2014 Jeep Cherokee: Off-Road in a Trailhawk
June 23, 2015
My trip to Moab, Utah in our 2014 Jeep Cherokee Limited 4x4 was business-related. What kind of business?
The best kind.
Jeep invited me to participate in an overnight off-road excursion in a 2015 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk, the Trail-Rated version that's more off-road focused than our Limited equipped with the basic Active Drive I four-wheel drive system. The off-road differences between the two are far more significant than red tow hooks and fender flares.
The Trailhawk's Active Drive Lock 4x4 system includes must-have upgrades such as a low-range transfer case and a locking rear differential. A raised suspension and taller P245/65R17 knobby off-road tires combine for an additional 1.6 inches of body height and, more significantly, ground clearance.
The chin of the Trailhawk's front fascia has also been pared back to further improve trail clearance. Taken together, the plastic surgery and taller suspension and tires produce an impressive 29.9-degree approach angle, a massive improvement of 11 degrees over our Limited.
Those are the numbers. In Moab I hoped to see what the Trailhawk could do first hand.
Our first stop was a Jeep Jamboree trail called Hell's Revenge. It's a popular route that features plenty of steep slickrock and numerous rock outcrops that need climbing.
The entry point is a scary-looking knife edge of stone with a sudden drop on either side. You're fine if you stay centered on the rubber marks laid down by those before you. If not, well, it was nice knowing you.
Other steep rocks faces await along the trail. Low range is crucial here, but the Cherokee Trailhawk has another trick up its sleeve: crawl control. Engage it in combination with low range and the Jeep will creep up or down most anything.
In this mode, the shifter doesn't change gears so much as it changes the preset creep speed in nine tiny increments. I didn't need to touch the brakes or the throttle to get up or down this very slope. And the Cherokee is fully capable of tackling stuff like this with the system switched off, too.
The advantage is that the system can work each brake independently, something a human can't do with the brake pedal. It's not for every driver or every situation, but it is a nice tool to have at your disposal if a situation presents itself.
We left the fins and domes of Hell's Revenge after a few hours and headed for a nameless plateau high above the opposite bank of the Colorado River.
The views from up here were absolutely breathtaking.
The road there was a bit more varied and traditional (if anything near Moab could be called traditional). In addition to slickrock, there was sand, washboard, rock ledges, dry creek crossings and more.
More what? Rocks, of course.
Last month I compared a Cherokee and a Trailhawk on the basis of Ramp Travel Index (RTI), and neither one lit the world on fire. Here you can see what 324 points looks like out in the wild.
So I was fully expecting the somewhat frequent wheel lift episodes that happened during the course of our adventure. But the Trailhawk's low-range transfer case, rear locker, selectable terrain mode traction control and crawl control features proved expert at maintaining forward progress anyway.
Suspension articulation is still something you want to maximize, but a shortfall such as this isn't the show-stopper it once was thanks to modern traction systems that can keep the party rolling on three wheels for the foot or so that's required for the airborne tire to regain contact.
Is a Jeep Wrangler more capable? Of course. Would it need as much spotting help? Nope.
But the Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk can nevertheless go an impressive ways into the wild on trails that would break a Honda CR-V or Mazda CX-5. Our own Jeep Cherokee Limited with Active Drive I could perhaps get slightly farther away from the pavement before it got stuck, but its lack of gearing, tires and underbody clearance make it unsuitable for trails like these.
The Trailhawk, on the other hand, is the real deal. It has enough of the right equipment to get you into places you'd never expect a crossover-based 4x4 to go. If your sights are set on backcountry travel or adventure touring, and not black diamond trails or boulder-hopping for the sake of boulder-hopping, the Trailhawk version of the Cherokee just might live in the off-road sweet spot.
Dan Edmunds, Director of Vehicle Testing @ 20,042 miles