2016 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk Review: A Wrangler for the Suburban Set

wheel-to-wheel copy

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Driving a Trailhawk edition of anything is kind of like owning a really hardcore set of hiking boots. You’re going to get judged by everyone around you regardless of where you are, and the less muddy, scratched, or worn they appear, the more likely someone is going to say something like, “Hey bro. Do you even know how to hike?”

Hopefully you have a witty response at the ready, because owning a Trailhawk edition 2016 Jeep Cherokee with almost all the fixings and a banging sound system means that you are obligated to hit the open trail and the abandoned back road. Sure, it has a front end that will either cause passersby to take a second glance or vomit on their girlfriend’s shoes, but Jeep offers zero excuses or apologies for why this SUV was redesigned this way. Instead, it prefers to do its talking out in the mud, an arena where there is very little it can’t conquer.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Trailhawk edition Jeeps aren’t just dressed-up appearance packages designed to give frat-daddies a little more flare in the parking lot. Those toe hooks are legitimately designed for hauling your ass out of a swamp, the rake to the forward-facing and aft bumpers are built to clear jagged rocks and logs, and it has things like crawl control and hill descent assist because that’s what you need when you don’t feel like dying. Naturally, there are always limitations in place regarding what we can do with the vehicles that arrive on our doorstep during any given work week, but sometimes you just have to teeter on the edge and peer over in order to realize what a vehicle is truly capable of.

The 2016 Trailhawk version of the Cherokee is a brilliantly laid-out automobile, and even though many owners revel in this vehicle’s off-road expertise, at the end of the day these Jeeps spend most of their lives on the asphalt — but it doesn’t seem to mind that very much either. Even though it is a funky-looking machine, the Trailhawk won me over with a surprisingly sound set of virtues that focused primarily on practicality and purpose.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Exterior

Some may call Jeep’s decision to ditch the old headlamp style a few years back for what you see here as a foolish attempt at standing out. I’m not of this school of thought, and feel that the redesign back in 2013 is something that one grows accustomed to, like that first swallow of coffee in the morning when your palate hasn’t really made its mind up if it wants caffeine yet or not. But halfway through that second sip … ah yes, that’s nice.

Three tiers of lighting up front, a sloping nose that feeds downward to appear to all the world like a hooked hawk beak, unpainted plastic trim at every corner, bright red tow hooks, a bulging rear liftgate, and a smoother, far less boxy appearance all make the Cherokee completely different than its predecessors. I’ll admit that it did take me a while to grow used to how far it is from what we typically recognize as a Jeep, but with its blackened center hood-line, balanced proportions, and capable stance, my doubts were erased after my second day behind the wheel.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Exterior pros and cons

+ Snazzy 17-inch alloy wheels, sloped, dual-port polished exhaust tips, and a couple of bright red tow hooks all add some flair beneath the dark gray beltline to keep the Trailhawk attractive.

+ Love it or hate it, that three-tier light display up front garners attention. I actually like how it looks after staring at it for a while.

+ All that dark, unpainted plastic down in the lower parts of the Cherokee would typically turn me off, but since there’s matching dark gray across the center of the bonnet and around the grille ducts, it suddenly has this two-tone scheme that looks pretty good.

– This is not so much of a cosmetic exterior qualm as it is a functional one, but the mirrors on the Trailhawk Cherokee are not power-folding. This poses a problem for anyone who wants to clear an obstacle on the passenger side, because the vehicle has to be put into park before the driver can climb over the seat and fold the mirror in prior to proceeding past said obstacle.

– I am all for flush exhaust ports on a car in order to aid in ground clearance, but on this performance Jeep they seem undersized in proportion to the rest of the rear bumper. Lets less water in while fording, maybe?

– Is it just me, or are elongated antennas unnecessary these days? And who listens to AM radio anyways?

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Powertrain

Much like its external styling, I came away feeling a bit torn over the 3.2-liter V6 as to whether it was what this Jeep really needs. Don’t get me wrong, I like how this powertrain can be very strong, especially when in Sport mode, that there is less engine howl than expected under throttle, and how it features a Start/Stop fuel-saving setup. Plus, this Jeep has more traction settings than gold teeth in the rap game, and having pace-adjusting crawl control is a drivetrain upgrade that I more than happy to use.

Downsides to this engine/transmission layout stem back to its nine-speed ZF automatic gearbox. Gas mileage proved to be just mediocre, even though nine gears should yield otherwise, and on occasion, shifts could be a little indecisive. But despite these small qualms it still remained a pretty potent powertrain, and after all those transmission software updates over the years I think that for the most part FCA’s gearbox supplier has this one figured out.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Powertrain pros and cons

+ Potent enough to carry the Cherokee’s 2-ton frame on its back without issue, the 3.2-liter V6 option is a nice complement to this chassis.

+ Having a powertrain that supports crawl mode, various terrain traction settings, and differential locks spells one thing: Trailhawk.

+ There is something nice about not having V8 headaches, hearing a supercharger whine, or dealing with filling up with Premium gas. Keeping it simple and effective, the V6 motor/transmission combo in the Trailhawk is a competent working class hero with hiking boots that it isn’t afraid to get dirty.

– While the 3.2-liter V6 is the engine to opt for when buying a Cherokee, it would be nice to see a smaller EcoDiesel option become available down the line for torque and mileage purposes.

