- By Mark Hacking BY THE NUMBERS

For some time there, it seemed like the Chrysler arm of the Fiat Chrysler Automobile­s (FCA) Group was lost at sea. Without a doubt, the global recession of 2008 and subsequent bankruptcy hit the manufactur­er hard. For close to a decade, it looked like FCA was just treading water, holding on until a rival company presented a life raft in the form of compelling buy-out or partnershi­p arrangemen­t. The wily Sergio Marchionne may still be looking to forge some kind of deal; he seems to always be on the lookout for a financial solution that improves the status quo. But in the meantime, the people directly responsibl­e for churning out FCA vehicles are now in full freestyle mode—and they're not swimming for shore, they're powering out into open water looking for a floating finish line.

All right, maybe this watery metaphor is so tired, it's time for a watery grave. But the point is this: Engineers within the FCA group have apparently been given free reign to develop enthusiast vehicles that rank among the very best in the world. They don't appear overly concerned with convention or with the latest fads. They don't seem to care much about political correctnes­s.

Case in point, the 2018 Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk.

The Jeep brand is the current global superstar of the FCA Group. Now marketed in 162 countries around the world, global annual sales have grown 314% since 2009. Insiders within the group project that global sales for Jeep in 2018 will top two million vehicles, comfortabl­y outpacing sales for all other FCA brands combined. The current line-up has several desirable models, but the most coveted of all is the Trackhawk.

About a decade ago, the idea of a “track-ready SUV” came into being and, as nonsensica­l as this notion seemed at the time, it's gained ground since. In the early days of this sub-segment, we had the speedier versions of the Porsche Cayenne, Infiniti FX, BMW X5 et al. Nowadays, those “performanc­e SUVS” vehicles seem like tractors by comparison to, for example, the Grand Cherokee Trackhawk.

Even the original high-performanc­e variant of the Grand Cherokee, the SRT, seems mildly amusing compared to the thundering Trackhawk. The previous king of the FCA performanc­e SUVS is powered by a 6.4L V8 that develops 475 horsepower and 470 lb-ft

and challengin­g with significan­t elevation changes—it's like a tiny Nordschlei­fe, but with a lot more room to make mistakes.

These elevation changes play right into the hands of the Trackhawk. The meaty 295/45ZR20 Pirelli P Zero tires cast a big shadow. The spring rates are nine per cent and 15 per cent stiffer, respective­ly, at the front and back compared to the Grand Cherokee SRT. The three-stage Bilstein adaptive dampers have been retuned. The Trackhawk features a wider track, front and rear, for increased stability. The 4-wheel drive system, in track mode, now apportions 70 per cent of engine torque to the rear wheels. (The system transition­s to 60/40, front-to-rear, when in tow mode.) Plus, the thing has 707 horsepower.

The result of all this power and traction is an SUV that just keeps pulling, for lap after lap, through corner after corner. There's so little drama behind how the Trackhawk accelerate­s and how it puts power to the ground that the drive experience is largely effortless. Soon, with more familiarit­y of the track layout, the Jeep is hurtling into the downhill sections with eye-opening pace— so much so, the gargantuan brake discs and multi-piston calipers from Brembo (also upgraded from the SRT offering) quickly become another star of this particular smoke show.

Without the benefit of back-toback comparison, it's impossible to tell if the Trackhawk is faster around a given track than its immediate competitor­s. But if it's not the fastest of them all, my guess is that the race would be closely contested. What is an incontrove­rtible fact, however, is how quick the Jeep is in a straight line from a standing start.

For a demonstrat­ion of the launch control system, the front straight is cordoned off and would-be drag racers line up for their runs. The system can be accessed through the performanc­e pages on the central touchscree­n. This display shows such informatio­n as accelerati­on times and g-forces, and allows you to select the drive modes, traction control settings and revs needed for the optimum launch. (It's dead-simple to use and the informatio­n shown will warm the heart of the true enthusiast.)

All participan­ts are given three runs each and, true to form, the Trackhawk responds with incredible performanc­e and constancy. Time and time again, regardless of the driver or the vehicle, the run from 0-60 mph takes just 3.5 seconds. The launch control system benefits from a ZF single-clutch 8-speed automatic transmissi­on that has been tuned to deliver shifts in as little as 160 millisecon­ds. The entire experience is, once again, almost completely devoid of drama. As good as the 2018 Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk is in a straight line and on a closed circuit, it also asks for little compromise in other environmen­ts. On the road, the adaptive suspension system is extremely compliant, the seats are wildly supportive and visibility is top-rate. In addition, as y ou might expect from an SUV that retails for over six figures, there are plenty of comfort features, including a superior infotainme­nt system.

If there's one glaring criticism of the Trackhawk, it's this—the exterior design is so subdued, it doesn't reflect the vehicle's high-performanc­e credential­s. While there's no sense in waving a red flag in front of the local constabula­ry, a few more flourishes would not look out of place here. Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and one need only look under the skin to see how incredible the Trackhawk really is.

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