Utah's stunning crystal blue sky completely filled the windshield.
Off to my left, I could see a Jeep Jamboree spotter. He was on top of a boulder and giving the thumbs up, encouraging me to keep climbing. That's when I laughed and said, "Nobody who buys a Cherokee is going to take it up stuff like this ever."
I didn't know who I was talking to.
We were at the entrance to Hell's Revenge with the Jeep Experience Moab 2015 convoy, and my co-driver Aaron had hopped out to shoot pictures. The sign at the base of the trail says the "steep climbs require steel nerves and advanced driving skills"—and I'm uninclined to argue. But in crawl mode, with its differential locked, the Trailhawk edition Cherokee made easy work of the ascent, the 3.2-liter Pentastar V-6 pulling the rig along with minimal drama.
Moab is sacred ground for Jeep. For nearly half a century, the brand's engineers and enthusiasts have flocked to the annual Moab Easter Jeep Safari to prove their machine's mettle on the desert's unforgiving landscape. And these perilous paths are the same trails where the company tests the five areas where a Jeep must excel—traction, ground clearance, maneuverability, articulation, water fording—to wear its coveted Trail Rated badges.
After scaling the rocks marking the entrance to Hell's Revenge, I picked up Aaron, and we spent the next two days driving through what's unquestionably some of the most spectacular country in the United States.
Now, there's certainly something to be said for unplugging and enjoying scenic views without modern distractions. But I've chosen to spend the majority of my adult life in environments where it's impossible to throw a rock without hitting a taco stand or Thai restaurant. So while it was slightly surreal to be inside an air conditioned cabin listening to Hip Hop Nation via satellite radio, it was hardly unpleasant.
And technology plays an obvious role in the Jeep's off-road prowess.
Twenty-five years ago, navigating some sections we tackled would have required a dedicated rig. Its most electronically sophisticated component would have been a tape deck. But things have come a long way since blunt instruments like power and beadlocks were the only weapons available in the off-road tool box. Obviously, along with Sport, the Jeep features traction settings for various environments—Snow, Sand, Mud or Rock—allowing it to work smarter instead of harder on slippery surfaces.
Before we set out, one of the chassis engineers reminded me to experiment with the Select-Speed Control, an off-road cruise control incorporating hill ascend and descend functions, allowing a constant speed over tricky terrain with "minimal driver input." Basically, it relegates the driver's role to hanging on and steering. I forced myself to keep my feet away from the pedals while I tried it, and used the controls on the wheel to play with the speed. Overall? It's as unsettling as it is impressive.
Not something I'd engage when rock crawling, but again, impressive.
Of course, all the electronic nannies in the world aren't going to save you from ripping a bumper off if you hit a burly incline. So the Trailhawk features 8.7 inches of ground clearance, factory skid plates and revised front and rear clips allowing approach and descent angles of nearly 30 degrees. And it's safe to say we took advantage of every degree on the trip.