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Jeep’s 522kw SUV let loose on a ral­lycross cir­cuit

MARTY Dibergi, the ‘film­maker’ fol­low­ing rock band Spinal Tap in the 1984 mock­u­men­tary, never quite grasped the con­cept of an amp that went up to eleven: “Why don’t you make ten a lit­tle louder; make that the top num­ber?” he asked lead gui­tarist Nigel Tufnel. Nigel just paused: “These go to eleven.”

The bril­liantly ab­surd This is Spinal Tap might have in­tro­duced us to the con­cept of things ‘go­ing to eleven’, but even deci­bel-lov­ing ax­e­man Nigel would run out of su­perla­tives to­day. Why? Be­cause we’re on a ral­lycross track at Win­ton with a Jeep Grand Chero­kee Trackhawk that goes to 522. That’s how many kilo­watts the su­per­charged 6.2litre Hemi V8 de­vel­ops. More num­bers? How about torque of 868Nm, 0-100km/h in 3.7 sec­onds and 400m in 11.6 sec­onds at 186km/h? Eleven? Kids’ stuff.

Whether any of this ex­cess is a good idea is another con­sid­er­a­tion en­tirely. We felt duty bound to dis­cover if man­han­dling a 2427kg SUV around a race track was typetwo sort of fun at best. There’s also an eth­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tion in choos­ing a ve­hi­cle of such spec­tac­u­larly con­spic­u­ous con­sump­tion. But be­fore we delve into any of that wor­thy stuff, some­thing by way of a spoiler. Weight might well be the en­emy of abil­ity on track, but if you can drive the Trackhawk hard with­out laugh­ing like a loon then you’ve got a lump of coal where your heart should be.

On first ac­quain­tance, the Trackhawk is a fairly easy thing to dis­like. It’s brash, overblown and, with­out a mem­ber­ship to a free-weights gym and some sort of bull mas­tiff in the back, I ini­tially felt a slight testos­terone deficit be­hind the wheel. There lurks the queasy sus­pi­cion that this is an SUV tar­geted at types who value brag­ging rights and brute force over any­thing to do with dy­nam­ics.

Spend a lit­tle more time with the Trackhawk and you be­gin to ap­pre­ci­ate the work that’s gone into it. There’s a deft­ness to its modes, con­trols and cal­i­bra­tion de­ci­sions that’s any­thing but heavy-handed. On road, it’s sur­pris­ingly civilised, the vast torque at lit­tle more than tick­over al­low­ing cross-coun­try speed limit progress with never any­thing more than 2000rpm on the clock. The adap­tive Bil­stein dampers also do a rea­son­able job of mak­ing up for the lack of side­wall in the 45 se­ries Pirelli P-zero rub­ber, only jolt­ing in the sharpest pot­holes. Switch it into Sport and it’s a well-judged set­ting for Aus­tralian coun­try roads, of­fer­ing re­spectable body con­trol, ac­cu­rate steer­ing that weights up well mid-cor­ner and throt­tle map­ping that’s feisty but never neu­rotic. It cov­ers ground eas­ily, and while its over­tak­ing abil­ity is ab­so­lutely im­pe­ri­ous, it’s sober­ing to think that a cou­ple of sec­onds of flat-chat throt­tle to clear traf­fic can see some li­cence-los­ing dig­its flash up on the dash.

I’d some­how got this far never hav­ing driven Win­ton be­fore, and do­ing it in a ve­hi­cle that has far more en­gine than brakes is prob­a­bly as ef­fec­tive a recipe for cau­tion as any. The Jeep’s 400mm six-pot Brem­bos up front and 380mm four-pis­ton items at the back look the part, but it’s easy to un­der­es­ti­mate the sheer ki­netic en­ergy the Trackhawk ex­erts. The brakes aren’t un­der­spec­i­fied per se, but I can see a few Trackhawk own­ers sledg­ing into tyre walls be­cause they haven’t ac­cu­rately judged the huge brak­ing dis­tances re­quired to pull the thing up.

Switch into Track mode and the torque is split 30:70 front to rear, the sus­pen­sion switches into its firmest set­ting, and the eight-speed Torque­flite auto bangs home gearchange­s in 160ms, some 68 per­cent quicker than de­fault. It’s not quite Lambo Corsa sav­age, but the abrupt blap on up­shift gives a no­tice­able shunt in the back. The sta­bil­ity con­trol also eases a lit­tle but it never truly switches off and you’ll feel it work­ing in con­cert with the rear e-diff on cor­ner exit, mak­ing a faintly scratchy, graunch­ing sounds as it at­tempts to keep you dirty side down.

It does a good job of it too. While a lit­tle throt­tle ad­justa­bil­ity is usu­ally wel­come, the con­se­quences of a three-fig­ure tank-slap­per in a high-rid­ing ve­hi­cle don’t bear think­ing about, so it’s a wise call on Jeep’s part. Lift the throt­tle and re-en­gage hard mid cor­ner and it’ll let you have a de­gree or two of yaw be­fore it pulls it­self straight, but the elec­tron­ics do a good job of quelling un­der­steer and boost­ing con­fi­dence.

