There is nothing subtle about the 2018 Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk.
When the new SUV reaches U.S. dealers in the fourth quarter of this year it will boast an eye-popping 707 horsepower, capable of hustling its 5,300 pounds from zero to 60 mph in just 3.5 seconds. Its quartet of tailpipes blurt out a symphony of supercharged notes that can rattle eardrums.
The Trackhawk is the latest addition to a growing group of super-sport SUVs – like the BMW X5M and Porsche Cayenne Turbo – that defy their size and weight with thrilling performance. With an aggressive body kit and starting price of $85,900 (not including the destination fee), the Trackhawk leaves behind Jeep’s off-roading roots and rockets into unfamiliar rare air.
“Everything we did to this Jeep was done with the sole intention of improving its performance,” said Scott Tallon, director of Jeep brand. “We knew there were others in the market, and we were ready to bring the Jeep high-performance SUV.”
Jeep represents one of the automotive industry’s greatest success stories and the most valuable brand in Fiat Chrysler Automobiles’ portfolio, according to a recent report by Adam Jonas, an analyst with Morgan Stanley Research. Jeep sold a record 926,000 vehicles in the U.S. last year, an increase of 6.1 percent compared with the prior year, according to industry research firm Autodata Corp.
A strong economy and historically low fuel prices have created a market for new types of SUVs like the Trackhawk that can deliver hefty profits, said Eric Noble, president of the Car Lab, an automotive consulting firm.
“If you’re FCA, you stay up late and harvest, harvest, harvest,” Noble said.
Jeep has capitalized on American buyers’ growing preference for SUVs by optimizing its lineup, said Dave Sullivan, manager of product analysis for the AutoPacific consulting firm.
The brand has expanded into compact crossovers with its Renegade, eliminated redundant models such as the Liberty and Patriot, and offered special editions that fetch higher prices like the Wrangler Rubicon Recon.
The Trackhawk fits into the latter category. Its base price is nearly $20,000 more than the next most expensive Grand Cherokee, the SRT.
“It’s all profit,” Sullivan said. “It’s a very high-margin vehicle, and it’s really going to help the bottom line for FCA.”
Jeep started with a proven commodity: the supercharged 6.2-liter V8 engine that powers the Dodge Challenger Hellcat muscle car. In addition to its pounding horsepower, the engine makes 645 pound-feet of torque and has a top speed of 180 mph.
The Trackhawk is more than just a straight-line athlete. On a visit to the Club Motorsports private race track in Tamworth, N.H., the Trackhawk showed all-around ability that defies its size.
Jeep worked with Pirelli to develop custom-made Scorpion Verde tires, each measuring 295 millimeters in width. The resulting grip allows such a large vehicle to stay planted on the tarmac through high-speed turns.
Adaptive dampers made by Bilstein are tuned to reduce body roll, stiffening the suspension in Sport mode and stiffening even further in Track mode. Cornering at speeds approaching 100 mph, the Pirellis squeal without giving way to slip. Following a three-lap session at the hands of Erich Heuschele, motorsports engineering manager for SRT, the Trackhawk’s performance data display reads a top lateral force measurement of 1.46 G – or nearly 1.5 times the force of gravity.
Six-piston Brembo brakes measuring 15.75 inches at the front – the largest ever on a Jeep – and 13.78 inches at the rear provide impressive stopping power. The sheer mass of the Trackhawk causes faint wobble under hard deceleration, though less than is to be expected from an SUV nearing three tons when loaded with two passengers. Hit the gas and the supercharger delivers linear power that catapults the Trackhawk forward.
While the Trackhawk delivers on its promise of hair-raising thrills, Jeep was careful not to overdo it. The company passed on trends like a snorting active exhaust system. It neglected to provide two keys – one black for standard driving, one red for top performance – as the Challenger Hellcat does. Engineers also tuned the supercharger to reduce its characteristic whine.
Instead, Jeep was keen to preserve the strengths that Grand Cherokee owners have come to appreciate, Tallon said.
The Trackhawk is comfortable and quiet on smooth highways. An attractive leather interior is accented by upscale aluminum and tastefully applied carbon fiber. It can even tow up to 7,200 pounds.
“We weren’t going to compromise what a Grand Cherokee does best,” Tallon said. For “everything a normal Grand Cherokee can do, the Trackhawk adds a whole new level.”
The Trackhawk also provides all of its performance bits as standard equipment. Snug bucket seats, an 8.4-inch UConnect infotainment system, electronic limited slip differential and active safety like automatic emergency braking and lane-keep assist are also included.
Fully loaded with options such as a panoramic sunroof, upgraded audio and a backseat Blu-ray entertainment center, the Trackhawk asks $98,870 before destination.
That’s a favorable listing compared with the base price of the BMW X5M at $100,700 and the Porsche Cayenne Turbo at $118,000. Both are slower to 60 mph and have less horsepower (567 and 520, respectively).
The goal is not to move volume. Porsche sold 554 Cayenne Turbos in the U.S. in 2016, just 3.2 percent of all Cayenne sales, according to industry research firm IHS Markit. BMW sold 1,396 units of its X5M, 2.9 percent of total X5 sales.
The Trackhawk is meant to inject interest into an aging Grand Cherokee lineup that first debuted in 2010, Sullivan said. “They only need to sell a handful to get the buzz going and drive traffic into dealerships.”
Grand Cherokee sales increased nearly 16 percent with sales of 135,000 through the first seven months of 2017, making it the 15th best-selling vehicle in the U.S., according to Autodata. In its segment, it was bested by only the Ford Explorer.
With its Trackhawk variant, the Grand Cherokee now has something the Explorer doesn’t: a model in the high-performance market aimed at affluent buyers. From interior accent stitching to gloss black titanium emblems, the Trackhawk nods knowingly in the direction of modern luxury and style.
“It needs to be civilized for driving six days a week,” Sullivan said. “And then on the seventh day you can have at it.”