Xerox, jacuzzi, lava lamp, popsicle, and Jeep. What do these words have in common? While each is technically a protected trademark owned by a specific brand, these words have become generic terms used to describe entire categories of products. In many parts of the world, the Jeep name has become so synonymous with off-road excellence that the term “jeep” is often used as a stand-in for any 4×4 vehicle. In countries like Ireland, “jeep” has come to describe the SUV category in general, but in the United States, a tireless advertising campaign––and an entire battalion of lawyers––have ensured that only your local Jeep dealership can use the big-J “Jeep” moniker.
Trademark status aside, not all Jeeps are created equal when it comes to off-road performance. Jeep offers a bewildering variety of distinct 4×4 systems, with each offering some unique benefits for different off-road (and on-road) applications. From Quadra-Drive and Quadra-Trac to Command-Trac and Rock-Trac, Jeep has developed a full slate of trail-tested 4×4 systems that have allowed the brand to become the first name in off-road fun.
While the Renegade and Compass come with their own Active Drive and Active Drive Low 4×4 systems, we’re going to focus on the 4×4 systems that are offered with Jeep’s more capable models: the Grand Cherokee, Cherokee, Wrangler, and Gladiator. These four are easily the brand’s most tested options, but how do their 4×4 systems compare when it comes to off-road performance? Throw your rig into 4WD Low and join us as we see how each of these systems stacks up when it comes to off-road capability.
Originally introduced as a two-door version of Jeep’s Wagoneer back in the 1970s, the Cherokee has morphed from a full-size SUV to a compact crossover in its 50 years on the market. That’s not to say the modern models are lacking in off-road performance: the Cherokee is currently offered with three versions of the brand’s Active Drive 4×4 system to give the SUV all the capability it needs to hold its own out on the trail while still making it well-suited to the kind of everyday driving that tends to be the model’s bread and butter.
Active-Drive is one of Jeep’s more subtle 4×4 offerings. In a typical on-road driving scenario, the system disconnects the rear axle, powering only the front wheels to provide unparalleled fuel efficiency. The Active Drive system constantly monitors for wheel slippage and, when conditions start to get more challenging, automatically engages the rear wheels for added traction and control. Drivers can select between Selec-Terrain traction management modes, with dedicated settings that include Auto, Snow, Sand/Mud, and Sport. These modes split the torque between the front and rear wheels depending on the setting, with Sand/Mud mode modulating wheel slip while Sport mode uses more aggressive shift points.
Active Drive II
This less common upgrade to the Active Drive 4×4 system adds Low Range and Neutral modes to the mix, which can come in handy in certain off-road scenarios. Struggling to get traction while moving at a slow speed? Low Range mode will give you all the grip you need to power through whatever the trail can throw at you. Active Drive II also comes with a Neutral setting that will come in handy if you own an RV and want to bring your Jeep along. Neutral mode allows a driver to tow their Cherokee while all four wheels are touching the ground––a feat that would damage most traditional 4×4 vehicles.
Active Drive Lock
Active Drive Lock is the standard 4×4 system on the Cherokee’s Trail Rated Trailhawk trim. Active Drive Lock is based on the Active Drive II system but adds a rear locking differential to the mix, giving drivers vastly improved traction in slippery conditions. The system also includes a Neutral mode and 50:1 crawl ratio, as well as a Selec-Terrain Rock mode that makes climbing steep grades easier than ever.
Jeep Grand Cherokee
The Cherokee’s larger brother is a bit of an iconoclast in the off-road segment. While many automakers opt for a traditional body-on-frame design that gives their off-road models the rough-and-tumble benefits of a pickup, the Grand Cherokee has always employed a unibody construction method, as seen in many of today’s crossover SUVs. This approach allows the Grand Cherokee to outclass many of its rivals when it comes to on-road comfort, but how does it stack up when it comes to off-road performance? Thanks to Jeep’s Quadra-Trac and Quadra-Drive 4×4 systems, the answer is “pretty dang well.”
Powered by an active transfer case, the Quadra-Trac I 4×4 system works in full-time high-range mode to provide superior traction without any input from the driver. A 48-52 torque split between the front and rear axles should see drivers through a variety of on-road and off-road conditions, and Jeep has sweetened the pot with an advanced traction control system and brake lock differential. Quadra-Trac I might not be up for some of the more challenging off-road applications, but if you’re looking for a setup that’ll provide a little peace of mind when facing snow, rain, or ice, this 4×4 option has you covered.
Offered as the standard 4×4 system on the Grand Cherokee’s Overland trim, Quadra-Trac II adds an upgraded two-speed transfer case and electronically controlled clutch pack to the mix. The latter is especially notable as it enhances the use of Jeep’s Selec-Terrain Traction Management System, allowing drivers to easily prepare for any condition they might encounter with dedicated Sport, Snow, Sand/Mud, and Rock modes.