– The nine-speed automatic is a smooth shifter for the most part, but the gearhead in me wonders why a manual transmission is not offered on the Trailhawk Cherokee.

– With a 22-mile-per-gallon average and a greenhouse gas rating that is not amazing, the efficiency levels of this powertrain are by no means revolutionary compared to other V6 engines on the market today.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Interior

Sink into those mixed material, well-stitched leather seats, toss your exploratory accouterments in the storage container hidden within the passenger seat, and let’s go find some trails in comfort, shall we?

The cabin of the Trailhawk is a fairly spacious and surprisingly well-appointed place to be. You can see that for being the priciest Cherokee of the bunch, Jeep didn’t just plan on giving drivers a rough Wrangler interior to go with all that off-road prowess. Brushed plastics in contrasting colors, heated seats, leather-bound trim pieces, and a Jeep cargo management system all offer enthusiasts the pampering they are afraid to admit openly to having an affinity for.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Interior pros and cons

+ Comfy bucket seats with luxurious leather stitching, quality plastics at every turn, a surprisingly quiet cabin, and a passenger seat that folds completely flat for nap time.

+ The dash, door inserts, and those heated leather seats get contrasting stitching, and with a heated steering wheel accompanied by ample head and leg room in the backseat, off-roading isn’t the rugged experience it once was.

+ Cubbies, LED ambient lighting, a full-size Firestone all-terrain spare, Jeep’s signature cargo management system, and added storage hidden within seats all add value to a vehicle that many tend to judge only from the outside.

– Some of the trim work was flimsy/poorly jointed, and having LED mood lighting but no LED dome lights doesn’t make sense.

– After dropping nearly $40,000 on a new range-topping Cherokee, an additional $1,595 will get you a dual-pane panoramic sunroof — but not a traditional smaller one.

– For as clever as it is, the rear storage area is kind of small. Could be a deal breaker for some, but that’s why the Grand Cherokee is there, right?

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Tech and safety

Inside the cabin, the bag of mixed nuts gets a little bit more muddled once you dive into the tech side of the Jeep Cherokee. Despite some small setbacks, all together there was more to like than not. Everything was easy to access, the 8.4-inch touchscreen display was a breeze to use and came preset with numerous apps, all of the MID stats were crisp and precisely laid out, and things like the electronic e-brake, sharp back-up camera, and the Parksense parking assistance all add extra peace of mind.

Having said that, you can tell that FCA is preparing to update all of its Uconnect infotainment systems for a reason; though the tech department isn’t disappointing, it was by no means revolutionary, either.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Tech pros and cons

+ The Cherokee has received an overall crash safety rating of 4/5 stars from the government, and when compared to older generations this is a huge step forward.

+ Blind spot and cross path detection, Parksense rear park assistance, back-up camera, electronically controlled stability control and roll mitigation, and tons of airbags are what we like to see in the safety department.

+ Lots of pre-installed apps, a nine-speaker sound system with a flush-mount subwoofer, a sharp looking MID with lots of settings and info, and all of the USB ports you could need are just a few reasons to relish in the tech in this machine.

– You can tell that the Navi on this model is at the point where it is ready for an upgrade. While it will get you where you need to go, it’s not as advanced as other new cars in similar price brackets, like those from GM or Mazda.

– If there was one thing that was frustrating to work with, it had to be the fact that Jeep does not have a manual control knob for exploring a map when navigating. Just try and move the map a few miles down the road with your finger and then zoom in on a waypoint — it’s practically impossible to do.

– It would be nice to see Jeep incorporate some ground clearance cameras on the front of Trailhawk versions to aid in both parking and off-road navigation.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

The drive

Around town, the Cherokee’s presence is very balanced, and while the Trailhawk may be a tougher off-road model, it’s by no means an ungainly parallel parking nightmare. Those knobby, mud-hungry Firestone tires are surprisingly quiet too, offering strong support in aggressive corners, and once in sport mode, the powertrain really begins to shine.

In the wilderness, with mud and mountains to climb, clicking through the various traction controls yields results almost instantaneously. While I didn’t go rock crawling, it is worth noting that even in sport mode this vehicle remains very capable in various elements. Those raked bumpers and ride height are there for a reason too, and off-road that quiet cabin with its comfortable bucket seats is a great place to relax, as you conquer the terrain laid out in front of you.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Wrap up and review

With all of the additional interior upgrades, safety add-ons, and cold weather packages, our Trailhawk came to us tipping the scale at $37,960. This isn’t bad considering all you get for that, starting with the 3.2-liter V6, and ending with the menu of traction settings. It’s a car that is kind of hard to hate on, even if it is stylistically a bit of an enigma to many people.

So would I recommend a Trailhawk version of the Cherokee over other off-road vehicles from Jeep? I would, especially since both the Patriot and Compass are getting phased out for a reason, and the Trailhawk version of the Renegade only comes with the lackluster 2.4-liter Tigershark engine and does not come equipped with a stick. It is more refined and comfortable to drive on a daily basis than the Wrangler, and costs a lot less than an equally well-appointed Grand Cherokee. Jeep, please figure out an EcoDiesel engine that can fit in the Cherokee, offer a six-speed manual gearbox option, and make some subtle updates to the Uconnect system. Keep on building the Cherokee guys, it is only getting better with each generation.

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