Expert Reviews

First Drive: 2019 Jeep Trailhawk Editions

Earlier this year a certain premium brand launched its new mid-sized SUV. The product folks and media releases boasted greater off-road capability of the hot new machine, and the brand attempted to prove these claims by allowing us to drive it around on a carefully cultivated off-road course at someone’s farm.

It should be no surprise that when Jeep wants to showcase its off-road prowess, it goes to legendary locations like Moab, Utah, to do so.

This is pretty typical of manufacturers who want to lend a bit of (off-)street credibility to their supposed macho machines. The reality is that any theoretical off-road ability is likely due as much to having a bit of extra ground clearance than anything else. Not that it matters much anyway since very few buyers will ever have the desire or need to take their shiny sport utes anywhere more rugged than down a gravel lane to the cabin.

Jeep, however, is different. A lot of people buy Jeeps – particularly Wranglers – to chase adventures that may not include pavement. The Jeep brand has a reputation to uphold, and every model – even their entry-level ones – can be ordered off-road-ready.

So it should be no surprise that when Jeep wants to showcase its off-road prowess, it goes to legendary locations like Moab, Utah, to do so, and that’s exactly what they did recently for their Trailhawk offerings.

We arrived at the spectacular desert-scape to find Jeep had shipped a small fleet of 2019 Compass, Cherokee, and Grand Cherokee models from Canada for us to experience both on- and off-road. Conspicuous by its absence is the 2019 Renegade with its new 1.3-litre turbocharged four-cylinder, but there weren’t any available at the time of our adventure.

The most robust and off-road-capable, non-Wrangler Jeep trim is known as Trailhawk, and it denotes improvement of the following five attributes in every machine that earns its Trail Rated badge:

  • ground clearance
  • water fording
  • manoeuvrability
  • articulation (of suspension)
  • traction

And aside from the winged Trailhawk branding, these models can also be quickly spotted in the wild wearing a matte-black finish on the hood (to reduce glare out on the trail), as well as all-terrain tires and bright red tow hooks front and rear.

There’s no question that parent company FCA’s future survival depends on Jeep’s continued success, and with the rugged brand having already set a sales record of 1.45 million Jeep models sold year-to-date by the end of November, it looks like that trend is bound to continue. The Jeep brand represents more than 50 percent of FCA’s overall sales, and with nearly 50 percent of Canadian new-car sales going to SUVs, the Jeep brand’s importance cannot be overstated.

On the Trail

Jeep teamed up with local off-roading legend Nena Barlow who owns and operates Barlow Adventures to serve as our guide. Ms. Barlow knows the trails around Moab (and Sedona, Arizona, too, for that matter) like the back of her hand. She’s also well-versed in the local history and spoke to the area’s geology and environmental protection efforts throughout the day.

Nena decided to lead us around the Seven-Mile Rim trail (which, curiously, is 13.5 miles in length); a path that’s rated “Difficult” by off-roading standards. She admitted that normally cars like the Compass or Cherokee wouldn’t be able to manage a trail like this, but she was able to navigate us around some of the gnarliest stuff that would’ve required her lifted Wrangler to tackle.

Adding to the challenges, a blanket of snow had fallen just before our arrival and made many of the areas much more slippery than they would have normally been.

2019 Jeep Compass Trailhawk

The compact 2019 Jeep Compass Trailhawk was the smallest Jeep available to us in Moab. Despite being the most affordable machine in our trio, the as-tested price still rang in at over $43,000 with its litany of options. The fact that a front-wheel-drive-based cute-ute like the Compass can navigate the trails around Moab at all is impressive in itself, but with very little crunching and thumping, it also made it over some impressive stone “steps” we encountered along the way.

Its Falken Wildpeak HT (not to be mistaken with the 37-inch Wildpeak M/Ts on Nena’s Wrangler) were the least off-road-worthy tires in the group. At times their lack of grip put the little Compass’s automatic all-wheel drive system and selectable terrain modes to the test, while ascending slippery rock faces. Still, with a bit of extra motivation (read: extra throttle), no Compasses got hung up or stuck on our journey.

Shortly after jumping in the Compass, we hit one of the more challenging climbs and I was quick to criticize the Jeep’s jumpy throttle and touchy brakes. Smooth application of both is necessary for successful off-road control. I later discovered that I had inadvertently selected the “Mud” drive setting which deliberately gives a more aggressive throttle response required to help keep things spinning and moving through the slop. Selecting “Rock” on the next climb smoothed things out considerably.

The Compass we drove was fitted with the optional 2.4L four-cylinder engine that required a lot more urging than the more powerful engines in the other two rigs. What’s more, not only lacking in ground clearance compared to the Cherokee and Grand Cherokee, the suspension tuning was not as sophisticated, that combined with a shorter wheelbase to cause a very bouncy ride off-road.

While capable of light off-roading even in this Trailhawk rendition, it’s safe to say that few Compass buyers will ever imagine trips like Moab or the Rubicon trail, and to that end, there’s nothing wrong with having the most butch-looking Compass in the lineup.

Pricing & Specs: 2019 Jeep Compass Trailhawk 4x4

MSRP: $33,645

Price as Tested: $43,625 (Options: Cold Weather Group, Premium Lighting Group, Trailer Tow Group, Safety & Security Group, Popular Equipment Group, Dual Pane Sunroof, Power Liftgate, Beats Audio, Uconnect w/ Nav.)

