First drive: 2018 Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk

The bird and the cat come together with spectacular results.

As a brand, Jeep manages to mean different things to different buyers. It's the niche off-road manufacturer in the eyes of Wrangler buyers and a purveyor of mainstream entry-premium man-i-vans to others. It is often argued that the cachet of the former bolsters the success of the latter, but keep in mind that Jeep has been locked into this formula for fifty years--nearly a decade longer than Land Rover, for those keeping track.

The bottom line is that we now live in a world where the same company that throws an oxcart suspension under a folded metal box and some vaguely interconnected tubes also produces the most powerful luxury SUV on the road. God bless America.

How did we get here?Perhaps that is the wrong question. From a holistic viewpoint, we've been "here" (or some variant of it) for nearly two decades. The SRT badge has adorned DaimlerChrysler, Chrysler and FCA products as far back as 2003, when the third-generation (trust us on the semantics) Viper debuted as the SRT-10. Since, it has appeared on everything from Calibers to Crossfires and even the Ram 1500. The Grand Cherokee itself bore one as far back as 2006, when the SRT-8 debuted.

"But that's just over ten years for Jeep," you might say, "not even close to twenty." Correct, but that disregards a chunk of history. Before there was SRT, there were other high-output Mopar options. Way back in the 1990s, Dodge built trucks and SUVs that wore the "R/T 5.9" badge.

That's right. Before Hemi, there was Magnum.

LimitedLet your mind wander back to the free-wheelin' atmosphere of the Clinton years. Gas was cheap. Trucks were popular. It was a completely different time. Or was it? A philosophical digression, but perhaps an important one. Either way, we've no space for it here.

Jeep wanted a high-output V8, and ChryCo had one in the bin. In a move that would foreshadow Jeep's borderline-schizophrenic post-Daimler approach to powertrain branding, its marketers chose to forego the "R/T" badge. The result was the 1998 Jeep Grand Cherokee 5.9 Limited.

By today's standards, it wasn't quick. 60 miles per hour came in roughly seven seconds and the quarter mile passed in about 15. That's about what a Hyundai Sonata Sport will do these days. Keep in mind, we're talking about a 245-horsepower V8 in a family truck.

It would be the first-generation Grand Cherokee's swan song, but if you think about it, it was appropriate. The Grand Cherokee changed the way buyers looked at Jeep in the Chrysler era, proving that an American luxury SUV could be modern and, in Limited form, that it didn't have to be boring.

The purrfect storm

Fast-forward twenty years. High-performance Jeeps are now convention rather than curiosity. And while Jeep's powertrain branding is still as confused as ever, its engineers are still dead-set on stuffing the biggest engines they can find into the Grand Cherokee. In 2015, Mopar raised the bar for "biggest engine" by quite a bit, and it took all of five seconds after the announcement of the Hellcat lineup for just about every enthusiast in the world to come to the conclusion that a Grand Cherokee variant was an inevitability.

It took less than a year for a Jeep executive to confirm it, but questions remained. Would it be called a "Hellcat"? Would it make as much power as the Charger and Challenger? Would it be offered exclusively with all-wheel-drive? Would it still be able to tow?

No. Yes. Yes. Yes. Are we done here?

Birds of preyJeep has decided to throw its lot in with talons rather than claws, choosing the "Trailhawk" nameplate to denote the most capable trim level of each SUV in its lineup. A 707-horsepower super-sport-utility-vehicle with no off-road aspirations doesn't exactly fit that description, and that left Jeep's marketers with the task of forging a new halo.

Since Jeep's brand managers are doing everything in their power to disassociate their charge from Dodge's blue-collar marketing, "Hellcat" was out. SRT got the boot, too (officially part of the Charger and Challenger Hellcat nomenclature, despite being commonly discarded by the vernacular).

In our imaginations, what happened next was fairly straightforward: Somebody in a meeting suggested that "hawk" be made a synonym for "awesome" and the preceding half used to indicate the locale in which that awesomeness takes place. Trailhawk = awesome on trails; Trackhawk = awesome on tracks. Somebody with authority decided this was perfect and then suggested that the team adjourn for drinks.

Seems plausible, right?

Making it flyTurning a Grand Cherokee SRT into a Grand Cherokee Trackhawk is a fairly straightforward process, at least on paper. The 6.4L, naturally aspirated not-Hemi gets tossed in favor of the 6.2L, supercharged not-Hellcat. As we briefly touched on above, it makes the same 707 horsepower in the Trackhawk as it does in either Hellcat, as well as 645lb-ft of torque. That's down 5lb-ft, if you must know. Tragic.

The Grand Cherokee platform shares essentially nothing with the LX platform of the Charger and Challenger, however, and SUV buyers have different expectations. Jeep's engineers needed to match that engine to an all-wheel-drive system, improve the NVH for a more premium experience, and make sure the result could still perform the duties expected of any five-passenger SUV--something the original Grand Cherokee SRT-8 failed to do out of the box.

