Over the years, Jeep has put its brand on quite a few vehicles that really weren’t up to serious off-road duty. So how does the Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk fare? One intrepid owner is on a mission to find out.
(Photos courtesy Rob Calhelha and Victoria Pridgen)
Despite Jeep’s heritage, there were plenty of Jeeps that weren’t serious off-roaders. The Willys Jeepster, the 1963 to 1965 independent front suspension-equipped Jeep Wagoneer, and the current Patriot and Compass, for example, were never intended to turn a muddy wheel in anger.
Even certain years of the Wrangler aren’t suitable for the mud and rocks in stock form. Jp Magazine said the spec sheet for the 4.2-liter Wranglers from 1987 to 1990 “reads like a who’s who of the garbage bin.”
When the KL Cherokee arrived for the 2015 model year, it immediately received criticism because it didn’t appear to fit the mold of a rugged off-roader. On paper, anyway, the Cherokee Trailhawk looked like it might have the goods to make a legitimate off-roader, but there isn’t a lot of reporting on the ground about how well it holds up.
Rob Calhelha from Arlington, Virginia decided to truly put the Cherokee Trailhawk to the test, putting it through its paces in a series of off-road trails, including a Jeep Jamboree and one of Jeep’s Badge of Honor trails.
Last year, Rob and his wife purchased a 2015 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk. He chose everything on the option list but two items: The Cold Weather Group (which includes heated front seats, heated steering wheel, power heated exterior mirrors, as well as a windshield wiper deicer, remote vehicle start, engine block heater and all-weather floor mats) and full leather seats.
“A Wrangler is in our future one day,” Rob told BestRide.com. “But my wife and I are planning kids in a year or so, and we had concerns that it would be hard for her to get a kid’s seat into and out of a lifted Wrangler. Also, we weren’t entirely sold on the safety of them. We knew we wanted something to off-road with and one day I heard mention of the new Cherokee. When my old truck died after 11 years, we knew what we wanted.
“We liked the look of the KL, we liked what they said it could do off-road, we liked the [price] over the Wrangler and we liked that it was more of what we were looking for, for my daily commuter and family car. We couldn’t be happier with our purchase. The ride is smooth on the road and its more than capable on the trail.”
The Trailhawk trim level is capable on its own. The Trailhawk is lifted an inch higher than other Cherokee trims, and includes skid plates. The Trailhawk powers all four wheels via the Active Drive Lock 4×4 system.
The Trailhawk is the only Cherokee trim that includes Active Drive Lock, which features a mechanical rear axle lock. The system has a 56:1 crawl ratio that allows a more controlled throttle response when driving off-road. It also benefits from the Selec-Terrain traction management system, which features driver-selectable Auto, Snow, Sport, Sand/Mud and Rock modes for all-weather and off-road capability.
Along with the 17-inch off-road wheels and tires, Jeep also designed the Trailhawk to allow for better approach and departure angles. Other Cherokee trims have much more prominent air dams up front, where the Trailhawk eliminates it, angling the overhang upward from front of the wheel lip to the bottom of the bumper. It allows the Trailhawk to have an impressive 29.9 degree approach angle, versus just 18.9 in the Overland trim. Departure angle also increases to 32.2 versus the Overland’s 25 degrees.
In a stock Cherokee Trailhawk, though, ground clearance remains the same at 8.7 inches. Rob revised that by doing something casual Cherokee observers don’t think is possible. “The main misconception is that you can’t lift a KL,” he says. “You actually can, though it’s only about 1.5 inches. However, that allows you to put on larger tires. The lift is vetted by the KL community and made with affordable parts. It’s just spacers in the rear and strut adjustments in the front with a new bolts in a pre-engineered hole. The total cost is the cost of the new bolts and the spacers that we make ourselves.”
Beyond the slight lift, Rob added Rocky Road Outfitters (RRO) rock rails/sliders and bumper bar. “With a low-ish vehicle the sliders are key, as the pictures can attest,” he says. “RRO is one of the very few companies to make aftermarket stuff for the KL. We have a Gobi KL Stealth Rack and ladder mounted with a few Gobi accessories: Hi-Lift Mount, rack tire mount options,” Rob says. “We also have some Raingler Nets to tie stuff down up top.”
Lighting is an area where Rob can see Jeep making some improvements to the KL. “We have two Rigid spot lights up top with the switch in the cabin. One of the best things we’ve done — nd I’m not sure way they don’t just offer it from the factory — is we put in four LED lights we picked up from Amazon for $3 apiece on the lift gate. They are paired with an OTRATTW switch so you have plenty of light. My wife and I camp a lot and it’s so amazing to turn night into day! We also replaced the internal lights with LEDs.”
To highlight its capability, Rob and his wife just completed the Uwharrie Jeep Jamboree in Troy, North Carolina. The trails — on 50,000 acres of the Uwharrie National Forest — they encountered ranged anywhere from 1 to 2 (easy to navigate, where some vehicles can pass without engaging 4WD) to 8 to 9 (deep mud holes, rock climbing, 4WD with a low range required, lifts and locking differentials are recommended).
As capable as the KL Cherokee Trailhawk was, Rob says training in how to drive off-road is just as important. “We’ve done a number of local Northern Virginia trails – Flagpole Knob, Peters Mill – but what really got our skills up were the OffRoad Consulting 101 and 201 classes we took at Rausch Creek, Pennsylvania,” Rob says. We couldn’t have done Badge of Honor Trail #11 at Rausch or Rattlesnake at the Jamboree without the skills we were taught at the 101 and 201.”
Rob credits the online community of Cherokee fans for helping him decide on the Cherokee Trailhawk, and helping him work through various modifications. “The Cherokee on-line forum (Jeep Cherokee Club) is full of many awesome threads – as I know all the on-line forums are.: Rob used the forum to meet others interested in what the Cherokee Trailhawk was capable of.
Locally, Rob’s found a group of enthusiasts that are more confident about the KL than the people who sell them: “We were teased by our car salesman that he didn’t believe we’d take the KL off-road. We, and others in Northern Virginia, aim to prove him wrong! We don’t have a name; we just like taking our KLs into the woods and trails. There are six or seven of us in Northern Virginia that will hit the trails when our schedules allow. I also recently joined Capital Off Road Enthusiasts (CORE) and have been a member of the Mid-Atlantic Overland Society (MAOS) for a few months.”
Rob describes the Jeep Jamboree in Uwharrie as a great way to experience the Cherokee Trailhawk’s capabilities. “I will say that rock garden on Rattlesnake was the hardest trail we’ve been on and I don’t think the KL could have been pushed much harder,” he says. “The only thing was we broke the exhaust bracket on the undercarriage. The ONE place not protected by skid plates. It’s just a simple bracket replacement, so we aren’t too worried. Other than that, no dings, nicks, or pinstripes!”
On the other hand, “it didn’t get stuck once, though some of the Wranglers did. It got us there and back home to NOVA with no problems, and with the best [fuel economy] of any vehicle there.”
Rob’s current dream is to take the Cherokee Trailhawk west. “The KL owners out West are really pushing the Trailhawk to the limits,” he says, pointing to one member who has hit eight Badge of Honor trails, including Imogene Pass in the San Juan Mountains of Southwestern Colorado at 13,114 feet.”I hope to get the time one day to hit some of those trails as well.”