CANEY CREEK, Ark. -- With a pair of mountain bikes locked on a tailgate rack and a pair of bike riders strapped into the two form-fitting front bucket seats, our 2016 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk sport utility vehicle -- a special edition rigged with full-time 4-wheel-drive (4WD) system and low range gearing plus Jeep's Active Drive Lock locking rear differential -- grinds over 2-track ruts etched into granite-crusted slopes of the Ouachita Mountains in western Arkansas.
At one point a boulder blocks the hillside trail, prompting this driver to veer around the barricade in a maneuver that pitches the Cherokee precariously at a canted angle, left wheels hiking high on the hill, right ones in a rut between slope and stone. Despite the slippery grade and a tricky maneuver, the Jeep trudges forward making steady progress without tipping, rolling or foundering in what becomes a keen demonstration of its wily off-road manners.
What's the big idea behind Cherokee Trailhawk?
It's the installation of serious off-road hardware on a sophisticated midsize crossover SUV.
The original Cherokee (1984-2000) virtually defined the compact-size SUV.
Jeep revived the Cherokee nameplate in 2014 and applied it to a contemporary front-wheel-drive (FWD) platform for the mid-size segment and added a pair of high-tech engines linking to a knock-out 9-speed automatic transaxle plus a host of electronic vehicle controls and safety systems.
That led to the 2015 Cherokee, which split into seven trim designations: Sport-FWD, Sport-4WD, Latitude-FWD, Latitude-4WD, Limited-FWD, Limited-4WD, and Trailhawk-4WD.
For the 2016 Cherokee Trailhawk 4WD special edition, Jeep adds new exterior paint options like Rhino Clear Coat and Light Brownstone plus enhancements for driver comfort like a tilting steering column and heated or cooled front bucket seats.
Also, 2016 Cherokees with the 8.4-inch Uconnect touchscreen display panel score new features including a Drag and Drop menu bar, Siri Eyes Free compatibility and Do Not Disturb mode.
For all Cherokee trim editions, the standard engine is a 2.4-liter 4-in-line Tigershark MultiAir2 plant with single overhead cam (SOHC). It generates 184 hp at 6400 rpm with 171 lb-ft of torque at 4600 rpm and links to the electronically controlled 9-speed automatic transaxle. This powertrain with FWD format earns Cherokee's top fuel-burn numbers -- 22 mpg city and 31 mpg highway.
Optional power upgrade for all editions is the Chrysler Pentastar dual overhead cam (DOHC) 3.2-liter aluminum-block V6 with engine stop-start (ESS) technology and the 9-speed electronic automatic. It delivers 271 hp at 6500 rpm and torque of 239 lb-ft at 4400 rpm yet still musters keen fuel economy numbers -- 21 mpg city and 29 mpg highway for FWD and 19/26 mpg city/highway for 4WD with Jeep Active Drive Lock.
Three 4WD systems apply to 2016 Cherokee editions: Active Drive I, with a single-speed Power Transfer Unit; Active Drive II with a 2-speed PTU and low range, and Active Drive Lock with 2-speed PTU plus low range and the locking rear differential.
Jeep's Selec-Terrain traction control system, which applies to all 4WD editions, allows a driver to dial in one of four terrain settings (Auto, Sport, Snow, Sand/Mud), then the system tailors the vehicle's traction performance to fit the type of terrain covered through modulation of powertrain response, transmission gear selections, and electronic controls like the electronic stability control (ESC) system and all-speed traction control (ASTC).
All Cherokee versions come with many active safety systems including a quick-response electric rack and pinion steering system and 4-wheel disc brakes tied to the anti-lock brake system (ABS) with electronic brake-force distribution (EBD), electronic brake control (EBC), electronic roll mitigation (ERM) and anti-skid devices via ESC and ASTC with hill-start assist (HSA) and trailer sway damping (TSD).
Optional safety devices range from ParkSense Parallel/Perpendicular Park Assist and Adaptive Cruise Control-Plus to Forward Collision Warning-Plus, LaneSense Lane Departure Warning-Plus, Blind-spot Monitoring, Rear Cross Path Detection and ParkView rear backup camera.
Jeep sets pricing for 2016 Cherokee models as low as $23,395 for Sport/2WD. Trailhawk/4WD runs from $30,995 to our totally-loaded edition as tested at $40,200.