The 2018 Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk Is the Most Hellish Hellcat
If power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, then the Jeep Cherokee Trackhawk is pure evil.
Being a car guy is like being in a cult; there are certain unspoken rules that folks pretty much stand by, else risking expulsion from the petrolhead community. Rule 1: If some horsepower is good, more horsepower is better, and most horsepower is best.
Think about it: If someone buys the version of the car with the small engine, they always find the excuses for their friends as to why they went with the 2-liter diesel; “I sit in traffic all day,” or “I have to rob a liquor store to afford the gas—but the M-Appearance package is good enough,” or simply “I can’t afford it.” These are all acceptable reasons to not buy the big engine.
No one ever has to explain why he or she got the big engine. Roll up to your buddy’s house in a ZR1, and it hardly matters that you have just moved from the Beginner to the Intermediate group in your local HPDE. Your friend understands exactly why you got the big engine, and so do you: Because it’s there, gas is cheap, and you can afford it. In America, there is absolutely no such thing as an engine (or a truck) too big, and the only thing better than big is biggest; most; the absolute. Which explains everything about the Hellcat. All three of them.
The Challenger Hellcat was silly, at 4500 pounds and with little skinny 275-series tires attempting to stick the 707HP to the ground, and, in general, failing miserably. Still, it was—and as of today (the Demon version), still is—the most powerful muscle car on sale. It does huge burnouts, is comfy, reliable, and offers the coolest sounding possible answer to, “So, what do you drive?”
The Charger Hellcat is particularly fun if your hobbies happen to be sliding around airfields at near-triple digits, or roll racing GIXXERS outside of Houston, deep into the triple digits. Its architecture dates back over 12 years under the Dodge name, and even further if you dig into the Mercedes-Benz parts catalog, with only one real major overhaul. Still, it’s the most powerful sedan on sale in America, and the only rear-wheel drive, full size American car left. Plus, 700HP Cop Car.
And now, the Jeep. Credit where it’s due—the Jeep Grand Cherokee is, from a quality perspective, certainly the best vehicle FCA builds and is in the running for best-built American-branded vehicle. With the exception of its little shifter issue, since resolved, the Grand Cherokee is a no-excuses nice car. If you asked me to choose one stripped out, base vehicle from the FCA lineup, a Grand Cherokee would be my only choice. The basic bones are that good.
Also, credit where it’s due, the Hellcat-ified version of the Grand Cherokee, called Trackhawk, is objectively the best version of the Hellcat triplets. It puts the power down best, it’s the most stable at speed, it is actually the quickest and fastest vehicle in its category, and even in the context of its competition, the Grand Cherokee Trackhawk is just… a very nice truck. Hell, you can even use it to tow your actual race car in an enclosed trailer with a 7200-pound tow rating.
There’s a lot in a name, though. A name sets expectations. A name makes promises, for better or for worse. And with a name like Trackhawk, the only place worth testing this 5,385-lb, 707-horsepower Jeep, is at the track. And boy did I find a doozy.
The #GRIDLIFE Motorsports and Music Festival brings together HPDE (also known as “Track Days”), time attack, drifting, and a music festival under one banner, at one racetrack, for a whole weekend. It’s quite the spectacle, with plenty to do all weekend, day, and night. Over 5,000 people invade the track, camp out, show, cruise, and race their cars, watch Formula Drift legends tear up Road Atlanta’s “Keyhole” complex, and celebrate cars and music.
[Full Disclosure: I am a paid employee of #GRIDLIFE since 2014, where I participate in a variety of activities and basically act as a walking meet-and-greet all weekend. It’s still fun as hell, and serves as a perfect background for hot-lapping a 5-passenger truck.]
Yeah, it’s a chill gig to basically hang out with fans all weekend, but what drew me this time was the other perk: unlimited track time at Road Atlanta; one of the great American road courses.
Road Atlanta is a fearsome place. It’s big, it’s fast, it’s hard on engines and brakes, tires and shocks. And if you’re not prepared for it, you will eat wall. I’ve got probably a hundred laps here, not enough to call myself an expert by any means; just enough to know where not to crash.
Think about what your expectations are for something named Grand Cherokee Hellcat versus one called Trackhawk. Something called Hellcat is good for a laugh; probably makes a lot of noise, scares folks both inside and outside the car, and doesn’t take itself too seriously. Something called Trackhawk is expected to perform at the track, counter to what physics says should be possible with 5,385 pounds of steel.