Engine: 2.4L MultiAir I4

Horsepower: 180 hp

Torque: 175 lb-ft

Transmission: nine-speed automatic

Fuel Economy: 10.8 / 7.8 / 9.5 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb

2019 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk

The starting point for a 2019 Cherokee Trailhawk 4x4 is $38,995, and seemingly a pretty decent value. Our tester was rigged with lots of high-tech gadgets and gizmos like lane keeping assist and automatic high-beam control that helped push it to $50,000.

What makes the new Cherokee Trailhawk so endearing (besides its rugged good appearance) is the new 2.0-litre turbo four-cylinder engine dishing out a decent 270 hp and very good 295 lb-ft of torque. The nine-speed automatic is vastly superior to the unit found a few years ago in earlier Cherokees. Together, the new Cherokee is smooth, quiet, and quick on-road, surprising my driving companion and I at just how refined a machine the Cherokee has become, even with its Firestone Destination A/T tires humming along at highway speeds.

What’s more, the nine-speaker (plus subwoofer) audio system provides great, clean, powerful sound made all the more enjoyable by the hushed wind and engine noise inside the Cherokee.

Off-road, the FWD-based Cherokee 4x4 is surprisingly adept. Occasionally crawling around some rocky spots, my co-driver and I would cringe in anticipation of the sounds of a skidplate bashing, only to find the sure-footed Cherokee’s approach and departure angles offering more clearance than we imagined. And that engine, that so willingly spins up to smooth highway cruising, is an agreeable partner when doing more technical, slow-paced climbs and descents.

While the interior does wear some unfortunately cheap-looking (and feeling) plastic in places, the seats are comfy, and the ergonomics (especially Jeep’s super-intuitive Uconnect infotainment system) are pretty user-friendly.

Overall, the current generation Cherokee, especially with the new 2.0-litre turbo, is a great offering in the midsize SUV segment, offering a far more capable alternative to the typical soccer-parent rides from the competitors. In driving the new Cherokee Trailhawk, it’s easy to see why it’s Jeep Canada’s best-selling model.

Pricing & Specs: 2019 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk

MSRP: $38,995

Price as Tested: $50,030 (Options: Safety Tech Group, Technology Group, Trailer Tow Group, CommandView dual-pane sunroof, nine-speaker audio system, Uconnect with NAV.)

Engine: 2.0L DOHC DI Turbo I4

Horsepower: 270 hp

Torque: 295 lb-ft

Transmission: nine-speed automatic

Fuel Economy: 11.8 / 9.2 / 10.6 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb

2019 Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk

As the biggest and oldest of the trio of Trailhawks, the 2019 Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk is also, well, the grandest.

Its interior is most spacious, and the seats, covered in optional Nappa leather are properly decadent for a $70,000 rig. And like its smaller siblings, the ergonomics, centred around the excellent 8.4-inch Uconnect screen, work well.

The optional 5.7L Hemi V8 fitted to our tester offered up 360 hp and nearly 400 lb-ft of torque, ensuring the full-size ute was never lacking in gusto, regardless of whether passing at highway speeds or climbing rocky trails. It’s a smooth engine, but it sounds great too when prodded (though folks seeking even more engine note music might look to a Cherokee SRT with its ferocious, larger, performance-oriented V8).

But what made the Grand Cherokee really stand out is its Quadra-Lift air suspension. Not only does it provide a luxurious ride on-road (and surprisingly supple one off-road too!), but the ability to raise the GC Trailhawk up to a stilt-like ride height meant that we could blast along some of the open trail sections without fear of bashing the skid plates on the many whoops and bumps. (Conversely, a Cherokee travelling at the same speed, on the same section crashed down over one bump hard enough to pop off a bit of fender trim).

Despite having an array of terrain modes to switch between, we found the Grand Cherokee virtually unstoppable simply set to “Auto” with the rear differential locked and the traction control switched off. The Goodyear Wrangler tires never seemed to be at a loss of grip either.

This generation of the Grand Cherokee can truly be almost everything to everyone, with variations on the theme ranging from modest, sensible V6 versions, to the recently released Trackhawk with its obscene 707 hp supercharged V8, to this Trailhawk with its impressive off-road capability.

For 2019, the Grand Cherokee sees minor changes, like now-standard Uconnect with CarPlay and Android Auto, and blind-spot monitoring. New trims, wheel, and colour options are also available this year.

Pricing & Specs: 2019 Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk

MSRP: $58,695

Price as Tested: $69,530 (Options: Trailhawk Luxury Group, Rear DVD entertainment centre, Jeep Active Safety Group, Mopar rock rails.)

Engine: 5.7L HEMI V8

Horsepower: 360 hp

Torque: 390 lb-ft

Transmission: eight-speed automatic

Fuel Economy: 16.7 / 10.9 / 14.1 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb


Overall, none of these Trailhawk editions are as off-road capable as the sensational new JL Wrangler, but they still do the Jeep brand proud by making each model the most capable off-road machines in their respective market segments. Being better-equipped and more refined now only makes them more compelling choices in a large field of SUVs currently on sale.