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Loaner Review: 2016 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk

Ross Ballot May 23, 2016 Jeep Reviews, Reviews 25 Comments

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I had high hopes going into my few days with the 2016 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk. I knew that on one hand, the KL Cherokee fits my wants and needs perfectly: 4WD with low range, safe, comfortable, room for a vacation’s worth of stuff, large automaker backing, go almost-everywhere capability, and it’s a Jeep. But then the other hand slapped me in the face when it came to actually driving and spending time with the Cherokee, as that’s where things went wrong.

While the Jeep was a seriously nice loaner, for me it’s not necessarily a nice long-term-ownership vehicle. I was hoping to love it to the point of considering placing an order for one, but there were so many things “wrong” that I couldn’t do so without my soul being ripped out. It’s not that the Cherokee is bad, because it’s certainly a good vehicle all-around, it’s just that it’s entirely devoid of all feeling and sensation and as such is boring and unexciting to drive as well as to spend time.

Do I like the Cherokee? Sure. Do I like the Trailhawk? Definitely. Would it be a “perfect” vehicle for my needs? Abso-frickin’-lutely. Do I want to own one?

Hell no.

The first thing that struck me about the Cherokee is how much it feels like a smaller Grand Cherokee. My parents own a 2014 GC V8 Limited with about 75k miles on the odometer, of which I’ve probably contributed to somewhere in the realm of 5,000-7,500 miles (primarily for work use). Climbing into the Cherokee gave me the sense I was getting into a lesser version of the same vehicle in every way. The size, the space, the material quality, and the design just oozes the feeling that it is trying to emulate its higher-priced sibling.

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Like its big brother, the Cherokee feels pretty solid. The doors close with a thunk, materials feel mostly chunky, knobs and switches are substantial, and on the road it’s planted and never comes across as jittery. Luckily, it fails to display any of the characteristics common of the lighter, less stable vehicles that can be found in this class. It gives off a sense of quality, something that can’t be said of some other Jeep models, those bearing the names Patriot and Compass.

The Cherokee’s interior is a nice place to spend time with comfortable seats, all the infotainment/electronics you could need (Uconnect is fantastic as usual), and a few nifty storage spaces. It really is an easy place to be, and commuting in the Cherokee would be a breeze. There’s not a ton of interior volume or cargo space but you could easily make it work for a road trip or week(end) away. Use of the roof rack could prove helpful as well, and with the Cherokee’s modest towing ability pulling a small travel or camping trailer should be more than easy. One note about the interior is that the low center tunnel gives off a weird, airy feeling that the Grand doesn’t have. I can’t decide if it makes it feel more spacious or less finished, but it’s one of the two. Despite this, it’s still what I’d consider a well done interior overall.

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Out on the road the Cherokee is pleasant enough to drive, but you better be prepared for a whole bundle of boredom. The steering is one of, if not the, most numb and senseless units I’ve ever experienced. Not only is on-center completely dead, but everywhere from lock-to-lock is so power-assisted and separated from road feel that I question how in an off-road situation one would have any chance of knowing what’s going on up front without a spotter directly relaying where the wheels are pointed.

On-road and for the normal consumer this isn’t a worry, but I couldn’t help but notice that this could be a problem for those who actually care about these things. Especially in off-road situations in which wheel placement is absolutely critical, even when you do have a spotter, not knowing what the fronts are doing could prove worrisome. But the Cherokee wasn’t designed for off-road, so this is almost irrelevant.

I do have to say that the Trailhawk package transforms the Cherokee into a good looking vehicle, if only through the use of added-on aggression. In its base form the mid-sized crossover is definitely quirky, and that’s to put it nicely. There’s definitely some similarities with the VehiCROSS, but not necessarily in a good way (though I’m admittedly biased towards the VX). Less off-road happy models with the low valence, chrome trim/wheels, standard height, and street tires don’t do the Cherokee any favors. Though I haven’t spent any time in these lower-spec models, they’re probably fine to drive and probably equally decent in the snow, but they don’t fit the “true Jeep” look at all. In Trailhawk guise, with the red tow hooks and higher ride height and black accents and better wheels and meatier tires, the Cherokee takes on a whole different persona. I actually liked walking up to and away from it, and would have no problem looking at it in day-to-day usage. It’s an attractive package, aggressive enough to stand out but not so much so to wholly compromise its ability to be an everyday vehicle. I have to admit that I like the way the Trailhawk Cherokee presents itself.

