Jeep Trackhawk first drive: Hellcat SUV

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Tamworth, New Hampshire — First things first. What you want to know is whether the 707-horsepower Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk — the one with the Hellcat engine — is quicker than Dodge’s signature Challenger Hellcat. The answer is yes, with the SUV breaking the zero-60 mph tape at 3.5 seconds versus the coupe’s 3.6. I managed multiple 3.4-second runs — with a best of 3.3 seconds — using launch control at Club Motorsports race track here for Trackhawk’s first media test.

Credit all-wheel drive traction vs. the Challenger’s rear-driven power.

But there is also this: The Jeep is quicker to 60 than the 3.8-second all-wheel drive Porsche Cayenne Turbo S, which costs $75,000 more than the Jeep and was until now the benchmark for SUV insanity.

The Trackhawk bookends an SUV brand that now offers the widest performance bandwidth of any nameplate. Where full-line brands like Toyota and Chevrolet offer everything from sports cars to SUVs, Jeep’s utes spans the terrain from its king-of-the-outback Wrangler Rubicon to the apex-carving Grand Cherokee Trackhawk.

From the off-road Jeep Wrangler (left, Safari MOAB concept) to the Grand Cherokee Trackhawk, no brand can match Jeep's lineup depth.

“When you say Jeep, everyone sees a Wrangler. It’s the most capable off-road production vehicle on the planet,” Scott Tallon, Jeep brand director, said at the Trackhawk’s media meet-and-drive. “Now the Trackhawk has done the same thing, but at a different level of capability. Driving a Jeep on the track that fast is probably not something anyone expects. The breadth of the Grand Cherokee lineup is incredible — the price point starts at $30,000 and winds up at $85,000 in a single nameplate.”

Around Club Motorsports’ serpentine, 2.5-mile roller-coaster — with elevation changes of 250 feet over a single lap — the Trackhawk is a rhino on rails, an improbable track animal that Jeep has tamed with stiff Bilstein shocks, 11.5-inch Pirelli tires and Brembo brakes the size of Captain America’s shield.

Hurtling down the front straight — the V-8 roaring in my ears, the eight-speed TorqueFlite transmission firing off shifts like cannon shots — the thought crosses my mind that this nearly three-ton meteor could ignore the looming, 45-degree Turn 1 and simply burn a hole thought the surrounding Presidential Mountains. Then I stomp the brake with my racing shoe — racing shoes in an SUV! — and the 15.75-inch Brembos slow the Jeep like a steel net thrown over a charging rhino.

Jeep has been playing in this performance space since 2006 with Chrysler’s SRT performance package, first with the SRT8 and then the current generation, 475-horse SRT. Not satisfied to be a performance player, Jeep now applies the Wrangler’s best-or-go home expectations to Trackhawk.

It wants to win the space.

“SRT has been in the market since 2006 and has served as a really nice halo for the Jeep brand. But the performance segment among utility vehicles has surpassed what the Jeep has been for the last 12 years,” continues Tallon. “It was the most capable SUV, now a lot of European luxury marques offer phenomenal levels of performance. So we said let’s redefine what capability is. It has to be the ultimate vehicle, not just competitive.”

The numbers tell the story: best zero-60 ute short of the Ludicrous-mode electric Tesla Model X, best quarter-mile at 11.6 seconds, best top speed at 180 mph.

But for all its Hellcat-like numbers, the Trackhawk is no Hellcat. Dodges and Jeeps are for different demographics. The more family-oriented Trackhawk customer demands refinement for a family of four riding to the race track while towing, say, a race car. Even if the Trackhawk might lap the track faster than the racer on the trailer.

So Jeep has toned down the supercharger’s drama with a Helmholz resonator to keep the 707-horse monster at a dull roar. Or at least until you floor the throttle. It has swathed the interior in Trackhawk-monogrammed leather — offered in base black or sepia suede inserts or premium black and red leather — for miles of driving comfort. Cruising back to the Maine coast, I dialed the Jeep’s drive mode back from Track to Auto. The cannon-shot shifts turned buttery smooth, the V-8 stereo was replaced by soothing notes of a Harman Kardon stereo system.

“The Jeep Trackhawk is a no-compromise vehicle,” emphasizes Tallon. “It’s comfortable and quiet on the road, tows 7,200 pounds, yet you get close to supercar levels of performance.”

No compromise means a base price $24,000 north of the Hellcat, $20,000 above the Grand Cherokee SRT and $24,000 above the Grand Cherokee’s luxurious Summit ocean-liner.

“We know that our more premium trims get cross-shopped with other premium makes,” says Tallon of the $86,995 Trackhawk. “Yes, this is the most expensive Jeep we’ve ever brought to market — but for that level of performance it’s really not that expensive.”

Performance peers from Porsche ($160,650 for the Cayenne Turbo S) and BMW ($101, 695) are pricier — even above my full-bling, full-sunroof, Bright White $94,970 tester. The Trackhawk will only get quicker as Jeep brings a new — and surely much lighter — chassis to market by the end of the decade. Is a sub-3-second 0-60 possible?

With a price walk of nearly $70,000 from its base model to the top-trim Trackhawk, Jeep is a money-making machine. In the last year, the off-road Trailhawk trim has trickled down to all Jeep models. Trackhawk is poised to do the same — expanding brand bandwidth even more.

No wonder the Chinese reportedly want to buy Jeep. The Germans no doubt covet it, too.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.