Jeep vs Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk vs Wrangler

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The Wrangler immediately turns hard left into the sands, the rear wheels sliding out as the loose surface gives way beneath that two-ton kerb weight. It’s of no concern to the Wrangler though, the five-speed automatic splitting 281bhp and 260lb ft of torque across both the front and rear axle, the Wrangler’s pull up the hill in my side mirror relentless, and it’s not too long before AJ hits the summit.

My best chance at victory is speed. Since the Trailhawk doesn’t offer the same ground clearance, I hit the gravel routes that wind through the wadis as fast as I dare, the loose surface and blind bends a halo for potential chaos. It’s nerve wracking in the early going as the speed begins to build steadily, the dust cloud in my rear view mirror getting bigger and thicker with each passing second. The 3.2-litre Pentastar unit under my bonnet is a slightly smaller derivation of the 3.6-litre V6 being hammered in the Wrangler, but the Trailhawk still produces 267bhp and 233lb ft of torque. I’m packing less than AJ, but on this surface, it’s more than enough to get the hammer down.

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Soon the open expanse of ground disappears as the rocky outcrop starts to encircle the Trailhawk (AJ in the Wrangler is now out of sight), and the terrain under tyre starts getting heavier. The Active Drive system has automatically selected ‘Rock’ (since Snow, Sport and Sand aren’t yet required) and though the previously quiet cabin is now alive with the ‘ching ching ching’ of stones being pelted into the wheel arches, my pace doesn’t slow. Not even as the route begins to worsen, the route getting narrower and the stones getting bigger. Even the unseen dips, which so far have proven of little circumstance, start catching me off-guard and several times the Trailhawk  bottoms out. Through gritted teeth I keep an eye on the driver information screen. No warning lights. No error messages.

A little further into the ‘valley’ and the ever-tightening route has slowed my pace, blind bends and the loose shale already proving a challenge for my brakes: they prove mightily effective when the anchors are slammed on but the loose surface has upped my stopping distance a touch, and it takes me a few corners to get the balance right. To give the V6 a helping hand and keep the revs up, I’ve selected manual on the all-new nine-speed automatic gearbox (I’m going to be doing little fuel saving during this run), pegging the gears in third and fourth through the twistier sections. Fine, on the loose surface the ride jostles, but nowhere near as much as it could/should. Given the conditions, it’s proving a surprisingly civilised ride.

Not too long afterwards I get a call over the walkie talkie. The Wrangler has cleared the opening stretch of sand dunes with ease and he’s now a stone’s throw from the halfway point. Bugger. I had hoped the slower pace would play into my hands.

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So far the epic amounts of ground clearance has kept the Wrangler from grounding, the sheer amount of torque being offered to the rear wheels and the – albeit flobbery – handling from his deflated tyres stopping him from ditching. Heading back down the dunes, the Wrangler slows to avoid rolling but AJ can’t be far from the mid-point. The ‘smug git’ look leaps to mind, and as my route begins to open out, I slot the gearbox back into auto and gun the throttle. Once again, we’re up to speed quickly.

It’s as I round a corner that three red flags appear in the middle of the…I guess you can say ‘road’, signalling that I should head up and over the rock face to my left, and onto the track on the other side. Despite the steep ascent, there is no slip from the tyres, no sense of struggle from the V6, no plumes of smoke from snapped suspension arms pleading for mercy. This route is not being dealt with gently, but the Trailhawk is handling the going – at pace – astonishingly well. This from an SUV whose primary focus is on-road civility and comfort. Regardless of the ‘Since 1941’ Jeep badge.

Descending on the other side, I see the Wrangler barrelling towards me (AJ, like myself, will have to climb the rock face to swap onto the other route, akin to Race of Champions). He’s bouncing around furiously in the cabin but he’s covered the sand without incident. Now back on the gravel – like me – he can get the power down, and I’m hoping those enormous tyres and not-quite-as-direct steering will slow him through the twistier sections. He must know that on sheer pace alone, the Trailhawk has the Wrangler’s number…

I’m down the hill and off towards the sand before AJ has a chance to catch me, the Jeep turning hard right and veering up the rock face I’ve just descended. Up ahead, the canyon I’d been running through is gone, replaced with beautifully auburn sand banks that start to get steeper the further down this route I travel: very rarely have I seen such different terrains this close together, and were I not focusing on the race, I’d find it awe-inspiring.

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Like the canyon walls, the sand begins to get steeper, soon encircling the Trailhawk as we head deeper into the undergrowth. It’s actually quite claustrophic. I’m also unable to go as fast as I’d like through this stretch owing to the changeable route, the gravel now intercut with sections of sand that have blasted their way across the ‘road’, limited grip suddenly becoming no grip in the blink of an eye. I’m fortunate that the steering can handle this. Power steering takes the hefty edge out of the wheel, allowing me to point the nose of the Trailhawk where I need. Every so often the rear wheels snap, temporarily caught out by the sandy surface and given free reign by the de-activated traction control. It’s but a momentary catch in the throat though, there being enough torque to wrestle the rear axle back under control and enough feel in the steering to keep the Trailhawk from spinning and clouting the sandy wall. It’s a far different prospect to the rocky terrain I’ve just left.

The dips have become more excessive too, and once again the underbody is receiving a thumping. Even in the heftily battered Wrangler, the bodywork and wheel arches are handling the assault with almost lackadaisical aloofness. Plus AJ’s managing to get the V6 power down now, the canyon wall having disappeared and the route opening up. Like my 3.2-litre unit, power delivery is swift and linear, pulling the beefed up Wrangler across the shale towards the chequered flag, now barely 1km away.

I have no idea who’s in front – the walkie talkie has gone suspiciously quiet – but there can’t be much in it. The finishing point is just over the next few summits, and though the underbody and suspension won’t forgive me, I open the taps again. No guts, no glory…

Half a kilometre. Just a few more corners to go. Where is he? Where is he?

I’ve got less than 200 metres to sprint to the finish, a sandy outcrop surrounded by high-rise rocky walls. I have no idea if AJ is entering via the same track or if his route brings him in from the other side. I could be in front of him. The V6 pace might have been the difference maker.

Where is he? Where IS he?

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But it’s as the finishing line hoves into view that I spot something. A shimmering black line bouncing about on the heat haze of the dune. One that’s growing bigger and bigger. Until it suddenly turns into four fog lights, the rubicon bonnet of a Jeep Wrangler, heavy duty suspension, and Cooper tyres. It’s AJ. The Wrangler has beaten the Trailhawk.

But as it turns out, not by much. Though he’s keen to salute his victory with some impromptu donuts, AJ is still in the driver’s seat with his seatbelt on. I could only have been a couple of hundred metres behind as he hit the chequered flag. Which given the competition we’re dealing with today, is pretty staggering.

Truth be told, we’d expected the Wrangler to be victorious, and would have been surprised if it hadn’t. It’s a model that sacrifices on-road comfort and practicality for grip and merciless off-road capability. It’s a vehicle designed to go where many fear to tread, and has done so – thanks to its 70(ish) year heritage –since the late 1980s. By comparison, the more civilised Cherokee has acquitted itself admirably on the loose stuff, offering performance capabilities without sacrificing passenger comfort. The Wrangler may have been victorious on this day, but it’s the Cherokee that made a statement.

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