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I didn’t have the Cherokee long enough to assess its off-road abilities, but I did bomb around a small dirt construction patch nearby my work. The area is easily traversed in 2WD and there’s nothing challenging enough to put the Cherokee in a bad spot, but the Jeep felt plenty stable and confident climbing the hills and dodging the muck. I won’t dig too deep into the Trailhawk’s off-road capabilities since I can’t truly attest to them, but I wouldn’t doubt that with its multiple traction settings, locking rear differential, and electronically controlled low-range (not to mention the BS that is descent control), the Trailhawk would do well on 95% of the trails you could throw at it. The stock tires are fine, but obviously you’d want to upgrade them for any more serious off-road duty. Then again, if you’re concerned with the kind of off-roading that would push the Cherokee Trailhawk to or beyond the limits of its factory tires, you’re probably not the kind of person who buys a Cherokee Trailhawk in the first place.

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I’m not sure if it’s an option or a standard piece, but my loaner had a special kit in the cargo space that I couldn’t help but laugh at. It contained a tow strap and gloves, packed nicely into an embroidered Trailhawk bag. Does Jeep assume that Cherokee owners are going to get themselves abandoned and in need of help, or just that they’re going to get stuck? Being that somehow I manage to get my quad stuck on literally every single ride (be it 25 miles deep into a PA state forest or 160 miles into the deep woods of Maine) I know as well as anybody that a good tow strap goes a long way, but it seems a bit odd to have this in a Cherokee. Maybe Jeep is acknowledging the limitations of the Cherokee, and even of the top-dog off-road Trailhawk model? Or maybe they’re using it as a subtle way to encourage off-roading? Who knows… I just think it’s a funny thing to find inside a vehicle that for most owners will never see a dirt road so much as a rock pile or mud pit.

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I do have some gripes with the Cherokee Trailhawk, though most can be pinned to the Cherokee itself rather than specific to the Trailhawk trim. There’s no better way to put this, but the 9-speed transmission continues to be absolute crap. The corporate Pentastar V6 is perfectly adequate, and it even returned low 20s MPG during my use, but it behaves in a way that’s frustrating to the point of causing anger. It’s impossible to ignore that gears 8 and 9 are almost useless aside from high-speed highway driving, and the lethargic upshifts and multiple-gear downshifts are enough to desire even a five-speed auto rather than the 9-speed.

This is no different from how I felt about the same 9-speed when I had a Chrysler 200 for a couple weeks, but apparently those extra couple gears are so important that FCA is willing to sacrifice the personality and performance of a transmission for what amounts to a nearly negligible gas mileage benefit. Maybe with better tuning it would be acceptable, but here it just isn’t. I’ll reiterate what I said when I had the 200: go back to 7 speeds. Even 8. Enough is enough with the 9-speed nonsense, and I can’t imagine how gear-happy the new 10-speeds will be.

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Another gripe comes with the start-stop system, which while being semi-well executed it’s still annoying in its own right. I wouldn’t have a problem with it if when you turned it off if it stayed off the next time you went to start the vehicle, but it doesn’t and as such you have to make a conscious effort every time you get in to shut it off otherwise you’re stuck yelling at it when the system lurches as tries to catch up with itself. Meanwhile, the hood is shaped such that the sight-lines are bad enough to be barely able to see over the front, and barely at all over the front right corner. This comes to be a slight P.I.T.A. in the parking lot and would be immensely frustrating off-road (but again…the Cherokee wasn’t designed for that).

My last major gripe with the Cherokee comes in its name: even though it’s a few years old already, it still hurts me to see a such an important nameplate share so little with its predecessor. I suppose this boils down to personal preference, and Jeep must obviously see a huge marketing opportunity in “Cherokee.” In actuality I’m just perpetually hoping for a true XJ replacement, and having the Cherokee name taken makes that impossible.

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Overall the Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk is a good, solid, comfortable, safe, capable vehicle that is a great do-it-all option. It does nearly everything a Grand Cherokee will, all while looking good and being easy to live with. It feels like a smaller-scale Grand in most regards, and that’s a true compliment. That the places it lacks finesse are reflected in its price tag only makes sense. I like the size of the Cherokee, I like the looks, and I like the packaging. Unfortunately, I don’t like how FWD-biased it is, I don’t like the price of a semi-optioned Trailhawk, and I despise the transmission. Those might be deal-breakers for me, an atypical consumer, but for the regular buyer the Cherokee Trailhawk is a perfectly good CUV with a little more brawn than its competition. I entirely understand how it’s selling so well, and I applaud Jeep for what it’s achieved with a model that could have failed so horribly.

