DAVE MOORE: Grand Cherokee gets its black belt

Every member of Jeep’s line-up has earned its stripes on the famous Rubicon trail, and now the range’s poshest product can be had in New Zealand in Trailhawk form, which means it reaches places that mere SUVs simply cannot.

Like the possession of a black belt in some martial art, Jeep’s Trailhawk wings and accompanying ‘trail-rated’ badges represent something you might never actually need or use. Yes, but it’s nice to know you can if you have to.

Jeep’s Grand Cherokee has recently earned those wings and badges, and is now fully qualified to go commando - as it were - should merely running errands and dropping and picking up children be only part of an owner’s repertoire.

Like when they need to ford rivers, handle quake damage and negotiate fallen trees and landslips; everyday requirements it appears in New Zealand these days.

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Every Jeep in the company’s range can be had with the red and chrome trail-rated disc on its flanks, which means the model is qualified across five specific tenets by the Nevada Automotive Test Centre. Those tenets include evaluation for traction, ground clearance, off road articulation, manoeuverability, and fording.

Thanks to its qualification as a Trailhawk, the Grand Cherokee’s expertise doesn’t begin and end on tarmac, coarse chip or fire roads like many other SUVs. It means that when conditions deteriorate it will grope deep and hard into the terrain and get you out of trouble as quickly as you got into it.

I learned this last week when doing some wind and rainswept driving on rough terrain near Auckland. Yes, poor soggy Auckland, where I felt my Trailhawk Cherokee was completely in charge, uphill and down dale on lumpy rises, muddy screes and that defier of all attempts at normal traction: wet grass.

It’s a fact: the Trailhawk feels immediately at home off the beaten track. Solid, well suspended and provided with decent dampers that won’t bottom or top-out on uneven terrain. The Grand’s ‘Select Terrain’ system can be made to set the four-wheel drive, throttle and suspension protocols to suit the conditions - including sand, rock and snow.

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There’s nothing specifically for 20 to 40 degree inclines of grass, boulders and tussock, but the mud setting took care of that.

It’s a big truck, the Grand Cherokee, but it can be accurately threaded through obstacles, close enough to electric fencing that you can smell the ozone, while imparting good information through the leathery comfort of its steering wheel rim. It will straddle rocks and show off its articulation too, always with sufficient traction to drive rather than slide up and down hills.

The Trailhawk is equally at home ploughing through soft sand as it was on harder terrain, and climbing up and down rocks, underlining its capability as a serious off-roader.

The Grand Cherokee Trailhawk model is equipped with a host of standard off-road capability features, including Jeep’s Quadra-Drive II 4x4 system with rear Electronic Limited Slip Differential (ELSD), a unique version of Grand Cherokee’s Quadra-Lift air suspension – developed for Trailhawk – that offers improved articulation and total suspension travel, as well as Selec-Speed Control with Hill Ascent Control. Skid plates and a Trailhawk-specific anti-glare hood decal are also standard.

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Approach angles on the Grand Cherokee are 29.8 degrees or 36.1 degrees when the lower front fascia is removed for severe off-roading, while the breakover angle is 27.1 degrees and the departure angle is 22.8 degrees. Grand Cherokee Trailhawk models offer up to 10.8 inches of ground clearance.

Couple its trail-rated talent with the Jeep’s Fiat co-developed 3.0-litre turbodiesel V6 with 185kW and 550Nm - now with an eight-speed automatic and it’s a fine combination.

The Grand Cherokee Trailhawk’s exterior features a matte-black hood panel and the front fascia and seven-slot Jeep grille introduced on the 2016 Grand Cherokee 75th Anniversary edition. There are also Trailhawk-signature red tow hooks at front and rear, standard 18-inch Goodyear Adventure off-road tires with Kevlar reinforcement, new Trailhawk and Trail Rated badges with red accents, mirror caps and roof rails with Neutral Gray accents.

The Grand Cherokee Trailhawk features a black interior, leather seats with alcantara suede inserts with contrasting red stitching, brushed piano black appliques, and gun-metal finish on painted parts. A standard 8.4-inch touchscreen includes updated off-road pages showing wheel articulation and other vehicle 4x4 capability features including wheel-angle, suspension height and 4x4 and Selec-Terrain modes.

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The 2017 model Grand Cherokee Trailhawk at $94,990, arrives alongside petrol and diesel V6 Laredo 4x2 and 4x4 models from $64,990, Limited models with V8 petrol and V6 diesel options from $89,990, and Overland versions with the same engine choices as the Limited at $99,900. Top of the tree is the SRT with a high-performance V8 under its nose and a sticker of $114,990.

In the next year or so, Jeep will be announcing the Hellcat V8-powered version of the Grand Cherokee, which will be known as the Trackhawk - no, I can’t wait either!

Other Jeeps due in the next two years will be the all-new C-segment Compass, and a new ground-up Wrangler design with a proper factory pick-up option. Also in the pipeline is an all-new Wagoneer and Grand Wagoneer seven-seater range, harking back to a design that hasn’t been available for 40 years. The latest news is that the Wagoneers will be based on the Ram pick-up truck platform rather than the Cherokee’s as was first assumed.

Meanwhile in the context of day to day use and the occasional hair on fire funtime in the dirt the Grand Cherokee has come an awful long way from its forgettable predecessors of a few years ago. It’s a cohesive range of vehicles that really do their jobs well, whether that job be transporting children through the leafier suburbs or, as in the Trailhawk’s case, doing some serious off-roading.

I think it’s the pick of the range. It has badges to prove it!