Is the 2019 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk as capable as the Wrangler?

We put the most rugged version of the updated Jeep Cherokee to the test. Here's what we found.

The Trailhawk is the most capable version of the 2019 Cherokee.
The Trailhawk is the most capable version of the 2019 Cherokee. –George Kennedy

The Jeep Wrangler is an off-road icon, and is the near-de facto SUV for anyone looking to hit the trail. But Jeep’s lineup extends beyond the rugged Wrangler. The 2019 Jeep Cherokee is an urbane SUV, designed more for the suburbs than the trails — but it can still go off the beaten path. In fact, Jeep offers the Cherokee in the capable Trailhawk trim.

As the name suggests, the Trailhawk has upgrades to hit the trail, but is it as capable as the new 2018 Jeep Wrangler? It may seem like an odd comparison, but while Jeep lovers might prefer the open-air removable top and rugged DNA of the Wrangler, the Cherokee offers a more conventional and comfortable crossover SUV layout.

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The Trailhawk features reworked body cladding and fenders. Combined with the off-road suspension that provides an extra inch of ground clearance, the Trailhawk has surprisingly capable angles. The re-worked body panels also make for an aggressive appearance. This is further enhanced by the red tow hooks, unique 17-inch wheels, dark lettering and accents, and dark hood that’s designed to reduce glare while driving. One test vehicle came in Hydro-Blue, easily our favorite color on the Trailhawk.

Crawling along the rocks of Moab, Utah. —George Kennedy

To see if the Trailhawk was more than just an appearance package, we tackled the hills and valleys of Moab, Utah, during Jeep Easter Safari, an annual gathering of the Jeep community from across the country. Over 10,000 off-road enthusiasts and their Jeeps arrive and descend upon the seemingly endless miles of trails.

The Trailhawk goes about off-roading a bit differently than the Wrangler. The Wrangler keeps things simple, with a traditional four-wheel drive system, and a transfer case that you manually shift into four-wheel drive and low-range.

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The Trailhawk uses what could be called all-wheel drive, but that’s an oversimplification. It features Selec-Terrain with multiple drive modes (Auto, Snow, Sport, Sand/Mud, and Rock) and the Cherokee’s Active Drive II, as well as a locking rear differential. This ensures that the traction control doesn’t take power away from climbing up dirt and rock when you need it most.

Climbing up a trail, with the help of a spotter.
Climbing up a trail with the help of a spotter. —George Kennedy
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On the Trailhawk, this locking rear differential is called Active Drive Lock. Together with Active Drive II, it makes this Cherokee surprisingly capable. We traversed trails that would cause a conventional Wrangler driver to spend a few moments considering the difficulty of the terrain.

For the truly challenging bits of trail, we had the Trailhawk in four-wheel drive low, had the rear diff locked, and engaged “crawl” mode. Rather than gearing, like on a manual 4×4, it uses the ABS and power delivery to propel the vehicle at low speeds. We were crawling over rocks at 1 mile per hour. Drivers keep their feet off the brake and accelerator and change speed in 1 mile-per-hour increments, using the cruise control toggles.

Coming out of the hills and into the rolling sand dunes, we were able to utilize Selec-Terrain SAND mode. Working with the more car-like AWD/4WD system, it felt extremely capable, almost like a rally car.

The Trailhawk climbed up to places we did not expect a Cherokee to go. —George Kennedy

The Cherokee Trailhawk ($33,320) is second only to the Overland ($36,275) in terms of Cherokee trim prices. The least expensive Wrangler is the two-door Sport ($26,995), but a comparison to the four-door Unlimited ($30,495) is more appropriate.

The base Sport trim is pretty spartan, where the Trailhawk comes with the largest Uconnect 8.4-inch touchscreen infotainment system. To get that on the Wrangler you need to upgrade to the Sport S trim ($33,695) and technology group. Even then, it’s a seven-inch screen. Both come with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. At that point, there’s only a $300 difference.

The experience of off-roading with the Cherokee Trailhawk is different than the traditional Wrangler experience. But it was eye-opening to see the Trailhawk go many places one would assume were only fit for a Wrangler. If you’re looking for a compact SUV or family vehicle, but still want it to be capable, the 2019 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk could be the most fun compromise you’ll find.

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