AUTO REVIEW: Jeep Rolls Out a Puddle Jumper

(Los Angeles Times/TNS) —
The 2017 Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk 4×4. (Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Fiat Chrysler’s Jeep division does well with its Grand Cherokee line, selling just under 200,000 of them last year in the U.S.

So it’s only logical the company would expand the line to include the Trailhawk badge, which signifies increased eagerness to hit the trail.

For 2017, Jeep has reintroduced a Grand Cherokee with that badge — and those capabilities. Falling in sequential order above the Laredo and Limited, but below the Summit, Overland and SRT models, the Trailhawk version aims to offer superior on-road comfort matched with superior off-road capability.

On road, this Grand Cherokee feels much like its non-Trailhawk siblings. It’s a quiet, calm, luxury sport utility vehicle, built for comfort.

(Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

The big, wide seats are ventilated and heated. (The rear seats are heated, too.) The high ride, which requires a little step up for short people, creates excellent visibility. Front and rear passenger areas have massive headroom and legroom, and the cargo capacity is more than 60 cubic feet of space with the rear seats folded flat.

Fiat Chrysler has done well with the ergonomics, and has made piloting the Grand Cherokee Trailhawk simple. The controls for navigation, climate control, radio, phone, and other media — as well as things such as seat temperature control — are all in a small dashboard screen above the center console.

They’re easy to reach and use, though I had difficulty getting my iPhone to boot into the car’s system, as I have had with other Fiat Chrysler vehicles.

The drive controls are a little more complicated — because there are so many of them and they do so many things.

The Grand Cherokee Trailhawk is delivered standard with Jeep’s Quadra-Drive II and Quadra-Trac II 4-wheel-drive systems, as well as its Selec-Terrain. Together, these enable gear selections that control traction, throttle and suspension settings to maximize power to the ground and minimize wheel spinning.

Settings include auto, sport, snow, sand-mud and rock. Those pair with Jeep’s Quadra-Lift system, which can increase the ground clearance to 11 inches (and is standard on this vehicle) to help the Trailhawk climb over rocks and ruts without wasting energy.

There’s a fair amount of energy to throw around.

The Trailhawk comes standard with Fiat Chrysler’s 3.6-liter V-6 Pentastar engine, which makes 295 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque.

The Trailhawk can also be had with a 3-liter diesel engine or a 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 — either of which boost the Pentastar’s towing capacity to 7,400 pounds, up from 6,200 pounds. (There’s even a Grand Cherokee SRT, outside the Trailhawk class, that comes with a 6.4-liter V-8 that makes 475 horsepower and 470 pound-feet of torque.

For this vehicle, that Pentastar engine is mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission, outfitted with steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters for easy gear selection.

For a daylong scenic drive, the Pentastar was more than adequate. Though we did not put the vehicle to any severe tests, of the kind the off-road warriors get in Moab, Utah, at the annual Jeep Week, we chucked it up and over enough steep, unstable slopes to get a feel for its rock-readiness.

Jeep has given this trim line other elements to increase trail credibility. The Trailhawk comes standard with a full-size spare tire, Jeep’s signature red tow hooks, fog lamps, a roof rack and beefy skid plates covering the transfer case and fuel tank.

Also standard at this level are a power lift gate, keyless entry and ignition, eight-way adjustable front seats, LED tail lamps, an 8.4-inch touch-screen display monitor and rearview back-up camera.

(Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Options on the model we tested included a set of “luxury group” amenities such as special headlamps, a sunroof and a telescoping steering wheel, as well as elements from Jeep’s “active safety group.” Among these are Adaptive Cruise Control and Advanced Brake Assist systems that are as good as the best in the business. You can’t quite read a newspaper or take a nap in bumper-to-bumper freeway traffic, but almost.

The Grand Cherokee Trailhawk has done well in head-to-head tests with an equivalently equipped Jeep Wrangler Rubicon. Despite its far higher degree of on-road comfort — which adds about 800 pounds to its overall weight — the Trailhawk was judged by several publications to manage the rough stuff just as well as its tougher-seeming brother.

To win over new buyers, it will also have to compete with Toyota’s TRD, Nissan’s Armada and several vehicles from the Land Rover family.

But the real question isn’t how it will hold up off-road, but how well it will hold up over time. The Jeep line, like a lot of Fiat Chrysler products, has been plagued by a reputation for long-term dependability issues.

In October, Consumer Reports ranked the Jeep brand 23rd out of 29. Of a possible 100 points for reliability, the Jeep scored a 30 — better than fellow Fiat Chrysler brands Chrysler, Dodge, Fiat and Ram, but below Chevy and Ford.

In the last few years, the Jeeps have been subject to multiple safety recalls. One large one was designed to retrofit vehicles whose fuel tank was at risk for puncture and fire. Another massive one, issued this year, involved more than 1 million Fiat Chrysler vehicles and concerns that the dial-up transmission left them subject to unexpected rollaways — of the kind that may have led to the death of actor Anton Yelchin, who was killed when his Jeep Grand Cherokee slipped out of gear and crushed him as he passed behind the vehicle.

December saw yet another recall, this one involving risk of a fuel leak fire, affecting 30,183 Grand Cherokees and Dodge Durangos — all outfitted with the same Pentastar engine used by the Trailhawk.

I hope they get that all sorted out. Jeep is a great American nameplate. The fans passionate about their Grand Cherokees deserve the best.

2017 Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk 4×4

Quick take: A grand combination of rough and refined

Highs: Plush, powerful and off-road ready

Lows: Plagued by recalls and reliability issues

Vehicle type: 4-door, 5-passenger SUV

Base price: $43,990

Price as tested: $50,125

Powertrain: 3.6-liter, V-6 gasoline engine

Transmission: 8-speed automatic

Horsepower: 295

Torque: 260 pound-feet

EPA fuel economy rating: 18 miles per gallon city / 25 mpg highway / 21 mpg combined

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