When the Quadra-Trac II system is in 4WD Auto mode, 100 percent of the engine’s power can be sent to either the front or rear axle when any slippage is detected, ensuring maximum traction no matter what sort of obstacles the road might throw at you. Quadra-Trac II also comes standard with a 2.72:1 low-range gear ratio for superior off-road performance and a Neutral setting for easier towing. The system’s 4WD Low setting can be used at speeds of up to 25 mph and disabled with the press of a button, two factors that make on-the-fly adjustments easier than ever.
Exclusive to the Grand Cherokee Trailhawk, Summit, and Summit Reserve, the Quadra-Drive II system represents the pinnacle of the SUV’s off-road technology. The full-time 4×4 system is always active and includes all the features from the brand’s Quadra-Trac II offering. However, it adds a rear electronic limited-slip differential that allows the Grand Cherokee to shift power laterally between its rear wheels. Quadra-Drive II comes with a 4WD Low mode for torque-heavy low-speed applications, while a Neutral mode aids in towing. The system also comes standard with the six-mode Selec-Terrain system and is far and away Jeep’s most well-rounded 4×4 design when it comes to the Grand Cherokee.
Jeep Wrangler and Gladiator
While the Cherokee and Grand Cherokee might represent a more comfortable, well-appointed ride, many Jeep purists prefer the rugged charm of the brand’s Wrangler and Gladiator. A direct descendant of the Jeeps that found their fame on the battlefields of World War II, the Wrangler is primed for off-road fun while also being one of the most customizable models on offer. There’s no matching the open-air thrills of cruising the trail in a Wrangler, which comes with its own unique 4×4 offerings in Jeep’s Command-Trac, Rock-Trac, and Selec-Trac systems, all of which come standard with a tow-friendly Neutral mode.
Command-Trac represents the Wrangler and Gladiator base 4×4 offering, but that’s not to say it’s basic by any means. The system comes with a manual shift-on-the-fly feature that allows drivers to jump between 2WD and 4WD when driving as fast as 55 mph. When in 4WD mode, the Command-Trac system splits power 50/50 between the front and rear, providing ample traction when the road gets slick. In 4WD Low, a 2.72:1 gear ratio amplifies the vehicle’s torque, though the manual transfer case means that the switch can’t be performed on the fly.
The Rubicon trim has long represented Jeep’s most adventure-ready models. If you’ve ever seen a Jeep precariously balanced on two wheels or ascending a near-vertical grade, chances are it was a Wrangler Rubicon. These feats of off-road strength are made possible by the Rubicon’s Rock-Trac 4×4 system, which upgrades the part-time transfer case with a 4:1 low-gear ratio in 4WD Low mode. This system gives drivers a 73:1 crawl ratio to play with, which should make those sheer rock faces seem a little more approachable. The Rock-Trac system also comes with an electronic sway bar disconnect for superior articulation, as well as a set of electronic locking differentials, which allow the Wrangler and Gladiator Rubicon to go where other off-road vehicles wouldn’t dare.
Off-road performance is important, but so is flexibility. Many Wrangler and Gladiator owners use their Jeeps for daily driving as well as off-roading, which is why Jeep’s Selec-Trac system is such a valuable addition to the lineup. Designed to allow the Wrangler to excel in both on-road and off-road scenarios, Selec-Trac is a 4×4 system that goes a long way towards increasing comfort and convenience. An additional 4WD High Auto mode operates in two-wheel drive until it detects wheel slip, allowing it to be used on paved roads at higher speeds. Limited to higher-end trims, Selec-Trac is a valuable, if pricey, addition to the lineup.
Make Sure to Choose the Right 4×4 System
From entry-level offerings like Active Drive, Quadra-Trac, and Command-Trac to top-of-the-line systems like Quadra-Drive II, Rock-Trac, and Selec-Trac, choosing the right 4×4 system can have a big impact on your next off-road journey. Before investing in a fully loaded off-road beast, it’s important to be realistic about your off-road goals. If you’re the type of driver who is unlikely to encounter any terrain more challenging than a snow-slicked road or occasional pothole, some of the Jeep brand’s most well-equipped trims might be a little much. The ability to ford a creek, navigate some boulders, or dig yourself out of the mud might be nice to have if you’re spending every weekend exploring your local off-road trails, but that type of performance comes at a cost, namely comfort. No matter which Jeep model or trim you choose, you’ll enjoy the sort of 4×4 performance that’s made the brand such a hit amongst the off-road crowd, but a little research can go a long way when it comes to picking the right SUV for your unique driving needs.