Let’s face it, the Great Car-SUV War has been over for a while now. But still the arms race continues apace, in fact it’s never been as frenetic. For more than a decade, makers of SUVs have been diligently boosting the capabilities of their products to meet a demand that has never actually been expressed by consumers. No matter, in 2018, high-riding “hot rods” are almost commonplace on our roads.
Fact is, a good part of that war for performance SUV dominance has been waged on German turf, between the likes of the M Class (now GLE) from Mercedes-Benz, the Porsche Cayenne and the BMW X5. Meantime, a more-affordable American entry in the segment has been plying its trade since the mid-2000s: the Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT.
At the very outset, this most brutish of American SUVs managed to hold its own in terms of firepower against the German heavyweights, but it has fallen behind in recent years.
This may be what motivated the engineers at the FCA division to mount an ultimate offensive last year with the introduction of the Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk, a utility model whose defining purpose was to drive demonically fast. Spreading terror as it goes is just a happy by-product!
I got the chance to drive this scary monster recently, just as the temperatures were starting to dip below freezing. The Jeep I got, moreover, was fitted with four Pirelli performance tires - not designed for frozen surfaces. Needless to say some caution was in order during my week at the wheel of the Grand Cherokee Trackhawk.
So, what is a Trackhawk?
At first glance, the Trackhawk is not all that different from other Grand Cherokees. Yes, the look is made more menacing by the presence of matte black alloy wheels, quad exhaust tips, the vented hood and “Supercharged” badging, but none of that changes the fact that in reality this is but a variant of a “run of the mill” $45,000 SUV.
But what a variant. The Trackhawk sets buyers back $110,845 or more – quite an amount to pay extra for getting components that are all available in the model catalogue. Take note that the tester I used for this autumnal jaunt carries a total sticker price of $122,225, before delivery fees. That’s a lot of mullah to pay for a Jeep, I think you’ll agree!
But then, that’s the price of entry to access the most powerful SUV on the face of the Earth. With its supercharged V8 delivering 707 hp and 645 lb-ft of torque, its 8-speed automatic transmission and all-wheel drive, the Grand Cherokee is utterly unique.
In some ways, the Trackhawk is really just a beefed-up version of the Grand Cherokee SRT. It does, however, get some exclusive elements like the programming of the automatic transmission, which Jeep claims is quicker and more efficient when shifting.
The Quadra-Trac all-wheel-drive system comes standard, along with an electronic limited-slip differential and a single-gear active transfer case, which has been reinforced in the Trackhawk. The drive shaft is also made more rugged to withstand the added torque. Ditto for the rear axle, designed to handle the many standing starts on a dragstrip with its launch control system.
The Selec-Track system, meanwhile, takes care of adjusting the Trackhawk’s parameters depending on the drive mode chosen. There are five of these - Auto, Sport, Track, Tow and Snow – and they’re accessed via a wheel found between the two front seats.
Riding the beast
I’ve had the chance over the years of trying out different performance SUVs, including the model created by the folks at the SRT division, the one with a 6.4L naturally aspirated V8. Already, that one was a muscle car in SUV clothing, so imagine what happens when you insert a supercharger-equipped powertrain that screams whenever the accelerator pedal gets any kind of action.
What happens is you get unbelievable accelerations. The engine rumbles even at low RPM, but when you launch the Trackhawk, it expresses its rage loud and clear as only a HEMI V8 can. Like many performance vehicles these days, the gear changes of the automatic transmission are accompanied by small detonations that remind you’re in a sports car weighed down by its truck outer shell.
The steering is heavy, and the suspension is stiff when you choose the Sport or Track modes. In fact, everything gets brutal when you’re in the last of those modes. I even noticed during my week-long test drive that when the anti-skid system is deactivated, it’s possible to disconnect the rear axle, which is handy especially when the tires are still cold.
130 000 $ pour un Jeep… really?
This is where you stop and think twice. That price! No doubt, Jeep can justify it by pointing to what’s under the hood and to all the specific engineering innovations used to transform this SUV into a distant cousin of the Challenger Hellcat. But here’s the thing: open the doors and climb in, and you’re sitting in an aging utility model.
You won’t catch me harping on the level of finishing in the Grand Cherokee – if anything, for a vehicle that launched in 2011, the flagship Jeep has aged remarkably well. But eagle-eyed observers will notice the FCA buttons dotting the dash, the “old-school” A/C vents and some medium-quality plastic elements here and there.
My tester was equipped with the optional Leather Signature-Wrapped Interior package (valued at $6,995) that fills the interior with several yards of Laguna leather. The combination of this red leather with the carbon-fibre and black plastic elements works really well, but it lacks the level of premium finishing that can help justify the even higher prices charged by the German automakers for their performance SUVs. A Porsche Cayenne Turbo will set buyers back $140,000, after all, and it sells.
The last word
The 2018 Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk is a historic model, when you think about it. And the reason it’s historic is because you may never see a utility vehicle equipped with such a heavy arsenal ever again. That fact does not, however, justify the heavy price tag attached. Maybe the most useful thing I learned in my week of driving it is that the Grand Cherokee SRT is more than sufficient to really have fun at the wheel of a muscle car on stilts.