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New Cars Review: The off-road talents of Jeep’s Trailhawks put to test

Jeep has gathered a selection of its 'crossover' SUVs to demonstrate the off-road talents of the Trailhawk trim levels.

JEREMY SINEK/The Globe and Mail

Snow doesn’t fall often in the red-rock canyonlands of central Utah, and when it does, it usually melts the next day. Yet here I am, in early December, contemplating a classic southwest vista of buttes and mesas, still frosted with record snow that fell four days earlier.

Jeep has gathered a selection of its “crossover” SUVs to demonstrate the off-road talents of the Trailhawk trim levels. Our guide is Nena Barlow of Barlow Adventures, a Moab-based outfit that does Jeep rentals, four-wheel-drive training and guided off-road expeditions. The route is the storied 7-Mile Rim trail, about 15 miles north of town.

Canadian Jeep buyers are much more likely to choose the Trailhawk trim than are Americans, says Mike Szymkiewicz, senior manager, product planning, FCA Canada. South of the border, the Trailhawk take rate is about 10 per cent across the board, whereas in Canada it’s 20 per cent for the Renegade, 30 per cent for the Compass and 40 per cent for the Cherokee. The only exception is the Grand Cherokee Trailhawk, which runs at 7-8 per cent in Canada.

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At 7-Mile Rim the early-onset winter does throw one wrench in the works. Our planned route originally included a steep climb that’s now sheathed in sheet ice and has to be bypassed. No matter. The remainder of the route still throws up more sand, snow, boulders, rock ledges, loose-surface ascents and precipitous descents than even most Jeep owners would ever tackle on purpose – let alone owners of the “soft-roader” competition.

Hardcore off-roading tends to put traditional road-test evaluations on hold.

JEREMY SINEK/The Globe and Mail

Much of the terrain keeps us well below walking pace, and still a few skid-plates get bashed (that’s why they’re there) and one front fascia defaced. But Jeep’s point is well made. Even the little Compass always gets through, even if at times it needed more caution or had to try harder.

Hardcore off-roading tends to put traditional road-test evaluations on hold. Some of the faster sections of trail, however, reveal a worthy blend of ride comfort and control. And driving to and from Moab on paved roads proves the Trailhawks’ off-road talents aren’t at the expense of refinement, deft handling and relaxed highway stride. If anything, the smaller Jeeps feel more sophisticated than the Grand Cherokee – perhaps not so surprising, when you recall that the current generation of Jeep’s lux-ute dates back to 2010 – and even then it was late to market.

The Cherokee Trailhawk takes a big step up with a true dual-range transfer case, plus lockable rear differential.

JEREMY SINEK/The Globe and Mail

What’s the Trailhawk recipe? All versions share a common base level of off-road enhancements – raised ride height, steeper approach and departure angles, all-terrain tires, under-body protection, hill descent control, and selec-terrain drive mode selector with a rock mode added to the auto, snow, sand and mud modes already-standard on 4x4 models.

Beyond that, the Renegade (not present in Moab) and the Compass are the least optimized for off-roading. There are no differential locks, and their so-called active drive low transmission is a bit of a misnomer. This isn’t a two-speed transfer case; instead, the junior-most Trailhawks have a shorter final drive ratio, which – combined with the wide ratio spread of the nine-speed autobox – results in an unusually low 20.4:1 first-gear “crawl” ratio (most other CUVs are in the 15–17:1 range).

A 4low setting ensures the junior Trailhawks launch in first gear (other models usually start in second) and hold first for longer – or locks them in first, when selec-terrain is in rock mode.

The Cherokee Trailhawk takes a big step up with a true dual-range transfer case, plus lockable rear differential. In low range the crawler first gear ratio is approximately 50:1, depending on the engine – a 3.2-litre V6 is standard, a 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo optional.

Additionally the Cherokee adds a sport mode to selec-terrain; and gets select speed control, which is basically a cruise control for crawling speeds in four-wheel-drive low.

The Grand Cherokee takes the features of its little sibling, and adds height-adjustable air suspension that can raise ground clearance to as much as 10.8 inches.

JEREMY SINEK/The Globe and Mail

The Grand Cherokee takes the features of its little sibling, and adds height-adjustable air suspension that can raise ground clearance to as much as 10.8 inches. Its own distinct AWD system, QuadraDrive II, has a 44:1 crawl ratio and an electronic limited-slip rear diff. As well, an off-road pages section on the 8.4-inch screen display shows information like pitch and roll, altitude and GPS co-ordinates.

Base MSRPs for the Trailhawk versions range from the low $30,000s for the Renegade to approximately $60,000 for the Grand Cherokee. Whether you’d really want to subject that size of investment to off road roughhousing is your call, but it’s good to know you could.

The writer was a guest of the automaker. Content was not subject to approval.

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