Welcome to Critic's Notebook, our impressions, jottings, and marginalia regarding whatever The Drive writers happen to be driving. Today's edition: the 2018 Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk.
The guy in the Infiniti never knew what hit him. How his Q50 sport sedan could have been swatted aside by a Jeep Grand Cherokee, like an ant flicked off a pantleg, leaving him a forlorn speck on New Jersey’s Palisades Parkway.
I’m not sure the look on the guy’s face was worth $99,965, the as-tested price of this certifiably-insane, 707-horsepower, Hellcat-powered Grand Cherokee Trackhawk. But if automotive cognitive dissonance is your thing, you may appreciate the pleasures of a Jeep that looks like it’s headed to football practice—and may well be—but will happily pause to deliver humiliating stoplight lessons to Corvettes, Porsches, Mercedes-AMGs, whatever.
The name “Trackhawk” suggests that the Grand Cherokee belongs on a track. This is a lie, a literal whopper—largely because the Jeep weighs 5,360 pounds. Considering all that mass, the Trackhawk—stiffened, beefed up and lowered, with 15.4-inch front brake rotors large enough to plate pizzas—delivers grip and composure galore, as I learned during laps at Monticello Motor Club and a week of testing. But really, the only time a Trackhawk should be on track is to tow another car off it, which its 7,200-pound towing capacity easily allows.
No, like its forebears, the Charger and Challenger Hellcats with the 6.2-liter supercharged Hemi V8, the Trackhawk lives for a simpler American time, when men were men and the rules were as straight as the roads. (Some of the men were another story, but nobody talked about that stuff in the Sixties.) Those rules, written in my Detroit hometown, made clear that no one gave a damn about what happened when the road finally curved. As what Jeep dubs the world’s fastest SUV (apparently they don't count the crossover-leaning, electric Tesla Model X), the Trackhawk both hews to and updates those rules. The Trackhawk will put the straight-line stomp on everything from a Mercedes-AMG G65 and Range Rover SVR to a Porsche Cayenne Turbo and BMW X6 M. And if your conventional sports car or sedan isn't bringing at least 550 horses to the party, the Trackhawk will likely spoil your cruise night as well.
Speed, ideally without speeding tickets. Whether you’re going 20 mph or 120, the Jeep’s force is almost indescribable; “stupid fast” sums it up. Alone on Monticello’s long back straight, I dialed up the Jeep’s automated launch control and torque reserve functions—the latter pre-fills the intake manifold and puts roughly half the 11.6 psi of supercharger boost on instant tap—and snapped my own neck en route to 60 mph in 3.4 seconds, and an 11.8-second quarter mile at 115 mph. That compares to 4.4 seconds and 12.8 seconds, respectively, in the merely-475-hp Grand Cherokee SRT.
Dial up the clever Performance Pages displays on the center screen, adjust your engine launch speed by 100 rpm increments—1,800 rpm worked great at Monticello—and the Jeep briefly chirps all four tires before it catapults toward the horizon. Performance Pages than lets you save your scores in various acceleration and braking measures, a video game come to life. My time actually beat Jeep’s estimate of 3.5 seconds to 60 mph, and fell just short of its own mark of 11.6 seconds in the quarter.
Top track speed is 180 mph, but this Jeep is all about the street: The Trackhawk’s ability to sneak up on unsuspecting cars—especially the snobby variety—and blow them to smithereens is positively addictive. Yet even with wide, 295/45/20 Pirelli P Zeros at four corners, yellow Brembo brake calipers, and a few badges, the Jeep’s subtle presentation let it slip through traffic virtually unnoticed. Let the police focus their remorseless gaze, and their radars, on young hooligans in Mustangs, BMWs, or hell, Dodge’s own Challengers: As I sliced up nighttime traffic on New York’s Saw Mill Parkway, I realized that I needn’t worry about some busybody dialing 911, because what would they say? “Yes, officer, it’s some man in an…SUV. What’s that? How should I know what kind? But definitely an SUV…(click). Hello? Hello?”
The Trackhawk can, however, make quite the aural statement, unleashing hellhounds and practically belching fire with every upshift and downshift of its eight-speed automatic. Crank that ZF transmission into Track mode to experience spine-snapping gear changes in as little as 160 milliseconds. There’s less supercharger whistle and whine than the Dodge Hellcats, thanks to the Trackhawk’s unique “Helmholtz resonator,” part of the air intake that quells unwanted frequencies in a Jeep SUV that’s still pitched for family transport.