This required a little shoehorning. The engine gets a new oil pan for clearance, a beefed-up transfer case, and a hodgepodge of various exhaust and induction components designed to mitigate the gruff vocalizations for which the Hellcat models are known. This is, after all, an $85,000 SUV, not a sports coupe.

Upgraded brakes were also a given, considering the near-doubling of the already-heavy SRT model's horsepower. The Trackhawk's front brakes are the largest ever fitted to a Jeep from the factory, and the company claims it'll haul the monster down from 60 mph to a full stop in just 114 feet--not bad for a 5,400lb SUV.

There are two wheel options, both twenty-inchers. The standard wheel has a polished aluminum finish and looks rather bland to our eyes. The upgrade is lighter and finished in low-gloss black. This is the one you'll find wrapped in high-performance rubber too, though both wear Pirellis in 295/45ZR20. The four-season variant is a Scorpion Verde, while the summer tire is a P-Zero.

Like the SRT on which it is based, the Trackhawk can tow. You can put 7,200lbs behind it, but you'll need a special package to get the required Class IV hitch receiver.

On the huntWhen you're a hawk, everything else looks like a mouse. There's no gap you can't shoot, no merge you can't make. The eight-speed transmission kicks down crisply and without any hesitation. The exhaust barks to life and your mass fills the seats to its bolsters as you're hurtled in whatever direction you happen to be pointing. It'll generate 1.4g of acceleration from a standstill with launch control activated.

Jeep claims the Trackhawk will do 0-60 in 3.5 seconds (The best we got from a hot car and minimal fiddling with the launch revs was 3.7.) on the way to an 11.6-second quarter mile at 116 MPH. It's an experience that does not disappoint. The Trackhawk is just fast, no matter how you measure it. It's no Miata in the corners, but it will pull an incredibly respectable .88g on the skidpad. Jeep was so confident in its ability to turn corners, in fact, that we were taken to a road course to prove it.

Club Motorsports is a brand-new facility in eastern New Hampshire. Carved into the side of a mountain, the track boasts more than 200 feet of elevation change and boasts numerous off-camber downhill turns. This is not a track that favors a heavy car. The Trackhawk didn't seem to care.

Our track test examples were fitted exclusively with lightweight wheels and summer rubber, neither of which was a surprise. What was, however, was the way the track was presented to us. We weren't greeted by any impromptu speed-control measures or shortcutting. While Jeep's development engineers went to great lengths to mark the track's turn-in and apex points for the benefit of less-experienced drivers, that was the extent of their modification. The full length of the track's downhill front straight was presented to us unaltered.

Having already experienced the Trackhawk's acceleration and general road manners on the way to the course, we were eager to see just how effectively it could get around the course. We were first struck by how Jeep's engineers have managed to tune feedback into the big Grand Cherokee's controls. This was a welcome relief, as it took quite some time to get used to sighting our apexes through the Trackhawk's beefy a-pillars.

As impressive as the Trackhawk is, it's still a big vehicle, and big vehicles require patience. It will respond to mid-corner correction to a point, but once you've greased up those massive Pirellis, they can only give you so much when you overcook it. Mind the tires' limits, however, and the Trackhawk puts up a respectable hustle, and it's a repeatable one. The same six vehicles were used again and again throughout the day, each being taken out of rotation only briefly to refuel.

We didn't have the opportunity to fiddle with the built-in timing features too much, but as we learned the course, we managed to improve our front-straight speed from 116 to 121 miles per hour over the course of a couple of sessions.

A smooth glideAs we returned to our hotel from the track, we were again impressed with how naturally the Trackhawk transitions from performance monster to premium people-hauler. It's quiet at cruise and comfortable over poor road surfaces. As a bonus, it's styled with enough subtlety to fly (sorry) under the radar for the most part. Sure, enthusiasts will spot it right away, but the Trackhawk will easily disappear into rush hour traffic when driven with any degree of decorum.

This gave us a chance to nitpick, but we struggled to find faults anywhere but in the interior. At $50,000, a Grand Cherokee holds its own. At the $100,000 price tag of our tester, however, it's disappointing. The big control interfaces that reminded us of rental-spec Compasses and Chrysler 200s were glaring reminders of the Trackhawk's humbler roots.

But, we didn't care. At the end of the day, it's a 700-horsepower family car with virtually no compromises. We can live with a few big plastic buttons.

Leftlane's bottom line

The 2018 Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk is, in many ways, the pinnacle of SRT's performance efforts. It's the best all-around packaging of the (not) Hellcat powertrain we've seen to date, and easily the most practical to boot. Nothing competes with it at this price point (or at several higher ones for that matter). For the money, it could stand to have a better interior, but we're not losing any sleep over it.

2018 Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk base price, $85,900; as-tested, $100,960Pricing breakdown TBA.

Photos by Byron Hurd and Jeep.

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