To that end, you get the aforementioned 6.2-liter, Supercharged & Intercooled Hellcat engine, 295-series 20” Pirelli P-Zero’s all around with the largest brakes ever fitted to a FCA Vehicle, 15.8” front and 13.7” rear, six-piston Brembos. The front end is revised both for cooling and to shovel more air into that engine’s gourd, and the suspension is a fixed-height system with particularly well-tuned Bilstein adaptive dampers.
All the other requisite drivetrain hardware is beefed up to handle the tug of force that will happen between your Trackhawk and the road many, many times a day. Obviously, the Grand Cherokee is all-wheel-drive, making it exceptional off the line, and the ZF-designed eight-speed “Torqueflite” gearbox fires off upshifts with a literal bang and a shove; sixty flies by in about 3.5 (what?) seconds on its way to a mid-11 second quarter mile and a 180-mph top speed. Even by sports car standards, the Trackhawk is absurdly quick.
So it goes. This is without question, and something I verified, repeatedly, on Road Atlanta’s kinked back straight. Most folks running in the advanced group at Gridlife have what we would call, normal, prepped, sports cars. BRZ’s, Mustang’s, Honda’s, Evo’s, stuff like that; some with cages and sticky tires, some with GT wings.
Most trips down the back straight in the Trackhawk resulted in anywhere from five to ten passes. Hell the car I race at Road Atlanta only sees about 121 mph on this particular straight. The Trackhawk? One Hundred and Forty Two across the kink. It must be embarrassing as hell, being out on track in a caged racecar and watching me fly by, with three passengers holding iPhones, windows up, air conditioning blasted, cooled seats cooling, and Pearl Jam on the radio. In my first session, I passed twelve cars in one straightaway. Exiting the tight, 90-degree, Turn seven by avoiding the inside curb and taking lots of outside curb, to take advantage of the AWD system, you mat third gear and the Trackhawk rears on its handquarters with a deep bellow and that symphonic whine, reminding you three times a lap just what the entire point is of a $96,000 (as tested) Jeep. You fly by the first 2 or 3 cars, but now you’re at a pace that the cars in front of them don’t expect you at all. You just flash the high beams for 20 seconds straight as cars that didn’t even see you a few seconds ago are panic-swerving to move out of your way. By the time you hit the redline in sixth, you’re getting light as the track drops away into the downhill braking zone. You can clearly see the tight, 90-degree turn 10a approaching. Of course, you do still have to stop, and that’s where the issues really center you will need at least one change of underwear.
In standard trim, with standard pads and fluid, the Trackhawk gets one good flying lap, followed by one medium-sketchy lap around Road Atlanta before you have to do two full laps of cool down, because you’ve just “had a moment” into 10a, or worse, turn 1, flanked by a big, big wall.
Even on the best lap, you’ve gotta stand on the brakes at the 5 board to slow down enough to make 10a. By lap 2, it’s the 8. On the third lap, you have to give yourself a 100 mph limiter because any faster and you might as well call it the kitty litter express. All those dozen cars you just missiled on the back straight now get point-bys, and in the context of any distance more than one lap, that entire display of testosterone and seizure-inducing headlight flashing you just performed a minute ago is literally, useless. The standard Jeep SRT, with it’s puny 485-horsepower V8, attains more reasonable speeds on the straightaways, but even with smaller brakes, is able to make them last quite a lot longer, for repeated hauldowns. In the Trackhawk, you’re adding a plus-25 to the end of every straightaway.
Now, that doesn’t mean those two laps aren’t fun as hell. At street pressures the thing is a pushy mess, but with the P-Zero tires starting from 25psi cold, the Trackhawk turns in harder and sharper than expected. Though the steering itself has little feedback, the truck is reasonably communicative at what’s going on, as long as Traction and Stability control are fully disabled. This is not something to be afraid of; the Trackhawk will not jump out and bite and do things it’s not asked to do, however, traction control will positively ruin the fun of going fast by killing the wrong things at the wrong times, affecting your momentum, and even weight transfer, quite negatively. These systems may, however, mean that your mother can drive the thing home in a snowstorm, if it comes to that. On the street, they are completely non-invasive.
While the obvious lead-off virtue of this silly truck is the phenomenally absurd Supercharged V8 engine and the pace it provides, the cleanup move is how you’re able to straighten out corners. Throw another racer, someone who drives a normal sports car, shotgun in the Trackhawk for the one hot lap of the morning, and expect jubilant, “Wait, THAT’S your line?” comments at turns 3, 5, 7, and 10a, all of which are taken by using er, all the curbing, and a more-than-healthy portion of grass. At turn 3, in particular, a crowd seemed to gather whenever I lined up in the field, as the Jeep line was pretty much straight across the lawn, ending in a four-wheels yump in to the downhill esses, which you just, uh, make straight by putting the inside wheels right on through the grass. The combination of big, aired-down and squishy P-Zero tires, dialed in Bilstein dampers and a lot of weight, means you can be super aggressive on all the curbing, without upsetting the car’s direction in the least. This, by the way, translates to how the Trackhawk rides on the road, which is to say, very well; significantly better than the bouncy Challenger – frankly I haven’t driven the Charger since 2015 so I couldn’t make an informed comparison (though I recall at the time it was an improvement from the Chally).
