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Off-road: 2014 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk earns Trail Rated badge

We just had to do it. The 2014 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk just screamed "get me dirty". With all its off-road character and equipment, it would have been a dereliction of duty not to full test it in the way it was meant to be used.

2014 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk earns Trail Rated badge
2014 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk earns Trail Rated badge
Sam Haymart
2014 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk earns Trail Rated badge
2014 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk earns Trail Rated badge
Sam Haymart

So why the Trailhawk? When Jeep first introduced, their all-new 2014 Jeep Cherokee last year, it met a firestorm of rank-in-file enthusiast controversy over its styling as well as its car based platform architecture.

They were aghast Jeep would hand the name of their square bodied off-roader to a car-based soccer-mom-mobile – let alone one derived from an Alfa Romeo. Jeep had seen this coming and made sure there was a Trail Rated version of the new Cherokee with true-to-form off-road capability and hardware to back up that badge. This is the Cherokee Trailhawk, a Cherokee with chest hair and muscles.

It's dimensions are actually larger by an inch in track and body width and it rides nearly an inch higher off the ground than the standard Cherokee. Because it sits an inch higher, the suspension geometry stretched a bit with about an inch in wheelbase added.

To project its off-road cred, it get larger plastic wheel flares to cover its wider 17”x 7.5” wheels and fatter P245/65R17 Firestone Destination A/T all-terrain tires. The extra bulk and black hood graphic do go a long way to adding some manhood to the overall presentation as do the lower skid plates and red tow hooks.

To mark the moment, Trailhawk gets the coveted Trail Rated badge is prominently displayed high on the front fenders much like an Eagle Scout gets his after earning it through toil and sin.

The interior of our tester had the rather interesting color combination of Jeep Brown with red accent stitching. And it's not just the seats, the door panels, console and dash were all deep brown with the red accents. A black and red color combination available.

The seats themselves are exceptionally comfortable, the driver seat getting an 8-way power adjustment in ours with the Comfort and Convenience Group. Also optioned was the Leather Interior group which heated the leather seats and the Jeep Brown steering wheel.

The wheel has controls for audio, trip computer and the Uconnect functions of the infotainment system. The optional touch-screen navigation and premium audio system offering a full suite of connectivity options, linked services and a variety of auxiliary inputs.

The console has a perfect cubby for your smart phone or other device adjacent to the bank of plugs too. Neat was the handy hidden storage area underneath the passenger seat cushion which would be perfect for either a Glock or even some handi-wipes for the kids.

Rear seat passengers will enjoy plenty of room and adjustability with fore and aft sliding adjustments and seat-back recline. They fold 60/40 too for increased cargo space out back. That rear cargo hold is generously sized and offers additional storage underneath the load floor for smaller gear.

Some areas of the interior still need work, predominantly material quality and structural robustness. Door pulls were loose and flimsy, the shifter feeling like a plastic toy. This is a surprise in any vehicle these days let alone one that costs $34,000.

When taken off-road in the Superstition Wilderness, the increased ground clearance and the more terrain friendly approach angles of the Trailhawk made child’s play of our test course which has lots of little hills and moguls that challenge many car-based crossovers I bring out here.

The new Cherokee offers up its top line Jeep Active Drive Lock all-wheel drive system which has a full low range four-wheel drive mode. A terrain select knob rests on the console which also offers several traction modes for various surface types. Most important for rock crawling and other more hard-core off-roading.

A console mounted control knob for the terrain select system activates the four-wheel drive low and rear-locker which gives you unprecedented traction capability in this class. With the 56:1 crawl ratio and aggressive program enabled it was time for our one wheel up and one wheel down test.

With one of the front wheels is in the air while the opposite side rear is also free of traction, this test leaves many of its competitors tottering helplessly. Here, the Trailhawk just walked on through it like nothing at all. It was almost a joke in fact, what ease it made of it.

Experimenting with some of the other terrain modes on various spots in our off-road test zone, the downhill descent control, and hill start assist I found that it was pretty difficult to get the Trailhawk crossed up and in need of using those red hooks.

On the more mild back trails at speed, the Cherokee continued to offer up the very kind of capability and adventure the brand has always stood for, the suspension taking shocks of deep ruts and washes with reasonable poise. Washboard roads showed the Cherokee's body structure to be rigid and well isolated from the vibrations of the surface. Doors didn't rattle in their jambs, no dash dancing. The steering however rattled over the rougher ruts and bumps, a disappointment for a Jeep.

The nine-speed automatic transmission proved to get attention whether on the back-roads or on the pavement. It offers up jerky slow speed shifts, abrupt changes in mood, an a distinct unwillingness to downshift at highway speeds. It has been known for its need of tuning improvement since launch, and still needs some attention in my opinion.

Mated to the nine-speed automatic transmission in our Cherokee was the base 2.4 liter 184 horsepower Tigershark engine. This is an evolution of the 2.4 liter World Engine that has been part of Chrysler products for years, now with better breathing and more refinement.

Power from the base four is adequate in moving the 4,000 plus pound Cherokee around. At city stop and go speeds it actually has a bit of verve, but at highway speeds is a bit less willing. You can option the 3.2 liter V6 which solves all that if power is your hot button however.

The EPA rates the 2014 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk at 21 mpg city, 27 mpg highway and 23 mpg combined. In our week with it, we indeed saw 27 mpg freeway stints with our tank average coming in at 23.5 mpg.

In the end, we really appreciate the off-road capability and availability of it in this class. No other automaker or model it competes with offers anything close. Styling is a subjective matter, but in the case of the Trailhawk Jeep has done well to tamp down the criticisms of the lesser models with some brawn and grit that buff's up it's off-road persona just a little.