2014 Jeep Cherokee: How Would Our Crossover Compare Off-Road to the Cherokee Trailhawk?
May 7, 2015
The Jeep Cherokee is unique in the compact SUV segment because it's available in three distinct 4-wheel drive, tire and suspension combinations.
Our Cherokee Limited 4x4 sits at the lower end of the Jeep off-road spectrum with the so-called Active Drive I four-wheel-drive system and 225/60R18 tires. Sport and Latitude 4x4s with the AD I system get 17-inch tires and wheels with the same rolling diameter. All of them ride on a 106.3-inch wheelbase, stand 66.2 inches tall and have 7.1 inches of ground clearance.
Step up to the optional Active Drive II system when you buy a Latitude or Limited and you'll get a class-exclusive, low-range transfer case that enables superior low-speed crawling. It also provides a neutral position for flat-towing your Cherokee behind a motorhome.
Moreover, you'll get a significant 1.1-inch suspension lift that hikes ground clearance to 8.2 inches and raises the roof to 67.3 inches. Jeep engineers had to devise longer rear trailing arms to maintain the desired rear suspension geometry, which is why the wheelbase of an AD II-equipped Cherokee is somewhat longer at 107.0-inches.
The Trail-Rated Trailhawk has what Jeep calls Active Drive Lock, which is the AD II system with low range, plus a lockable rear differential. The 1.1-inch lift is standard here, of course, but the addition of taller P245/65R17 off-road tires produces an additional half-inch boost to ground clearance (8.7 inches) and overall height (67.8 inches).
I wondered what all of this would mean for Ramp Travel Index, otherwise known as RTI. I measured a Cherokee Trailhawk some months ago, but never got around to measuring our long-term test vehicle on our 20-degree RTI ramp until late last week.
Our Limited (above) with the standard Active Drive I 4x4 system and standard-height suspension managed 10 and 3/4 inches of wheel lift before daylight started to show under its left rear tire. That equates to a trip of 31.4 inches up our 20-degree ramp. Divide that figure into the standard Cherokee 4x4's 106.3-inch wheelbase and you get an RTI score of 296 points.
Our visiting Trailhawk (inconveniently painted the same shade of blue) did a little better. It managed 11 and 7/8 inch of wheel lift and crawled 34.7 inches up the ramp before it hiked a tire. Remembering to use its longer 107.0-inch wheelbase for the calculation, the Trailhawk's RTI score is 324 points.
Earth-shaking? Not really. The difference is solid, but the Trailhawk's better RTI merely puts it in the same league as the 2015 Land Rover Discovery Sport and BMW X3, which scored 323 and 322 points, respectively. Meanwhile, the Mazda CX-5 inexplicably has them all covered, if only by a little, with 334 points.
But RTI isn't the end-all, be-all of off-road performance. All things being equal, RTI is a useful metric. But the Cherokee Trailhawk isn't equal. No other crossover can touch its low-range transfer case, ground clearance and locking rear differential.
Turns out the Trailhawk has another massive advantage: approach and departure angles. It's not just because of its suspension lift and the taller tires, either. The lower halves of its front and rear bumper caps have been significantly and specifically re-sculpted for additional clearance.
It all adds up to an approach angle of 29.9 degrees and a departure angle of 32.2 degrees. It's no wonder the Trailhawk is in no danger of rubbing against our ramp at any point during its climb. And it has the traction to keep going, even on three wheels.
Pity our poor Cherokee Limited 4x4, which contacted our cheese grater ramp a few inches before it reached its RTI tipping point. That's because its approach angle is a mere 18.9 degrees. There are 25 degrees of departure angle at the back end, but that's little consolation to the bloodied nose-end of the car.
Jeep specification data says that Active Drive II and its suspension lift boost those clearance angles to 21.0 and 27.3 degrees, respectively. A good improvement, but the Trailhawk and its plastic surgery-enhanced bumpers still beat these figures by a good margin.
What does this all mean? About what you'd expect.
Our Limited with its standard Active Drive I 4x4 system is not particularly well-suited to rough trail work on a number of levels, weak RTI being one of them, low clearance being another. But neither is a serious drawback because there are two other choices.
Active Drive II offers up low-range gearing, more underbody clearance and motorhome towability for a modest option price of $995. And then there's the Trail-Rated Trailhawk, which delivers substantial traction and clearance advantages well beyond other compact crossovers, even though its RTI score isn't necessarily a standout.
Dan Edmunds, Director of Vehicle Testing @ 15,375 miles