Con­fi­dence is some­thing you’re go­ing to need. Wield­ing


the Trackhawk in anger feels like that mo­ment Tony Stark dons the Iron Man suit: big power that’s not al­ways eas­ily con­trolled. As with vir­tu­ally ev­ery other ele­ment of driv­ing the Trackhawk quickly, fast cor­ner­ing is an ex­er­cise in weight man­age­ment. You need a mo­ment or two to let the masses set­tle, to ease the big Jeep into a cor­ner with a sym­pa­thetic flow. The su­per­charger and an­cil­lar­ies put another 100kg into the nose and you’ll feel that should you pitch in clum­sily. The Trackhawk does lean, but not alarm­ingly, and a lit­tle lean is re­as­sur­ing in as­sess­ing just how much the con­tact patches have to give. In ex­tremis, the Trackhawk will lift an in­side front wheel through a cor­ner and it’s pos­si­ble to set it into a slight por­pois­ing mo­tion post-apex with a big clog­ful of New­ton me­tres, but most of the time it just grips and goes.

It does that a good deal more ef­fec­tively than the Charger and Chal­lenger Hell­cat mod­els from which it sources its lump, thanks to the trac­tion of the Quadra-trac all-wheel drive. While the Dodges will cre­mate their rear boots with so much as a sniff of ex­tra­ne­ous throt­tle, the Trackhawk’s launch con­trol will pro­duce eas­ily re­peat­able 3.7-sec­ond sprints to 100km/h. The launch pro­ce­dure is just a sim­ple but­ton press and then a hard ap­pli­ca­tion of brake, the cen­tre screen telling you how much pres­sure you’re hold­ing onto the brake pedal. Floor the throt­tle, wait a mo­ment and then side­step the brake and the Trackhawk leaps from its haunches as if it’s been rammed up the chuff by The Ghan and doesn’t let up. It feels a good deal more bul­let­proof than do­ing the same thing in a car with a dual-clutch.

The Hemi V8 has been en­gi­neered for dura­bil­ity too. You’ll prob­a­bly re­call that the stock Grand Chero­kee en­gine is a 6.4-litre unit. The Trackhawk’s smaller swept ca­pac­ity comes as a re­sult of strength­en­ing vir­tu­ally ev­ery en­gine in­ter­nal, start­ing with the block. Crank­shaft, crank­shaft damper, forged al­loy pis­tons, forged con­rods, pis­ton pins, bush­ings, cylin­der heads, sodium-cooled ex­haust valves, oil pump, heat ex­chang­ers, it’s all been up­graded and that feeds from there back to the trans­fer case with forged steel sprock­ets, beefier rear axle, strength­ened rear drive­shaft, and higher grade half-shafts and CV joints. Then there’s the 2380cc per revo­lu­tion su­per­charger with a built-in by­pass valve that reg­u­lates boost pres­sure at 11.6psi. What was most im­pres­sive about the en­gine was its ca­pac­ity to sel­f­reg­u­late tem­per­a­ture on a hot day, bring­ing oil tem­per­a­ture up to 120 de­grees Cel­sius un­der hard use and set­tling back to a con­sis­tent 104 in pit lane, even when idling with air con switched on. The 295/45ZR20 P Ze­ros were be­ing run at 42psi front and 45psi rear and, con­trary to ex­pec­ta­tions, didn’t de­mol­ish their shoulders af­ter a se­ries of hot laps. In fact they held up amaz­ingly well given the physics they were asked to con­tend with.

Push hard and they’ll start howl­ing like a coy­ote with toothache, but that’s usu­ally drowned out by the as­ton­ish­ing sound ef­fects in­side the ve­hi­cle. From idle to around 5000rpm, the V8 is largely shouted down by the su­per­charger’s keen­ing, but be­tween there and the 6200rpm red­line, there’s a prop­erly un­couth ham­mer­ing from the V8 that’s ut­terly ad­dic­tive and mas­sively loud. There’s noth­ing sub­tle about it, but it sounds breath­tak­ing fully wrung out; more like a pis­ton-en­gined WWII fighter, maybe a non-turbo Allison with short stacks.

Hav­ing com­pleted pho­tog­ra­phy du­ties on track, it was time to pitch the Trackhawk into the dirt on Win­ton’s ral­lycross cir­cuit. Dur­ing the recce, the se­quence of sandy corners looked en­tirely in­nocu­ous, but they present a huge chal­lenge to a ve­hi­cle like this, namely that it’ll re­peat­edly come out of the loose stuff with a big yaw an­gle onto much grip­pier tar­mac. Sure enough, tip­ping the Jeep into the dust at speed saw it pitch a long way side­ways, the sta­bil­ity con­trol at times cutting en­gine revs when you’re try­ing to pro­long and hold the slide be­fore pen­du­lum­ing back the other way. As it swings back onto the scabby bi­tu­men of the in­field straight, there’s a brief grab be­fore the whole thing shim­mies its way straight. Get too greedy with the throt­tle and you need to be very mind­ful of where your front boots are point­ing, but there is a de­gree of throt­tle ad­justa­bil­ity on the loose sur­face.