Cooling, thankfully, is not an issue here. The Grand Cherokee has a huge front fascia, and the Trackhawk’s is unique, designed to keep things fed full of air. While I can’t say the engine will run all day long at full throttle, I can absolutely say it will outlast the brakes by a significant margin. In one session, I was an absolute master of brake management, and, with three passengers in the car, managed five whole medium-pace laps with the windows down and the air conditioning at full crank. UConnect’s “Performance Pagues” gauge cluster mode indicated that, around lap 4, the oil temperature started to creep up a bit from 50 to 75% of threshold. I turned off the air conditioning for a lap and it came right down. Whether it’s the engine the seats, or the cabin, everything involving the Trackhawk and cooling, is good.
In more fairness to Jeep, a proper set of track brake pads (is someone going to even make those for a Jeep?) and high-temperature brake fluid would probably have allowed me to get 4-5 good laps out of the Trackhawk without melting everything around. And, this is nowhere near the the only vehicle I’ve tested to have insufficient brakes for track work.
But most aren’t this disproportionate; the math doesn’t lie—the Trackhawk has double the horsepower, and carries double the weight, of most of the other cars running around the race track. That means burning twice as much fuel, and fighting brakes twice as hard, for the same result. As it was, the twenty-five or so laps I managed to complete all weekend will probably require a total brake hardware replacement before the next man-child flogs it, and possibly a new set of tires as well.
And honestly, all for what? A best lap time of 1:46, roughly what you could do in a six-year old Corvette or E46 M3 on decent tires.
The very first time I drove a Challenger Hellcat, on the press launch in a very wet Portland, Oregon, I said “put this engine in the Jeep.” I said it again at the Charger Hellcat launch, and then a few more times on The Smoking Tire podcast. I predicted that if they put the Hellcat engine in the Grand Cherokee, it would not only be the best home for that engine, it would be the best car in the entire FCA lineup. Well, I was right, but I should have been more careful what I wished for, because I got it.
We have really reached the limit of excess here. In 300 miles of street driving, 75 miles of track driving, and a few hours of paddock creeping, I averaged just over six miles per gallon. I killed $1500 worth of tires and, guessing here, another $1500-2000 in brakes. And that’s why names are important. If this thing were called Grand Cherokee Hellcat, then jumping it over berms while destroying rubber, pad material and fuel, cackling like the Wicked Witch of the West, would all make perfect sense. Hell, it might even be something I would embrace.
But it’s not; it’s called Trackhawk. And that sets me up mentally to want to take it seriously. It makes me want to think it might actually be good at this racetrack business. But really, it isn’t. It’s just got a zillion horsepower and it’s tough enough to hop over some curbing and grass without falling apart. Any reasonably quick sports car with a reasonably competent driver will beat a Trackhawk around a track. And if they can’t on lap one, they certainly can on lap three.
I leave conflicted; am I a traitor to the cult of horsepower for literally asking FCA to build this vehicle and then complaining about it once it arrives? It’s seven hundred horsepower in a Jeep for a base price of $85,000, almost fifteen grand less than the German’s equally stupid uber-SUV’s. Shouldn’t I be proud and, all Murrica? I did have some laughs on the track, and my passengers certainly seemed impressed. If you insert the caveat for the weight, almost all performance metrics seem impressive. Without the caveat, it’s all a bit head scratchy and stupid.
Lets be real though: no one is taking a Trackhawk on a track except me and the 50 folks who went on the press launch last year. No one. And as a street car, the Trackhawk is comfortable and fun, and I can’t argue with that, even if the entire system is woefully inefficient and probably causing global warming by itself. It’s hard to find a reason to justify one; it’s a challenge to use 700 HP on the street, especially when you can’t do burnouts thanks to AWD. And it’s certainly not $25,000 more fun on the street than a comparably equipped 6.4L SRT model.
But like I said, I know the rules, and so if we run into each other at Cars and Coffee and you rolled up in a Trackhawk, you certainly won’t have to explain yourself. We get it.
Photos by (top to bottom): Rob Wilkinson, Matt Farah, Matthew Rapoza, Larry Chen, and Greg Kachadurian