Flying Down the Road and Track in the Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk

There are some vehicles that are so oddly styled, or combine so many disparate characteristics, that they come across as expensive answers to questions nobody asked. It’s tempting to call the 2018 Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk one of those vehicles. After all, the Trackhawk comes from a company known for making rock-crawling off-roaders, but was designed to go fast over pavement. It’s a machine from a lineup that typically transports families fairly efficiently and inexpensively that gets an EPA-estimated 11 city and 17 highway mpg, the new halo model of the nearly decade-old WK2 generation. Jeeps usually don’t sell for luxury vehicle prices, but the Trackhawk I tested had a Range-Rover-esque as-tested price of $99,965.

The Trackhawk does answer a question many people asked, though.

It all started with the Grand Cherokee SRT8 back in the mid-2000s. Jeep engineers stuffed a massive 6.1-liter Hemi V8 with 420 horsepower into the WK version of the family hauler, and then pointed its seven-slot grille toward racetracks and dragstrips. The WK2 generation of the Grand Cherokee offered curvier styling, more modern technology, and even greater amounts of SRT power. The second-generation Grand Cherokee SRT’s Hemi grew to 6.4-liters of displacement, which now cranks out 475 horsepower and 470 lb-ft of torque.

When FCA finally released the specs for the supercharged, 6.2-liter Hellcat V8, and that it was going to shoehorn into the engine bays of the Dodge Challenger and Charger, automotive enthusiast websites all over the internet couldn’t stop posting about them. The race was on, first to see one of the 707 horsepower/650-lb-ft monsters in person, then to drive one, then to set times in one. It was probably around that same time that someone with a wrench in one hand and a beer in the other asked, “Hey, what if somebody put a Hellcat in the Grand Cherokee?” It doesn’t matter if an FCA employee or a random gearhead with deep pockets and a heavy foot blurted it out first. The bottom line is that Jeep replied. The Trackhawk is its answer.

For being a $100,000 vehicle with more horsepower than a Lamborghini Huracan Performante, the Trackhawk is surprisingly subdued on the outside. It doesn’t shout at you that it’s a special model with a ridiculous aeropackage or eye-popping colors. Only two of the nine colors in the Trackhawk paint palette are a shade of red; the rest are either neutrals or blue. My tester was covered in the low-key Velvet Red Pearl coat. The Trackhawk rides slightly higher than I thought it would for a hyper-focused performance vehicle, even though it’s an inch lower than other Grand Cherokees. The deleted fog lights, “Supercharged” and “Trailhawk” badges, unique 20-inch forged wheels wrapped in 295/45ZR20 Pirelli Scorpion Verde rubber, and quad rear pipes get the message across.

I found the Trackhawk’s familiarity to be a large part of its charm. I’ve always been a fan of the current Grand Cherokee. It’s a handsome design that will age well wrapped around a comfortable and user-friendly interior. Aside from the Grand Cherokee’s off-road capabilities, Jeep kept everything that makes the Grand Cherokee so lovable in the Trackhawk. In fact, when I had the five-mode Selec-Track system set to Auto on a smooth road, I had a hard time telling I was in a fire-breathing track monster. The Trackhawk never lurched or bucked when I left stop lights. Wind noise was minimal, the ride quality was gentle and pleasant, and the Brembos – 15.75-inch front rotors and six-piston calipers up front and 13.8-inch rotors with four-piston calipers in the back – engaged smoothly and progressively, although when they finally sunk their teeth into my forward movement, they took a noticeable bite out of it. I could hear the four pipes behind me while I ran errands, but they never droned or boomed.

Even in its most relaxed setting, the Trackhawk’s face-flattening power was only a jab of the right pedal away. Its comfort was more than matched by its ferocity. Jeep claims a 0-60 mph time of 3.5 seconds and a quarter-mile time of 11.6 seconds. Those figures were easy to believe. The Trackhawk was basically a lifted Charger Hellcat with full-time four-wheel drive, and a cushy sofa bolted to a rocket booster. I drove the Grand Cherokee SRT a few years ago – that was always fun, as in, I wanna do that again! The Trackhawk was a hoot-and-a-half as well, but at full throttle, it could be horrifyingly quick, prompting thoughts such as, I’m not in jail?! That was the exact phrase on my mind after I dropped the hammer to pass someone who was going too slow (62 mph or so) on a back road. I don’t know what my girlfriend and our friends Rachel and Austin were thinking. All I heard from the girls in the back were screams of “Whoooooaaaa!” and “Woohoo!”