Go easy on the throttle, and the Jeep is surprisingly docile—much better than the overwrought, non-stop-boisterous Range Rover SVR. Everyday civility is boosted by active noise cancellation in the cabin, and an exhaust system largely lifted from the Durango SRT. But step into it, and the metal attack recalls a five-seat Viper. My colleague and neighbor Ben Preston knew I had the Trackhawk, but (I assumed) no idea where I was. Then I romped down a street two blocks from Preston, and my cell phone suddenly rang: “Are you driving that crazy Jeep in the neighborhood?” he asked. Guilty as charged.
Advancing that Jekyll and Hyde philosophy, the Trackhawk is more versatile than you might expect, including a pliant adaptive suspension, the intuitive UConnect infotainment system, and oodles of space for people and gear. Inside and out, the Trackhawk reads as simply a grander Grand Cherokee. The Jeep is no Range Rover or Porsche inside, but it’s snazzy enough, and it costs dramatically less. A raft of standard gear includes adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning and braking, blind spot and cross-traffic monitors, a remote start and heated seats front and rear. Extra goodies include including a snazzy leather-wrapped interior (a $4,995 upgrade); a 19-speaker, 825-watt Harman Kardon audio system ($1,995); rear-seat entertainment screens ($1,995) and a dual-pane sunroof ($2,095).
As noted, the Jeep feels stable and confident in any situation, including generating a very respectable 0.88 g of lateral skidpad grip. By Jeep standards, the steering, handling and brakes are revelatory. But other companies have more experience with this speedy stuff, and it shows: At 5,200 pounds, the 567-hp BMW X6 M weighs nearly as much as this Jeep, yet it pulls a physics-defying 1.0 g on the skidpad and matched the previous-gen BMW M3’s time around the Nürburgring. Both the BMW and Porsche Cayenne Turbo feel notably more agile and car-like, and should carve this Jeep up in the twisties.
Also, the Trackhawk slurps premium unleaded with the best (or worst) of them, with 11/17 mpg EPA ratings in city and highway, respectively. Only the Jeep’s classification as a light truck saves it from a guzzler tax. And that 17 mpg highway figure must have been measured with a gale-force tailwind: I couldn’t keep the Jeep above 15 mpg on a bet, and I observed 11 or 12 mpg in combined (though admittedly heavy-footed) driving. The 570-hp Cayenne Turbo is no slouch, with a 176-mph top speed and a 3.8-second squirt to 60 mph, yet it consumes roughly 20 percent less fuel, at 14/21 mpg.
The speedometer is a letdown, despite its suggestive 200-mph peak. That wide span of numbers is scrunched into a desultory half-circle on the left side of the driver’s display, with 200 mph in the straight-up 12 o’clock position and 100 mph at 9 o’clock. It’s a presentation more suited to a Toyota fuel gauge than a speedo in a smoking muscle car. Oh, and the steering wheel is ridiculously thick, like the business end of a Louisville Slugger. Yeah, we get it, the Trackhawk is manly. But you shouldn’t have to be Andre the Giant to get a comfortable grip.
Finally: To some people, including The Drive editor Mike Guy, anyone who spends $86,995 on a Grand Cherokee (or nearly $100,000 after options) has muscle where their brains should be. Guy has a point. But in its defense, the Jeep’s competitors all charge more—typically much more, including the Cayenne Turbo S at a heady $160,000.
The 2018 Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk, ranked:
Hauling people: 4/5
Hauling stuff: 5/5
Curb appeal: 3/5
The Bottom Line
So why would someone drop Range Rover (if not Rover SVR) money on a Jeep? I’ll tell you why. Because they love going fast, and they either already own more-traditional performance cars—or they just love the idea of whupping unsuspecting drivers with a big-ass SUV. Compared with the two-door Challenger Hellcat especially, the Jeep makes a better daily driver and four-season ride: Roomier, quieter when you want it to be, far more luxurious and practical. Its selectable four-wheel-drive system virtually eliminates the wheelspin that can be smoky-good fun in the Hellcats, but can also hamper their traction and stability, not least in foul weather.
Some people will dismiss the Trackhawk as an abomination, a Hummer redux, the definition of resource-squandering overkill or poor taste. But they’re not the target market. Ultimately, the Trackhawk lets Mopar fans—including guys with SUV-favoring wives and children—have their Costco-sized cake, eat it too, and carry the leftovers in back.
Is a 707-horsepower SUV ridiculous? Of course. So is a Lamborghini, or a 650-horsepower Corvette for that matter. But no one complains about those. As I’ve asked before, who decreed that SUVs aren’t allowed to be fun?
By the Numbers:
Price (as tested): $86,895 ($99,965)
Powertrain: 6.2-liter supercharged V8, 707 horsepower, 645 pound-feet of torque; eight-speed automatic; four-wheel-drive
Fuel Economy: 11 mpg city, 17 highway
0-60 MPH: 3.4 seconds (as tested)
Number of Sierra Club members driven to spittle-flecked rage by the Trackhawk: All of ‘em.