At nearly $35k as tested, the Trailhawk is a good option for those who need all-weather capability and want some off-road road charm to go with it. I can’t fault anybody for buying one, and I wouldn’t hesitate to have one as a loaner. Maybe I’d even buy one used in a few years with a warranty as a daily driver, but with its asking price and the other options on the used market it would be extremely difficult for me to buy a Cherokee Trailhawk myself. I do sincerely like the Trailhawk package, but not wanting to plunk my own money down on one is a lot to say given my Jeep fandom and how perfect the vehicle is for me, but in reality some faults are just impossible to get past.

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  • CraigSu

    Perhaps Jeep intended the tow strap to be meant for towing rather than being towed.

    • Ross Ballot

      That is…a good point I hadn’t considered. Still though…if it’s there for one, it’s there for the other…

      • CraigSu

        Agreed, unless one works in the Jeep marketing department.

    • TobyShine

      Can you imagine trying to unstick another vehicle with this thing?

      • Ross Ballot

        Sure, any vehicle can pull out another just fine given ample traction, weight, and power/gearing. The Trailhawk would do decently, given 4WD Low and its weight. Of course, unsticking a stuck vehicle is heavily dependent on just how stuck that vehicle is…

        • karonetwentyc

          One of the most annoying recoveries I ever had to do was a quad that the owner had managed to sink up to the top of the wheels in some very thick yet soupy mud. Suction under the quad meant that it eventually took two vehicles in our group pulling on it and a lot of digging to free it – and in the process, I managed to bend a tow hook.

          A fan of mud I am not. Give me desert or mountains any day.

          • Ross Ballot

            I know the feeling…been on both ends of that situation more times than I can count. Mud is fun to an extent. When everybody is continuously getting stuck and it’s laborious work getting the quads unstuck, it’s only fun for so long. Mountains I can ride all day every day though…never done desert (yet?)

            • karonetwentyc

              My main thing with mud has been that it’s fun for a while, then the next time you get under the vehicle to do something and find that what you need to get at is a) inaccessible because it’s caked in it and b) mud’s falling into your face while you try to fiddle with it. Yeah, it kills seals, U-joints, CVs, and promotes rust, etc., but as dumb as it may sound that’s what really kills it for me.

              Desert wheeling is an interesting mix. Depending on the time of year and where you are, you can get snow, mud, sand, deep sand, packed or loose dirt, gravel, cinder, scrub brush, rocks (anything from a grapefruit up to that one particular scene from the last Mad Max film), and awesome scenery.

              Utah and Arizona are particularly pretty, but I’ll admit to a bit of partiality to SoCal – there’s a great mix of desert and high desert trails and plenty of longer expedition-style stuff as well, which is my particular favourite. I’ve never been someone for whom the obstacle is the objective: getting out into the back of beyond for a few days with friends, making good use of the transfer case getting there and back, and chilling out away from all the usual pressures has been more my thing – and if some folks do that by crawling over rocks, I’m good with that too.

  • “…Gears 8 and 9 are almost useless aside from high-speed highway driving…”
    I’d much rather have more than I need than 4000 on the tach at 80.

    • Ross Ballot

      I’ve driven a number of vehicles with similar weight and power but less gears. None were at 4k at 80…guessing it comes down to gearing. What I really meant by “high speed highway driving” is that gears 8 & 9 are only useful on long, flat 75+ MPH stretches during which the engine is under a constant load. Once there’s a *slight* hill the trans has to kick down to get anywhere near the sweet spot. This, paired with the 9-speed’s indecisiveness, means you’re inevitably battling getting stuck too low in the rev range and dealing with the lugging sensation, or it’s trying its hardest to upshift but won’t let itself do so because you’re not moving fast enough.

      Much easier felt and experienced than explained via keyboard.

  • Maymar

    The inclusion of the tow strap and gloves seems similar to those bright red tow hooks, it’s a cheap way to keep it in the owner’s mind that this is a Legitimate Off-Road Vehicle, for the sake of reinforcing the Jeep image even in the less traditionally “Jeep” models. My company has a handful of Cherokee Trailhawks in the fleet, and now I’m curious if we get the bags as well.

    I too like the Trailhawk quite a bit – it’s no XJ, but at the same time, the XJ was deliberately no SJ (and both were deliberately no CJ). The KL is in the realm of what the market wants a moderately sized crossover to be, and at least they try and build a more legitimate version to appease the enthusiasts (who’d probably mostly just buy a KJ anyhow). And, like you say, it feels like a smaller Grand Cherokee, and that gets a pass even though the original ZJ was very nearly just a replacement XJ.

  • Ayreonaut

    I still can’t get over the looks… Its hideous to my eyes and an affront to everything with the jeep and Cherokee name.

