Payne: Jeep Trackhawk, the Hellcat SUV
A combination of all wheel drive and 707 horsepower equals 0-60 in 3.4 seconds
Last winter I was axle-deep in the muddy bogs of the Mounds Off Road Park in Flint. I was in a rugged Jeep Wrangler Sahara. This summer I’ve been dive-bombing apexes on the hills of New Hampshire’s Club Motorsports race track. This time I was in a supercharged Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk.
Is there any other auto brand with this kind of bandwidth? Jeep is the only brand I know where I have to pack both hiking boots and racing shoes when I go for a test drive.
The Wrangler, of course, is Jeep’s icon — the tough, Rubicon Trail-conquering, off-road warrior with roots in World War II. Its tough DNA is at the core of a brand that pioneered the SUV and is just now reaching its zenith as the whole planet goes ute. But improbably, incredibly, Jeep is translating its off-road performance cred to the track.
Jeep aims to give you capability whenever and wherever you want it. Thus the insane Trackhawk. It’s sleeper Jeep (only the fat tires and quad pipes give it away) stuffed with Dodge SRT’s legendary, 707-horsepower, supercharged, 6.2-liter V-8.
Call it the Jeep Hellcat.
“Jeep is built on capability,” says Jeep brand manager Scott Tallon. “It’s always been the cornerstone of all Jeeps. Every Jeep must be the most capable within our segment. Trackhawk is taking capability to a while new dimension.”
Some folks get their kicks off-road. Others on-track. I’m a track rat who races ground-hugging race cars. I have buddies who go mud-hunting in jacked-up rad trucks. The cultures don’t speak the same language. I don’t go to Moab, the off-road Mecca in Utah. Mudders don’t do Indy. They are as different as boaters and airline pilots.
Yet Jeep not only does off-road and on-road in the same brand — it does them in the same model with the Grand Cherokee Trailhawk and Trackhawk. With the same chassis, same all-wheel drive system, same handsome interiors.
But no, not the same engine.
Borrowing the 707-horse, 645-torque, supercharged engine from Dodge’s SRT performance parts bin and mating it to an SUV may seem like Dr. Frankenstein lunacy. But in many ways it actually works better than in the Challenger and Charger Hellcat.
Like the Dodge brothers, the V-8 fits longitudinally into the Jeep — a rare, rear-wheel drive biased SUV like its three-row Dodge Durango cousin. Add a beefed-up transfer case and driveshafts and the Trackhawk can deliver up to 70 percent of the V-8’s twist to the rear wheels — ideal for a track car — while also gaining all-wheel-drive traction.
That means on Club Motorsports’ roller-coaster track, the Trackhawk is more manageable under power. It puts torque to the road out of apexes with aplomb, where the rear-drive Hellcats are like riding a tiger by the tail.
It also means the Trackhawk launches from zero-60 in 3.5 seconds — a tenth quicker than the Challenger Hellcat coupe according to Car and Driver’s test equipment — though they clocked a Charger Hellcat sedan at 3.4. I got the Trackhawk down to 3.3 at Club Motorsports.
Yes, an SUV quicker than its Hellcat brothers.
That’s not say that the 5,360-pound Trackhawk isn’t a challenge to drive fast. Eight hundred pounds heavier than a Charger Hellcat sedan and with a higher center of gravity courtesy of that big boat anchor in the bow, the hawk plows into corners and does not take sudden movements kindly. But it is shockingly comfortable at speed. After all, this isn’t Jeep’s first rodeo.
Grand Cherokee first tasted the track in 1998 with the 5.9 Limited. It went all-in with the SRT8 in 2006 and SRT in 2012. The latter’s athletic bones are the foundation for the 2018 Trackhawk. The Grand Cherokee SRT has done thousands of tracks laps while selling 2,500 to 3,000 copies a year. With minor tweaks (the aforementioned driveline, stiffer shocks, more heat exchangers), Trackhawk is screwed to the ground with mighty 11.5-inch Pirelli P-Zero tires that offer 30 percent more tread with than a standard Grand Cherokee.
So good is the SRT already, in fact, that it corners at a higher G-force — .90 vs. .88 — than the Trackhawk because its 392-cube, 475-horse mill is lighter up front. With smaller footprints than the bigger three-row Durango SRT that I wheel-hopped at Indy last month, the SRT and Trackhawk are more confident on their feet.
But there is no substitute for horsepower, and the Trackhawk sets a new standard for utes. All that grunt comes at a cost: $94,970 for the track animal I tested at Club Motorsports. But before your eyes water at a six-figure Jeep, consider that Jeepzilla stomps a $158,000 Porsche Cayenne Turbo S from zero-60 and beats it to the quarter-mile by over a half-second (11.7 vs. 12.3).
Simply put, the Trackhawk is the Corvette Z06 of SUVs — a Porsche slayer for a whopping $70,000 less.
I wrote earlier this year that Corvette should follow Porsche’s example and translate its “lunchbox” supercar brand to SUVs. A V-8 ’Vette ute would be a big hit. Well, you snooze, you lose. Jeep has filled the vacuum with the bonkers Trackhawk.
Trackhawk earns its investment inside as well as out. Chrysler does great interiors and the Grand Cherokee is no exception. Fans like to say you can take a Jeep from the outback to the opera. Make that from the race track to the opera. The interior is whisper-quiet until you put your boot in it and awaken the supercharger.
Best-in-the-business Uconnect also gains Apple CarPlay and trounces Porsche’s interior ergonomics with attention to detail. Think steering wheel-mounted controls that allow you to choose adaptive or regular cruise. It has paddle-shifters for manual shifting, but revert to automatic with a simple right paddle hold. There are drive modes for every mood: auto, sport, track, tow and snow.
Yes, snow. This is not just a Hellcat SUV — it’s an all-season ute you can use in winter long after rear-drive Hellcats have gone into hibernation.
With the Trackhawk, Jeep has made the ultimate SUV — a vehicle that can tow your race car to the track and set faster lap times than the car it towed. Expect more to come.
Like the off-road Trailhawk package found on all Jeeps, the Trackhawk should trickle down to its cheaper siblings. May I suggest a Jeep Wrangler Trackhawk? It would be an exclamation point on the most versatile brand in the land.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at email@example.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.
2018 Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk
Front-engine, all-wheel drive, five-passenger
Supercharged 6.2-liter V-8
$86,995 base ($94,970
707 horsepower, 645 pound-feet torque
0-60 mph, 3.5 seconds (manufacturer, though Payne
clocked it at 3.3); top speed: 180 mph (mftr); tow capacity:
EPA est. 11 mpg city/17 mpg highway
Porsche SUV-stomping Jeep; buttery-smooth 8-speed tranny
Thirsty; 100K for a Jeep?
Excellent ★★★★Good ★★★Fair ★★Poor ★