On Road: Welcome to the easiest part of my comparison test! On the road, there’s nothing in it: Trailhawk is more comfortable, more compliant, has notably more precise steering and brakes, and is light-years quieter than the Wrangler. It’s no more difficult or uncomfortable to drive than a Honda Accord. Where absolute off-road capability turns in compromises in the Wrangler, Trailhawk’s off-road prowess comes with near-nil compromise when you’re rolling on pavement.
Most notable? It easily soaks up bumps and whumps that see the Wrangler Willys handle like an inflatable bouncy castle. Under the skin? It’s car-like vs truck-like, and the differences in on-road ride quality and handling between this pair demonstrate the reason the market shifted to crossover SUV’s in the first place. Note that specifying a Cherokee Trailhawk results in a modest but noticeable degradation of on-road ride quality, comfort, and suspension noise levels, compared to a standard-kit Cherokee.
Off Road: Where Willys confidence is imparted most strongly through its hardware, electronic assist systems are front and centre in the Trailhawk. Use of a small and simple console, to call items from Trailhawk’s considerable off-road toolkit into action, suits it well to novice off-roaders. Twist the dial into the appropriate terrain mode, with Rock, Mud, Sand, Snow and others all on offer. Click for low-range when needed. Another click locks the rear diff. Other clicks engage the downhill assist control or Selec-Speed system, the latter working like a sort of off-road Cruise Control (a la Toyota Crawl Control) to hold your speed steady at as little as 1kph while you focus on steering and keep your feet flat on the floor.
It’s absolutely more capable than a typical soft-roader cute ute: climbing, thanks to the low-range gearing, is a cinch, even up rocky and very steep hills. The Destination tires are beefy, chunky, and deal well with rocks, and even the sort of sloppy, peanut-buttery muck that tries to steal your footwear if you’re walking through it. Still, clearance reigns supreme in the Wrangler: various boulders on the same trail that the Wrangler passed over noiselessly tickled the Trailhawk’s skid plating implements. In numerous situations, your writer definitely appreciated the Trailhawk’s unique, high-clearance bumpers, however.
And though Trailhawk’s advanced arsenal of electronic assists are massively handy and confidence-inspiring, the near-constant noise and harshness from the suspension on rough terrain isn’t. Where Wrangler feels solid, dense and durable regardless of what’s passing beneath, Trailhawk’s more complicated, car-like suspension system often becomes noisy, feels sloppier, and even sends vibrations back into the cabin through the floor and steering, at times. It’ll go just about anywhere, but doesn’t match the Wrangler’s feel of durability in the process.
Performance and Driveline: The Cherokee’s 3.2 L V6 is a sweetheart. Happy to be driven gently or hard, it sounds smooth and eager when pushed, operates with near invisibility when driven gently, and works beautifully with the nine-speed transmission, once said transmission’s computer brain figures out your driving habits after a few hundred kilometres. Fuel mileage smokes the Wrangler, landing at 11.3 L/100km overall, in virtually identical driving on virtually identical routes. In all, Cherokee’s powertrain feels more eager, sounds more pleasing, operates with more refinement, and represents a notable but unsurprising improvement in fuel economy over the Willys.