  • Monkey10is

    Am I the only one who looks at the picture of the descent control switch and thinks;
    – so one button is for a duck swimming down a slope,
    – the other button is for a duck swimming on the level?

    • /Raises hand slowly.
      /ducks

    • karonetwentyc

      To my mind it’s just a poor substitute for driver capability and judgement.

      And what the hell is up with that ‘insert paper clip here’ button for full-neutral? It looks like the sort of thing that would be used to factory-reset a misbehaving wireless router.

      When your transfer case has the proper method of engagement and disengagement as well as the correct number of ranges, it looks like the image below. Modes are controlled by the driver’s eyes, hands, and feet, not computers.

      • Ross Ballot

        In today’s world of computer-happy cars and computer-happy shoppers, “tech” is what sells. A millennial going into a Jeep dealership is going to be impressed by a knob to control a computer, not a manual transfer case.

        Please note that I am not one of these people.

    • Maxwell

      Well, now that can’t be unseen! Or decoys …or those crappy carnival midway BB-gun duck games!

  • karonetwentyc

    Couple of things:

    “But the Cherokee wasn’t designed for off-road, so this is almost irrelevant.”

    Emphasis mine, but I think that this cuts to the heart of the problems that I have with this vehicle: it was meant as a CUV with some better-than-average capability in the dirt for a vehicle in its class, but it’s still not a true 4×4 and/or tow vehicle. Where that really becomes an issue is that it wears the XJ’s name and is similarly-positioned in the lineup, but doesn’t have the XJ’s capabilities in those regards while being only about the same to drive on-road but with a different set of tradeoffs in that regard.

    “I’m not sure if it’s an option or a standard piece, but my loaner had a special kit in the cargo space that I couldn’t help but laugh at. It contained a tow strap and gloves, packed nicely into an embroidered Trailhawk bag. Does Jeep assume that Cherokee owners are going to get themselves abandoned and in need of help, or just that they’re going to get stuck?”

    To be completely honest, I’m perfectly fine with the inclusion of both of these items. Getting stuck is part of going off-road – or even ending up in a ditch after ice on the road put you there, for example, or having to drag someone else out after they encountered that misfortune. Solid recovery points on the vehicle, a decent recovery strap (no metal hooks!), and a pair of gloves are three of the most basic things that should be part of any off-road kit – and they work equally well for on-road recovery.

    For perspective: my last XJ had 4.5″ of lift, 31″ BFG T/A KO tyres, a slip-yoke eliminator, two-piece rear driveshaft, lockers at each end, deeper gears, rocker rails, skidplates, Dana 44 rear axle, rear discs, diff guards, and a few other dirt-performance enhancers I’m not remembering at the moment. This was an XJ that was specifically built to handle moderate expedition work, and I got it stuck. Several times. And out of the other dozen or so 4x4s and AWD vehicles I’ve owned, I’ve managed to, at one time or another, get every single one of them stuck.

    Three useful things I’ve learned (sometimes the hard way) since buying my first 4×4 20-odd years ago:

    – 4WD will get you at least twice as stuck as 2WD.

    – Always have recovery gear with you, and know how to use it.

    – Always wheel with a buddy, because that’s the one thing that’ll make the two above really useful when you do get seriously stuck.

    I get how it looks on the surface for Jeep to be including that – but I kept a recovery strap under the back seat of every XJ I ever owned, and even now have one in the trunk of the Jetta. Granted, the Jetta’s not likely to run the Mojave Road anytime soon, but it’s one of those things where its worth will be more obvious when you don’t have it than when you do.

    • Ross Ballot

      Right, so if they had given it another name and not tried to cover up its road-going priorities, it would have been “better.” Not more of a Jeep, but at least less like they’re trying to lie to us.

      The kit is something that I’m a fan of, too, and wouldn’t be opposed to seeing in other Jeep vehicles as well. Especially considering that most Jeep owners are more likely to get stuck in the snow than they would off road (since it actually requires going off road to get stuck there), it’s a smart inclusion.

      Re: the other points
      -4WD will get you at least twice as stuck as 2WD. – can confirm.
      -Always have recovery gear with you, and know how to use it. – off-road knowledge 101…unfortunately most who buy the Cherokee won’t have proper recovery knowledge.
      – Always wheel with a buddy, because that’s the one thing that’ll make the two above really useful when you do get seriously stuck. – Yes! Never go out alone…easiest way to get yourself in serious trouble.
      – Anyone who says they’ve been off-roading for any length of time and claims that they’ve never been stuck is either lying or not trying. – wait, people don’t get stuck? Weird. I seem to be very good at doing so, primarily in mud deeper than I have any chance of making it through

      Jeep might be doing the “it’s better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it” off-road idea with the recovery kit in the back of the Trailhawk…

      • karonetwentyc

        Couple of brief-ish responses:

        “Right, so if they had given it another name and not tried to cover up
        its road-going priorities, it would have been “better.” Not more of a
        Jeep, but at least less like they’re trying to lie to us.”

