Fast Times on Bear Mountain: Benjamin Hunting Escapes From Predators In The Hellcat-Powered Jeep We’ve Been Waiting For
“By the way, there’s a bear up there.”
This statement, tossed casually to me in the backseat, where I was futzing with the camera gear in my lap and imagining all the ways that driving a supercharged Jeep might change my life, made me stop and look out the window at the suddenly threatening forest surrounding Club Motorsports in New Hampshire.
“Wait, what?” I stammered, trying to process this sudden revelation while also maintaining my cool, calm aura of professional detachment. Outside the window, the trees projected quiet bear-filled menace through the tinted second row windows of the minivan.
“Yeah, it’s just one of the cubs that lives between turn 6 and turn 9. Don’t worry though, no one’s seen him for at least a couple hours.”
Is the unseen bear more or less of a menace? If a bear mauls an auto journalist in the forest, and no one is around to see it, does it still eat my face? Well, if you’re going to have to outrun a bear, you might as well have a 707hp off-road vehicle to do it in.
Club Motorsports is a race track nestled in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, a facility so new that you could fry an egg on the front straight’s freshly-paved black tarmac and eat it without fear of ingesting any flakes of rubber or bearing material. It’s also where a small, but fortunate group of scribes were testing out the 2018 Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk, which is the answer to the question of “What happens if you pester FCA’s engineering team for 24 straight months about putting the Hellcat motor in an SUV?”
Indeed, while the Trackhawk may on the surface seem to be an absurdity – a five-passenger family hauler outfitted with a 707 horsepower, 6.2-liter supercharged V8 – a quick look back through Chrysler’s past reveals that Grand Cherokee was long the most popular, and for many years the quickest, member of the SRT family. Jeep’s four-wheel drive know-how made the first-generation Grand Cherokee SRT eminently capable of maximizing traction from the holeshot when compared against its rear-wheel drive Challenger, Charger, and 300 C contemporaries. Then there’s the question of practicality, as it’s lot easier to justify the purchase of a four-season-friendly family ride that just so happens to have a huge displacement V8 under the hood versus a more extroverted, and less-capacious muscle car.
All this to say that the existence of the Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk was preordained. Unlike the Challenger SRT Demon, which is targeted at that niche within a niche segment of drag racers shopping in factory showrooms, the Trackhawk is aimed squarely at your neighbor Stephanie or Uncle Bill who either don’t have the space in their driveway for both a weekend toy and a daily driver, or who need a suitably over-the-top tow vehicle for their existing quarter-mile muncher.
Is the Grand Cherokee Trackhawk for everyone, then? Yes, if they don’t mind a slightly stiff ride and no, if their first question is about fuel mileage. The trip to the track had started out earlier that morning in Portland, Maine, and two hours over the two lanes running north towards the border with Canada had revealed the Jeep’s character to be almost identical to that of the “standard” SRT model. This means a stiffer than normal ride thanks to the more aggressive shock and damper tuning (even with the vehicle’s adaptive Bilstein shocks set to their most comfortable “Auto” mode), but certainly not an unpleasant one. In fact, driven normally, outside of an absolutely-horrendous 13-mpg city / 17-mph highway fuel economy rating there’s little to differentiate the Trackhawk from its SRT showroom mate.
Until you peg the throttle, that is. Once flattened, an excess of 700 horses and a full 645 lb-ft of torque are shunted to all four wheels, a process that takes mere milliseconds before you start to question the temporal consequences of hurtling so much steel so rapidly down the road. Will accelerating 5,363 lbs to 60-mph in a mere 3.5 seconds (and whomping the quarter mile in 11.6 seconds) accidentally open a wormhole into which the entire Earth will be pulled, forced to forever surf the event horizon activated by the click of a Launch Control button? Will the Jeep’s six-piston front Brembos and two-piece rotors be enough stopping force to prevent you from altering the course of history via accidental time travel once you reach the SUV’s 180-mph terminal velocity?
By way of answers: no, (at least, not yet), and yes (I was unable to go back in time to warn myself not to go back in time, so we’re definitely all safe from some sort of ‘Timecop’ scenario). Although free from the dangers of accidental hyperspace travel, there’s no question that the Grand Cherokee Trackhawk is outrageously quick. Still, the vehicle never felt as rambunctious as the Challenger Hellcat, as even with its drive mode set to ‘Track’ and traction control disabled, the 70 percent rear torque split delivered none of the smoky shenanigans expected out of the other members of the Hellcat family.
Once at Club Motorsports, the Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk also proved itself to be a capable, and bear-proof, track companion. The facility’s nearly 700 feet of total elevation change made it the natural home for a high horsepower ride like the Trackhawk, and despite body roll being more pronounced than a coupe or sedan, the Jeep handled the rolling curves and steep downhill descents with a level of confidence that even an amateur driver would find reassuring.
Is it safe to say that the 2018 Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk is the ‘gateway’ Hellcat, the one you’d be comfortable lending to g-maw to take to her karate class or pilot through a blizzard? Despite it being the only supercharged SRT to feature not one, but two red keys (with no neutered 500 horsepower driving mode on tap), I’d have to say yes. This isn’t some steroidal SUV egging you into trouble with every misapplication of the throttle pedal mid-corner. Instead, it’s the evolution of the Hellcat concept, proof that engine swaps are fun for OEMs, too, and that the only thing preventing us from getting a Hellcat-powered Ram pickup within the next two years is the kind of letter-writing campaign typically reserved for keeping nerdy sci-fi shows on the air.
Why aren’t you picking up a pen right now?
5 Quick Trackhawk Facts
- Why 645 lb-ft of torque? Keen eyes might pick up on the fact that the Trackhawk is down 5 lb-ft of twist versus the Charger and Challenger Hellcats that feature the same engine. The answer is found inside the narrow confines of the Grand Cherokee’s engine bay, which forced a redesign of the motor’s exhaust manifolds that in combination with emissions requirements sapped less than one percent of the supercharged mill’s total output.
- Patience is a virtue. The Trackhawk’s launch control system is incredibly effective at repeatedly punishing the pavement with sub-four second sprints to 60-mph, but you’ll have to wait 500 miles after pick-up before you can activate the feature. Yes, the Jeep’s supercharged mill gets the same engine dyno testing as other Hellcats, but the drivetrain itself requires a break-in period before it’s safe to unleash full fury.
- Thicker, bigger, stronger. In addition to greasing the 6.2-liter motor to fit between the Grand Cherokee’s front fenders, Jeep engineers also had to beef up the truck’s running gear to survive full throttle assaults. This meant larger rear axles, and a new housing and mount for the four-pinion rear limited-slip differential.
- Demon-equipped. The Grand Cherokee Trackhawk features a ‘Torque Reserve’ system similar to what can be found in the Challenger SRT Demon. Designed to build boost from a standstill, when the SUV’s launch control feature is activated fuel and spark are cut to individual cylinders while the supercharger bypass valve is positioned to fill the manifold with air. This makes over six lbs of boost immediately available off the line, which is more than half of the supercharger’s 11.6 psi maximum.
- Empty your pockets. The world’s fastest Jeep starts at around $85k, but if that’s not enough to raise your eyebrows get ready for the options (nicer leather interior, panoramic sunroof, stereo upgrades) that can raise the sticker to over six-figures. The era of the $100,000 Jeep is upon us.