4x4

Jeep’s Trailhawk models are offroad capable. But are they SUVs or 4X4s..and does it matter?

Reader Andrew Riles muses on the difference between SUVs and 4X4s, and whether Jeep’s strategy makes sense.

The line between SUVs and 4WDs is becoming harder to define, and isn’t helped when some manufacturers build vehicles that offer elements of both.

The term SUV tends to be applied to vehicles that are based on hatchbacks/sedans, but with a higher ride height and black body cladding. Where an AWD system is offered, it is often an on demand type with a computer controlled centre clutch. 4WDs tend to use a separate chassis, and a manually selected 4WD system with low range. Jeep in particular are blurring these definitions with their various Trailhawk models, so which side of the fence do they fall on?

Jeep’s history is fairly well known so I’ll keep it brief. The Willys-Overland model used by the US military paved the way for the line of vehicles we now know as the Wrangler, and recreational 4WDing in general. It inspired the original Land Rover, and formed the basis for some other early 4WDs like the LandCruiser. Jeep have gradually broadened their range since to appeal to a wider audience, and are now trying to cash in on the SUV trend with some of their current models which are the focus here.

As the vast majority of SUV/4WD owners do not go offroad, it makes sense that vehicle manufacturers are making these kind of vehicles more and more car like. This also makes it harder to justify building an unrelated 4WD to satisfy the needs of the small percentage that do. However, Jeep seem to think there is a market for vehicles like the Renegade, offering regular SUV models, and the Trailhawk that fits in nicely between them and Suzuki’s Jimny. You could say something similar about their other Trailhawk models. This is something other SUV manufacturers could potentially do to give their SUVs some offroad cred.

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Both the Renegade and Cherokee are based on passenger car platforms from Fiat and Alfa Romeo respectively, have limited ground clearance, and some models are FWD. It is expected that the Compass will follow the same formula.

However, if you want a Jeep that lives up to the brands reputation, all is not lost. The various Trailhawk models offer decent offroad hardware, and on the two larger models, some of it is available elsewhere in the range. Air suspension means the Grand Cherokee can operate at an SUV-like ride height on the road, but be raised up enough for most offroad adventures. Both it and the Cherokee get low range so they can crawl along at a snail’s pace. An increase in ground clearance on all Trailhawk models means the underbody is less likely to scrape, and the front bumper is redesigned to improve the approach angle. The eight and nine speed gearboxes available give a broad range of ratios, which means the vehicle’s crawling ability is reasonable without low range, and even better with it. Add to that decent traction control and terrain management system, and it all sounds pretty good.

What this means is that Jeep are achieving a level of offroad ability from their SUVs that was previously only seen in 4WDs. So if you want a Jeep but don’t want to go offroad you can buy one without the extra hardware, the surety of AWD for slippery surfaces is an option, or you can take the full kit and caboodle and have a capable SUV. Or should that be 4WD?

What’s your view? Should we go the Jeep way and consider SUVs onroad only, and have special offroad-focused models for offroad that can really go offroad…or should everything worthy of the name SUV have some basic offroad capability? If there are special offroad models, then they need to be truly capable, not just a few cosmetic additions.

Whatever you call it, our test of the Jeep Renegade Trailhawk proved it was a very capable vehicle, worthy of the Jeep name.

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Andrew Riles

Andrew Riles

My parents knew I was a car enthusiast when I was about 15months old, as I could already tell the difference between our Subaru and other similar vehicles. I have since had an almost insatiable appetite for almost anything car related. My main interest now is 4WDing, though one day I'd like to take part in 24hrs of LeMons, and maybe one of the rallies that raises money for charity.