We run a few passes for the stills and video guys, the speeds getting ever more am­bi­tious. I’m try­ing to imag­ine quite how much fun this would be out in the Red


Cen­tre. Maybe not too far out, be­cause you need a fairly tight um­bil­i­cal to a fuel sta­tion, such is the Trackhawk’s prodi­gious thirst. Dur­ing our day at Win­ton, we cal­cu­lated that the Jeep slugged back a tank­ful of 83 litres of 98RON for 167 kilo­me­tres trav­elled, or 49.7L/100km if you pre­fer. This may well be a sin­gle-day record for 65 years of Wheels road-test­ing.

The schlep down the Hume to Mel­bourne gave us the op­por­tu­nity to tin­ker with the Trackhawk’s stan­dard fit stereo sys­tem. We don’t nor­mally give au­dio sys­tems too much at­ten­tion, but the 845-watt, 19-speaker Har­man Kar­don fitout is some­thing spe­cial. Any­thing much over half vol­ume sets your di­aphragm in key with the bass, much like stand­ing in front of the speaker bank at a rock con­cert. You end up treat­ing the vol­ume dial with al­most the same re­spect as the loud pedal.

The in­te­rior’s not fin­ished with quite the same at­ten­tion to high-con­cept de­sign as flag­ship SUVS from Eu­ro­pean man­u­fac­tur­ers, but then the Grand Chero­kee Trackhawk isn’t priced like them. It’s more pow­er­ful than any of its ri­vals, yet it re­tails at $134,900, or around half the price of an en­try-level Porsche Cayenne Turbo. To put it another way, it has al­most dou­ble the power of a sim­i­larly priced 270kw Mercedes-amg GLE 43. There­fore, we can cut it some slack for its mass-mar­ket switchgear.

The car­bon­fi­bre-ef­fect fil­lets on the dash might grate a lit­tle con­sid­er­ing the ve­hi­cle’s weight but the cabin er­gonomics are sound. The main touch points are well fin­ished and there’s ev­i­dence of real con­sid­er­a­tion to ev­ery­day use, such as the right-way-’round gear shifter, the lovely fin­ger­tip stereo con­trol rocker switches on the back of the steer­ing wheel, the in­tu­itive in­fo­tain­ment, the func­tional adap­tive cruise and con­ve­nience fea­tures like a heated steer­ing wheel and heated and cooled front seats. The dou­ble-pane glass sun­roof doesn’t im­pinge on head­room, be­cause the elec­tric seats drop far enough to al­low for a suit­ably dy­namic hip height. There are some clangers though, such as the il­leg­i­ble 320km/h ana­logue speedome­ter, the hideous foot-op­er­ated park­ing brake that de­nies you a left foot rest and the riot of clash­ing fonts when you mir­ror your smart­phone into the skin of the main screen.

These are mi­nor grum­bles, how­ever. The Grand Chero­kee Trackhawk is an ab­so­lute tri­umph both in terms of value for money and in its fun­da­men­tal ef­fec­tive­ness. Can you think of any other class of car where the fastest and most pow­er­ful of­fer­ing in the seg­ment is so rel­a­tively in­ex­pen­sive? Granted, $135K isn’t chicken feed, but hav­ing sig­nif­i­cantly more sub­stance than cars cost­ing twice as much is one heck of a com­pelling propo­si­tion.

But could you bring your­self to buy a car this brash, this waste­ful, this ex­ces­sive? That could well be the stick­ing point and all those ex­tra dol­lars spent on a BMW, a Range Rover, a Mercedes-amg or a Porsche su­per-suv buys you a mea­sure of re­fine­ment and pre­sentabil­ity ab­sent from the Trackhawk. I don’t care too much for that. The Trackhawk la­dles on an ele­ment of fun that seems to have been ex­cised from its over­pol­ished ri­vals. There must have been hun­dreds of points in the prod­uct plan­ning process where Jeep could have canned the pro­ject as too OTT, but it went ahead. I love the fact that a ve­hi­cle like this ex­ists: a riotous, he­do­nis­tic as­sault on the senses. All too of­ten we drive cars that aren’t as much fun as they prom­ise. We re­ally want to like them and yet we don’t. Then there’s Jeep’s Grand Chero­kee Trackhawk, a ve­hi­cle you’d love to hate but can’t help be­ing ut­terly charmed by. It’s also hard to over­look the sat­is­fac­tion of sit­ting next to high-end sports cars at the lights safe in the knowl­edge that theirs don’t go to 522.



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