“Don’t look down.”
It’s always been one of the scariest three-word sentences in the lexicon of human experience, right up there with the boss’s “In my office”, the always dreaded spousal “We’ve gotta talk” and, dare I mention it, “Revenue Canada called”.
In this particular case, the three words seemed to be repeating on a mental loop, “Don’t look down, don’t look down.”
I tried to fix my gaze on the narrow, rubber-blackened trail that traversed the top of the rounded rock mound we were crossing, instead of allowing it to flicker down the steeply sloped sides that dwindled to nothingness and impending doom, far, far below.
This was the opening climb on Hell’s Revenge Trail, an off-road roller-coaster ride across the Lion’s Back and Slickrock Fins, the start of two days of clanging and banging across sorrel red sandstone domes, ledges, canyons and trails outside of Moab, Utah.
In the bible, the ancient kingdom of Moab was a waypoint to a fabled land of milk and honey. But this modern Moab has become the Promised Land itself for hordes of nomadic off-roaders, all making a pilgrimage to an ultimate challenge for the blended abilities of man and machine.
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And the delicious contrast here was that we were making the arduous two-day trek in 2015 Cherokees.
“C’mon Dad, that Cherokee’s not even a real Jeep,” my Wrangler-driving daughter had said before I left for the event.
And even FCA designers will admit the Cherokee was an intentional departure away from traditional Jeep styling cues, adopting sleek angles instead of blocky body lines, dropping the sacred round head-lighted front end in favour of a more feral face marked with slash-styled LED daylight running lamps.
At the unveiling of the new Cherokee, old fart traditionalists swooned, swore and had attacks of the vapours before a brand new crossover-crazed customer base broke open the doors to Jeep dealerships for the first time.
I’d already reviewed a Jeep Cherokee earlier in the year and must admit that, even dressed in Trailhawk trim, I had tended to think of the Cherokee as the “Soccer Mom Jeep”, more likely to be found in plaza parking lots or on school runs rather than inching up and down breakneck inclines.
The weekend warriors on that Utah trail seemed to agree, looking more bemused than anything else at the incongruous sight, as they paused in their jacked-up Jeeps and heavily-modified machines to allow our long line of shiny new Cherokees an opening along the rock-strewn trails.
“Is this the way to the mall?” I would ask them jokingly through the open window as we thumped, clumped and rumbled by.
But, lest we get confused here, there’s more Jeepness to this Cherokee than just the symbolic seven-slot grille.
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Yes, there are Cherokee choices in a variety of different trim levels for the everyday driver, but we were securely saddled in top-of-the-line Trailhawk models with enhanced off-road attitude and ability, proudly bearing the Trail Rated badge.
“And that’s more than just an added emblem on the front fender,” said Bruce Skyhouse, Jeep guy in charge of chassis and off-road engineering “The Trailhawk has been upgraded within the five specific categories necessary to earn a Trail Rated grading.”
Those categories cover traction, water fording, maneuverability, articulation and ground clearance. I can’t get into the exact numbers here but, suffice to say, in most of those gradings the Cherokee comes in, naturally enough, below the Wrangler but on par or even above the Grand Cherokee ratings and usually well superior to the off-road qualities of the new Renegade soft roader.
The Cherokee Trailhawk boasts a number of differences compared to regular Cherokees, including noticeably leaner front and rear fascias for better approach and departure angles and a toughened chassis with more suspension travel, contributing to a one-inch lift in ride height for a 224 mm (8.7 in) ground clearance.
Trailhawks also get wider wheel flares, a full-sized spare instead of a compact tire, skid-plated underbody protection, transmission and oil coolers, two red tow hooks up front and one in the back, along with slightly higher profile P245/65R17 Firestone Destination OWL All-Terrain tires.
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Cosmetically, every hint of exterior body chrome has been deleted in favour of Trailhawk-exclusive accents – roof rails, mirrors, special grill surrounds and a matte hood decal to reduce glare on the trail. Rubber/vinyl floor matts replace the usual carpet matts inside.
And, like all other Cherokee models, the Trailhawk comes with a choice of two engines.
A standard 2.4-litre Tigershark MultiAir inline four-cylinder makes 184 hp and 171 lb/ft of torque with a fuel economy rating of 12.1/9.4L/100km (city/hwy).
An optional 3.2-litre Pentastar V6 ($1,595) makes more muscle with 271 hp and 239 lb/ft of torque. Jeep trotted out V6 models for this gruelling test, obviously putting their best foot forward but the V6 seems a viable option with better acceleration, more towing grunt and, new for 2015, with Engine Stop-Start (ESS) assisted fuel economy that’s almost the equivalent of four-banger numbers, coming in at 12.2/9.0L/100km (city/hwy).
Power is channeled through a very modern ZF nine-speed automatic transmission and Jeep’s Active Drive II and Active Lock systems using a Selec-Terrain traction control system with five customized modes – Auto, Snow, Sport, Sand/Mud and Rock settings. Those settings are enhanced with choices allowing 4WD low, rear axle lock, Hill Descent Control and, especially, with Selec-Speed Control, sort of an off-road low-speed cruise control for seemingly impossible ascents and descents, with small speed changes selected by the driver through the shifter’s “+” and “-“ buttons.
It all makes for a pretty impressive enhancement for Jeep’s latest crossover.
Unnecessary maybe for the daily driving chores of most owners. But an impressive array of off-road abilities and capabilities nonetheless.
Which is why after two days of extreme trials in the wilds of Utah’s back hills, traversing trails and banging over rocks and ledges, I will have to explain to my daughter that, yes, the 2015 Cherokee Trailhawk is very much a Jeep after all.
2015 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk 4X4 at a glance
BODY STYLE: compact crossover SUV.
DRIVE METHOD: four-wheel drive.
ENGINE: As tested 3.2-litre Pentastar VVT V6 (271 hp, 239 lb/ft of torque) with a nine-speed 4WD automatic transmission.
CARGO: 700 litres, 1555 litres with rear seat folded flat.
TOWING CAPACITY: 2041 kg (4,500 lb).
FUEL ECONOMY: 12.2/9.0L/100km (city/hwy)
PRICE: 2015 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk starting at $32,695.
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