No Jeep is Working Harder for Your Love Than the Cherokee Trailhawk (in Moab)

A Jeep owner once told me that you can’t trust the “damn urban Jeepers” because they don’t know about the wave. He was a teacher at a deeply suburban school, by the way, who had never once taken his Jeep any farther off-road than over the curb at the local mall.

There’s a lot of policing that happens within the Jeep brand and while that’s led to a singular vehicle (the Wrangler) that remains one of the best off-road machines out there, it also means that people can be blinded to a good thing.

Take, for example, the Jeep Cherokee. Not the Grand Cherokee, I’m thinking of the little one that looks more like a crossover. I freely admit that it’s a long way from the boxy Cherokee from the ‘90s that we all now fetishize, and it isn’t quite the Wrangler that we all lionize, and it certainly isn’t the Grand Cherokee that we all idolize, but driving it through Moab with the Grand and the Compass for company, I can say that it is a uniquely Goldilocks-like vehicle within the Jeep lineup.

I should add here that I was driving the Trailhawk versions of each vehicle, which means that their hoods were blacked out, their off-road settings turned up to 11, and their ride heights raised. You can tell them apart with their ruby red tow hooks that say “there’s no place like home” and promise to get you there no matter where you go. And of the three Jeeps that I drove there, I was most impressed by the Cherokee. Its combination of interior quality, off-road bona fides, and plucky attitude added up to a truly loveable little truckling. The exquisitely beautiful surroundings didn’t hurt, either.

We took our Jeeps along 7 Mile Rim Trail, which despite the name is 11 miles long and is what the locals described as a “hard” trail. With a river crossing, some rock crawling (that’s probably a generous characterization, but there were rocks and we did crawl over them, even though they were pretty small), and some snow to boot, the day’s drive was anything but a dawdle.

ALSO SEE: Jeep Cherokee vs Compass: Which Crossover is Right For You?

Despite the fact that the little, rounded Cherokee doesn’t quite share the Wrangler’s boxy utilitarianism or the Grand Cherokee’s scale, it can still off-road. This is the point at which your parents would tell you about books, their covers, and withholding judgments. And you should listen to them, because between the Compass, the Cherokee, and the Grand Cherokee, I’m sure it wouldn’t surprise you to hear that only one has a true, locking rear differential. It may surprise you to hear, though, that it’s the Cherokee that has the off-roader-approved mechanical locking diff.

See Also: 2019 Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk Review

Yes, the Grand Cherokee has a likely more impressive electronic locking diff, but off-roading is all about campfires instead of ovens, logs instead of chairs, and leaves instead of beds. The older the tech, the longer it’s had to prove itself. And with a crawl ratio of 56:1, it’s no slouch.

It’s hard to point to exactly what the locking diff does in an afternoon of driving because the Cherokee and its Grand sibling are so different in proportion and weight, but what it did for me was get me wherever I was going. I freely admit that I have little experience off-road. The most I can lay claim to is a bit of trail riding (I say trail riding, trespassing would be more accurate) in my brother’s 1949 Willys. But on the trail specially picked by trail experts to highlight the benefits of the car, no obstacle was too big for the little Cherokee. It was like an ant following its little ant siblings to our lunch spot, which was coincidentally a picnic.

ALSO SEE: Jeep Wrangler Rubicon Review

And since it was so small—relatively speaking—I had a little more confidence placing it. It fit between trees and scurried up hills, especially when you put it into low range. There, too, its relative lack of weight meant that it lumbered less and felt a little more eager to get up slippery slopes. Whatever extra weight the Grand Cherokee carries, it makes up for with power. But the Cherokee doesn’t need a big lug of an engine, which means that it doesn’t need quite as much gas, either.

In high range, the weakness of the Cherokee’s scale did become harder to ignore. On high speed undulating sandy sections (or what would normally be sandy, but now snowy) it was, to put it mildly, a little bumpy. The extra wheelbase and spring of the Grand Cherokee made that a considerably more comfortable ride, but off-roading in a La-Z-Boy somehow feels wrong. Like “camping” in an RV. Are you really outdoors?

Cruising the highway in a lounger feels less wrong, and I admit that the Grand Cherokee’s more bougie accouterments (here I’m thinking specifically about the TVs in the headrests) are nice, but the little Cherokee is anything but barren. It’s perfectly comfortable and the driver isn’t missing any technology. You still get Jeep’s excellent, if buggy, Uconnect infotainment system, you can still warm up your buns, and you can still pick from a range of driving modes, all the better to attack the road (or whatever) with.

It’s also reasonably affordable, without feeling cheap. Whereas the Cherokee feels adequate and comfortable, the Compass feels cheap. And it is cheap, so that’s OK, but the Cherokee occupies a happy middle, like a certain baby bear’s meal.

And that’s the truly remarkable thing that Jeep has done with the Cherokee. Because in many ways, it’s the only Jeep that makes compromises and yet it doesn’t feel compromised. The Cherokee is every bit the crossover its competition is, but I truly believe (and I’m not just saying this because nobody else took me to Moab) that it got through 7 Mile Rim Trail easier than a regular crossover would.

ALSO SEE: 2020 Jeep Gladiator is the Wrangler Pickup You’ve Always Wanted

The Verdict: 2019 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk Review

Jeep doesn’t make compromising vehicles. The Wrangler, for the majority of its life, has been a catastrophe of a road car. Loud, cold and uncomfortable, it rides like a truck, isn’t particularly fast, and is built for enthusiasts; it’s a rolling middle finger pointed squarely at focus groups everywhere. The Grand Cherokee still has a Hemi—an engine that was at the cutting edge of engineering during the Truman administration—and has huge La-Z-Boys for seats. And the Compass is cheap and cheerful. Jeep isn’t in the business of compromise. They do everything all the way, except for the Cherokee. The Cherokee Trailhawk has to be liveable, drivable, affordable, and off-roadable and even Jeep will tell you that that’s not an easy thing to do. But they’ve done it exceedingly well.

It may not be the best off-roader in Jeep’s lineup—the new JL Wranglers we were following did look pretty bored in certain points of our drive and it isn’t exactly the most comfortable—TVs in the headrests are pretty hard to beat—but the Cherokee is genuinely good at both and that makes it enormously likable and anything but a cash-in.

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