Jeep was kind enough to add a variety of options to my test vehicle, taking it from a base price of $85,900 to just under a hundred grand. The $4,995 Signature Leather Wrapped Interior Package included Laguna leather-covered performance seats which were still just as comfortable as a recliner. Their two stages of heating and ventilation made them even more pleasant. I made frequent use of the $2,095 dual-pane panoramic sunroof to get generous views of the nighttime sky. That along with the suede-like headliner, made the Trackhawk feel even more expensive than it already was. If I wasn’t listening to the guttural, throaty thunder of the exhaust in Sport mode, I had the $1,995, 825-watt, 19-speaker Harman Kardon audio system cranked up. The $995 Trailer Tow Group IV came with a 20-inch aluminum spare wheel, compact spare tire, heavy duty cooling, and a seven- and four-pin wiring harness to get the most out of the Trackhawk’s 7,200-pounds of maximum towing capacity.

The heated and reclining back seats were just as soothing as the ones up front and offered more than enough legroom for my 5’8″ girlfriend and our 5’1″ friend Rachel. On a Saturday trip from Austin, Texas through winding back roads on the way to the upscale eateries and bars of San Antonio’s Pearl District, they chose to catch up rather than watch a movie on the $1,995 Blu-Ray/DVD player’s headrest-mounted dual screens.

Rachel’s boyfriend Austin and I discussed what I did with the Trackhawk earlier in the day. That morning, before we all went on our Hill Country adventure through sweeping curves and up and down elevation changes, I took the Trackhawk to Harris Hill Raceway (H2R) in San Marcos. Over the course of 1.82 miles and 11 turns, the Trackhawk answered another question: How does it perform on a track?

Being a novice racer, I initially thought the Trackhawk would be a lightning-fast trip into the weeds…or a casket. The idea of something so powerful on the street was ridiculous enough in so many ways. Flinging a 707 horsepower box that weighed 5,363-pounds at the tight turns of an unfamiliar track was surely going to be a white-knuckled sweat fest of prayers and self preservation.

To my surprise, my six or seven laps around H2R were drama-free. There’s no getting around the Trackhawk’s weight. I felt it all around me in every curve, but that meant it could never sneak up on me. I knew where it was so I didn’t have to think about it, which allowed me to focus on other things, such as looking forward to the next bend before I entered it.

I knocked off the first three laps with the Selec-Track system in Auto mode, which kept the Bilstein adaptive damping setup street-friendly and sent 40 percent of the Trackhawk’s 645 lb-ft of torque to the front end and 60 percent to the limited-slip rear end. Despite its power and size, I felt strangely at ease in the Trackhawk. The more I lapped the course, the more throttle I applied. I went from being apprehensive, to having fun, and at the same time, I learned.

I pressed the gas in wide curves, but I was able to keep it in check while still enjoying the thrills of roaring around a road course in an odd machine that had never before appeared there and probably never would again. Sport mode changed the front/rear torque split to 35/65 for my next three laps. More throttle, more slip, more smiles. There was some body lean, but for the most part, the Trackhawk did a remarkable job of flying straight and level. Those giant rotors were well-suited for keeping the Trackhawk out of the runoff areas…and for giving instant face lifts. For the last lap, I engaged Track mode. It sent 70 percent of the torque to the back end, and made the Trackhawk feel lighter and more squirrelly. The eight-speed TorqueFlite automatic fired off shifts like a shotgun blasting out buckshot. I was still grinning from ear to ear, but my guard was up more than it was before.

It was an entertaining and educational week with the 2018 Grand Cherokee Trackhawk. I’m glad someone asked what would happen if Jeep put a Hellcat in a Grand Cherokee. I was even happier finding out the company’s answer to that on the road and the track. Jeep, if you’re reading this, I have a question for you: What would the Grand Cherokee be like if it had the Demon’s motor in it? I’ll wait for your response, along with thousands of other people.

Track photos taken by Bryan at New Car Spin.

About the author

Derek Shiekhi

Derek Shiekhi is a native Texan who grew up loving cars because of his father, who took Derek with him to buy early Mustang convertibles and Post-WWII pickups from GM. Throughout high school and college, he dreamed about cars, and returned to college to earn a second degree in journalism. After writing for the Austin-American Statesman newspaper, Derek joined the Texas Auto Writers Association, and is a member of the organization's board of directors.
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