BANG! “That sounded expensive,” I mutter, with my face screwed up in the most intense cringe I’ve ever pulled. I’m just under an hour away from the bright lights and mass inebriation of Las Vegas, on what’s easily the most challenging trail I’ve ever tackled, stretching the talents of a Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk - not to mention my extremely limited off-road ability - to the very limit.
It’s something of a Jeep-themed day - on the other side of this trail is Spring Mountain Motorsports ranch, and a bunch of Grand Cherokee Trackhawks. The first half an hour of off-roading has been described as “the easy bit,” despite featuring much in the way of axle articulation and rock crawling, on a route frequently lined with sphincter-tightening drops into the wilderness.
Further up the trail we arrive at the coffee stop, which constitutes two dudes, some steel coffee pots and a wood fire. Because rustic. The “easy bit” is now over, and proceedings have been well and truly stepped up a notch. Hence the ‘bang’ I mentioned earlier. I’m struggling to get over a particularly large bolder, and as I give the 3.6-litre V6 under the bonnet a little more gas, the left rear spins up. Suddenly it grips and I’m over the obstacle with a little more force than expected, with the Trailhawk slapping back down to Earth and making a hideous noise in the process.
For the next section I’m riding on the brake pedal, attempting to gently ease the Jeep down a bolder-ridden slope, but being gentle ain’t easy here. The drops between some of the rocks are massive, so it’s hard to do anything other than crash down the other side of each with an ever sickening series of thuds. In my mind, the lower parts of the vehicle’s bodywork must be trashed.
Of all the various types of Grand Cherokee in the current stable, I’m pretty sure this is the only one that’d have a hope of tackling this trail without getting stuck. Compared to the regular GC it has underbody protection - which I’m giving a particularly brutal test today - much more ground clearance, a two-way transfer box, tweaked off-road driving modes and Goodyear Wrangler all-terrain tyres. And - despite my ham-fistedness off-road technique - it’s coming together beautifully out here.
You’re covered if something goes wrong too, with a pair of meaty tow hooks at each end of the car. As we come to a stop to be told that another journalist on the trip is stuck further up, it sounds like they’re coming in handy.
While we wait, I’ve the chance to assess the damage, only to find there isn’t really any. The lower parts of the bodywork don’t have a mark on them, and the wheels are all intact. It’s only when I kneel down that I notice a few gouge marks on the chassis rails. Oops.
After overhearing something about a Cherokee receiving a glancing blow from a tree, we jump back in the cars and pilot our Jeep convoy out of the rock garden and onto an easy-going, dusty trail. The scenery opens out a little, revealing a stark, Mars-like landscape that’s littered with imposing mountains and crags. Can I move here?
The last leg to the track is on road, where the Trailhawk doesn’t shine quite as it did off it. With a smooth ride and supportive seats it’s plenty comfortable, but the suspension’s so soft even with the suspension lowered as much as possible that we’re in wallowy territory.
The 291bhp, 3.6-litre V6 sounds sufficient on paper, but when you put your foot down, you get quite a lot of noise, yet not much in the way of forward momentum. Without a mentally taxing, rocky obstacle course to navigate, I’m also noticing the Jeep’s cheap and cheerful build quality.
I don’t have long to dwell on its lashings of less-than-luxurious plastic, as our track for the afternoon looms into view. It’s one of those ‘driving resort’ style places like Ascari and Bilsterberg - a rich man’s playground we’ve been given temporary access to for a few hours. A quick ride around the circuit in a Chrysler Pacifica (which I now rather wish we got in the UK) reveals a track with a long back-straight, a few tricky hairpins, and a moderately scary blind crest. Lovely.
Acutely aware that our track time is limited, I try to up the pace throughout my out-lap, before making the most of the Trackhawk’s 697bhp, 645lb ft Dodge Hellcat-shared HEMI V8. And when the wick’s turned up, the Trackhawk’s a bit of a surprise. No amount of all-wheel drive trickery (in Track Mode 70 per cent of power is shoved rearwards) should be able to stop a high-riding, 2433kg monster like this from wanting to push on into understeer like a Range Rover Sport SVR does, but there’s a sophistication to the way the Trackhawk moves around under you. Yes, it does feel soft and yes, it does roll a bit, but it works on track in a way that shouldn’t be possible. The fast steering’s easy to get on with too, even if it’s a little light and a little low on feedback.
The other surprise is the performance: it doesn’t feel quite as quick as you’d think. Mash your foot on the floor and you expect it to feel like the world’s ending, but what you get in return isn’t fire and brimstone, but a relentless pull interrupted only by brief and utterly efficient upshifts from the eight-speed automatic gearbox. All of this is accompanied by a scintillating soundtrack made up of V8 muscle and a brilliantly loud, whining supercharger.
I suspect on the road the Trackhawk will feel a tad more dramatic, and surely it’s only a matter of time before the vehicle becomes the next YouTube drag race hero. Despite weighing more than each of the Dodge Hellcat twins, the T-Hawk’s beefed-up all-wheel drive system and trick launch control mode yields an incredible 3.5 second 0-60mph time.
Coming to the end of the straight, I brake as late as I dare, with the car writhing around under me on approach to the corner. I could have easily braked a little later. The 400mm six piston front, 350mm four-piston rear stoppers do a remarkable job considering the weight they’re working against.
On the cool-down lap I’m given a chance to try out the launch control system, which frustratingly refuses to work on both occasions. It’s a particular pity, as when pulling up to a stop, we’re informed that’ll be our only run of the day, owing to time constraints.
It’s gutting, as from this extremely brief encounter the Trackhawk has already won me over. I love all the engineering that’s gone into it - from the hardened driveline parts to the drag-inspired launch control system and the many packaging headaches the Trackhawk team had to tackle. We simply must geek out in full over this car’s technical aspects another time. But what I love more is how all of that results in a spectacularly fast, thoroughly entertaining lesson in American excess. A lesson in American excess which is making its way to the UK, don’t forget.
But would I have the Trackhawk, or the Trailhawk? As fun as bolder-bashing in the Trailhawk is, I couldn’t possibly say no to 697bhp. It’s perilously close to being twice as expensive as the V6 Trailhawk, but it’s worth it.