For as long as I can remember, I’ve always had a high regard for anything stamped with a Jeep badge.

It’s a level of respect rooted in my years growing up as a kid in Toledo, Ohio, which is considered to be the birthplace of the iconic American nameplate. In the blue-collar city, where one of the original smokestacks from the first Jeep plant still stands, taking pride in the SUVs is pretty much the norm.

Admittedly, however, there’ve been a few models over the years that weren’t as worthy of my estimation Of course, every legendary figure has had to endure a few setbacks along the journey to greatness, and the car world is no different. That said, when barreling down a raceway in the breathtaking foothills of New Hampshire in the 2018 Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk, you get the sense that every bit of refinement Jeep has gone through in its 76-year history was all building up to this.

That is, after you’ve had a chance to catch your breath from the adrenaline rush that comes with going full-throttle in a 707-horsepower SUV.

BORN OUT OF THE HELLCAT
Inspired by the Dodge Challenger Hellcat, the Trackhawk is arguably the most radical take on a Jeep that’s ever made it into production. It’s built with the same bones as the Grand Cherokee SRT, but with more performance enhancements that give the SUV the same stamina as the 707-horsepower muscle car, just in a more finely tuned package.

And what’s the practicality of a 707-horsepower Jeep? Not much, unless you’re looking to beef up your social media status, posting video clips of yourself racing supercars on the dragstrip. Yep, the Trackhawk is that fast, certified with an official top speed of 180 mph and a mind-blowing 0-to-60 mph time of 3.5 seconds, making it the quickest SUV on the planet.

Now, that’s not to suggest that the Jeep doesn’t possess any of the more traditional utilitarian features we’ve come to depend on in a modern-day SUV. Take, for example, the Trackhawk’s four-wheel-drive system, which automatically adapts to different road conditions, and the vehicle’s towing capacity, which is 7,200 pounds. The race-inspired, Detroit-built Jeep also comes with a lot of the in-vehicle technology we’ve come to expect in SUVs like Bluetooth, a touchscreen infotainment system and Wi-Fi capabilities.

But as Jeep Brand Director Scott Tallon explains to Playboy, the Trackhawk isn’t intended to be practical. Well, at least not in the traditional sense.

“When you think of Jeep, it’s probably a Wrangler you visualize. You see it off-road and you know that it’s tough and historical. But capability can be defined in many ways. This is on-road, on-track capability…on a whole new level,” says Tallon.

STRAP UP
One of the Trackhawk’s most exciting features is a launch control system, which literally makes you feel like you’re being propelled through your seat. I liken it to being on a rollercoaster, feeling your heart pounding as the thing cranks up the incline; then, pausing for a split second, right before the ride free-falls downhill at full speed. In this case, though, the driver controls every element of the thrill.

The Trackhawk—which is being introduced during the Grand Cherokee’s 25th anniversary—is also equipped with a high-tech system called Selec-Track that allows the driver to choose between five different dynamic driving modes:Auto, Sport, Track, Snow and Tow. The system also features a Custom Mode that allows the driver to personalize the SUV’s driving dynamics by offering a number of different vehicle system combinations.

Erich Heuschele, manager at SRT Engineering, was kind enough to let us ride shotgun with him during one of his runs on the raceway, so that we could get a more professional sense of the technical capabilities of the Trackhawk.

As he corners the Jeep on the newly minted Club Motorsports racetrack, Heuschele notes that the goal was not only to develop a vehicle that could contend with higher-priced performance SUVs, but to create one that would do it in a way that is authentically American.

“One of the things that the Germans and the other cars seem to have is that they kind of ooze out of the hole,” he says, detailing how many of the Grand Cherokee Trackhawk’s competitors use engine technologies where there’s a more gradual build in the vehicle’s power. “This thing is snap-your-neck, throw-you-back-in-your-seat right off the line.” Tallon adds, “We set out to develop the ultimate performance SUV and I think we accomplished just that.”

LOW PROFILE
Design-wise, the Trackhawk’s exterior is a lot subtler than you’d expect from a Jeep powered by a supercharged 6.2-liter V8 engine that packs a growling 707-horsepower and 645 pound-feet of torque. In fact, a lot people might mistake the higher-performance Jeep for a standard Grand Cherokee, with a few custom add-ons. The only really distinctive visible styling elements of the Trackhawk are a couple of badges and those bright yellow Brembo brake calipers.

But as Tallon explains, that too was part of the strategy in crafting the most high-performance Jeep ever made.

“We could have put a hood scoop on there, but the cooling was already adequate,” Tallon says. “It didn’t need it. It didn’t make the Jeep go faster, it didn’t help the airflow. We didn’t put a wing on the back because that would limit the top speed we wanted of 180 mph. Everything that was done was purpose-built.”

As for the cost? Just under $86,000 (base), which also makes the Grand Cherokee Trackhawk the most expensive product Jeep has ever built.

But to be clear: This is one thrill ride that’s well worth the ticket price.