        In a sense, yes, though I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Jeep is lying about the vehicle’s capabilities – after all, one of the selling points of the XJ was that it was more civilised on-road than a Wrangler without the truckishness of the FSJ. It’s more that they’re trading on the Cherokee name while offering improvements in areas not related to in-the-dirt or towing capability. You won’t find me opposed to nicer interiors, but I’d prefer if they weren’t a trade-off with the reasons why I would be buying a vehicle like this in the first place.

        “-Always have recovery gear with you, and know how to use it. – off-road
        knowledge 101…unfortunately most who buy the Cherokee won’t have
        proper recovery knowledge.”

        Agreed re: customers not having the proper recovery / off-road knowledge – but everyone had to learn somewhere, and off-roading is a good way to hone the theoretical knowledge by putting it into practice. Something that I think Jeep could do to help with this would be to give each new owner access to a website for owners with some good basic instructions – and use that website to also encourage signing up for regional ‘Off-Road 101’ classes. Hold the classes a couple of times a year so that a Winter and Summer session can be given, possibly with the cooperation of local clubs. Showing how some off-road knowledge can also be applied to on-road situations would be useful as well.

        Not sure what the customer uptake might be on it, but it would give Jeep something that I don’t believe anyone else in the marketplace is currently offering. That said, I can see where liability concerns may kill that idea stone cold dead.

        “- Anyone who says they’ve been off-roading for any length of time and
        claims that they’ve never been stuck is either lying or not trying. –
        wait, people don’t get stuck? Weird. I seem to be very good at doing
        so, primarily in mud deeper than I have any chance of making it through”

        Yeah, I’ll admit that that statement is definitely a generalisation. To clarify: in my mind, its intent has been to show that getting stuck is an occupational hazard of going in the dirt, and that one day it will eventually happen – so don’t assume that you’re unstoppable, and don’t be upset when it does happen.

        Granted, that does certainly hang on the type of off-roading being done – as an example, straight-up trail riding usually has a lower chance of it, but anything involving mud, sand, or snow increases that likelihood. Realistically, it’s down to statistics: one day you will just hit that one spot where you’re going to get stuck, even if it’s one you’ve been through a dozen times before including earlier that day (been there, done that, looked sheepish when I ran the recovery strap back to the Discovery in our group for a pull).

        • Ross Ballot

          “Not sure what the customer uptake might be on it, but it would give Jeep something that I don’t believe anyone else in the marketplace is currently offering. That said, I can see where liability concerns may kill that idea stone cold dead.”
          –If they did something like Ford’s Octane Academy, that would be incredible. Jeep Jamboree is probably as close as that gets, and it’s expensive and there isn’t much teaching involved. Some of the Overland expos do lessons though.

          • karonetwentyc

            Good points. Swinging back to the KL Cherokee for a moment:

            I’d like to see one of these in Trailhawk trim run the Mojave Road. This is a route that I’m very familiar with (though haven’t been over it in a few years), and am choosing it for three reasons: a) it provides a good mix of challenging wheeling without the difficulty of, say, the Rubicon Trail; b) this is a vehicle that should be able to handle virtually all of it in stock (or near-stock; I’d permit and almost recommend different tyres) form; c) it’s a 130-mile run that can be comfortably done in three days, so would give plenty of time to shake any shortcomings in the vehicle out of the woodwork.

            The only part of the trail I’d be concerned about it being able to deal with would be Soda Lake. In the middle of summer this would possibly not be an issue, but if it’s anytime near having rained a lot of the stuff under the Cherokee could make slogging through the soup incredibly difficult if not impossible.

            Just thinking out loud, really, but I’d be willing to eat some crow if I could see how one performed on that particular stretch.

            • Ross Ballot

              Yeah, would be great to get a KL TH out there on the Mojave Rd along with a new 4Runner, Wrangler, and other off-road capable 4x4s to see which does the best all-around. I’d probably take the 4R…

              • karonetwentyc

                Definitely – and it’d be interesting to throw an Xterra into the mix as well. Despite the fact that it went out of production last year, it’s still recent enough as doesn’t matter, would add another BOF 4×4 into the mix, and had a production life longer than the JK has enjoyed so has some throwback factor to it.

                • Ross Ballot

                  The XTerra would do great, especially if it’s a Pro-4X

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