tide turned and so did we. I had enough experience at how the Cherokee responded to throttle inputs now, and had even played with the sand setting of the ESP. It essentially holds gear to ensure you don't run out of steam as you traverse the soft sand. Perhaps if we had been climbing dunes it would have been more appropriate, but even as the tide rose on our way back along Teewah Beach forcing us further up into the softer sand, I found that the Pentastar V6 had plenty of grunt to keep things moving. As we came back out of Leishas trail, I noted the black Toureg was parked up on the side of the entrance. They'd decided their feet were a better choice.

Left in normal mode, the Cherokee made the most of the million speed gearbox and only really needed to be revved when we traversed ruts to avoid going for a swim. This is what contributed to such impressive economy.

As the tide got higher and we got into ever softer sand I was waiting for Captain America to start dragging his overbite, but he just kept on charging. By time we got to the camp site, I got out and just looked at the Trailhawk in admiration as it sat there ticking, covered front to back and top to tail in salt and sand.

The next morning it was time to pack up our adventures and drive a whole 45 minutes home (got to love the Sunshine Coast!). But, there was one more duty to perform before we departed. Some backpackers in the camp next to us had gotten their Tarago camper bogged. We hooked up Captain America via a red recovery hook on the rear with a snatch strap unceremoniously wrapped around a near buried part of the stricken campers chassis.

On first attempt, I was being a little too gentle, mainly because I didn't want to pull the back end off the camper. All four wheels threw a little sand and dirt in the air. Second time around I didn't hold back.... I just buried the slipper and skull dragged the Tarago straight out of the hole in a flurry of dust, sand and howling exhaust! Yes, I felt a little bit like a hero.

Most importantly though, I did actually rescue someone, and you could really drive a soft roader off road, AND the Trail Rated Badge actually means something! Finally a product that does what it says on the label.

Captain America is real!

When we got home I fully expected to see Jesus, the Easter Bunny and Santa in my lounge room splitting a six pack.

This is not a long distance overlander, but if weekend adventure is your thing, call on the Trailhawk.

It's ready for action.

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