Preview by Justin Pritchard, photos by Jonathan Yarkony and courtesy of Jeep

The fact of life in the 4×4 utility vehicle scene is that most shoppers want machines that focus less on all-out capability, and more on car-like driving dynamics, fuel efficiency and everyday friendliness.

2014 Jeep Cherokee
2014 Jeep Cherokee
2014 Jeep Cherokee
2014 Jeep Cherokee. Click image to enlarge

But, with off-road capability as the central pillar of the Jeep brand, products like the all-new Cherokee have to do a bang-up job of blending the best of both worlds. This new model is a mid-sized SUV after all – which means it’s competing in North America’s hottest utility vehicle segment.

Set for a 2014 model year launch, the questionably styled new Jeep Cherokee will bring the brand’s penchant for tackling mud ruts and trails into a marketplace full of ‘me-too’ soft-roader models. Remember folks: this will be the only model in its segment to wear a ‘Trail Rated’ badge on properly equipped models. That badge amounts to a seal of approval from Jeep engineers for meeting a minimum standard in a variety of off-road tests.

“The all-new 2014 Jeep Cherokee will be the benchmark for mid-size SUVs with a new level of on-road driving dynamics and fuel economy, while at the same time improving the 4×4 capability that customers expect from Jeep,” said Mike Manley, President and CEO of the Jeep Brand.

Cherokee is a machine that will set itself apart in numerous ways—starting with an, er, interesting look that resembles a robotic Martian grasshopper from the front, and a shrunk-down Subaru B9 Tribeca from the rear. But more so, it’s the Cherokee’s unique list of powertrain hardware and industry firsts that will help set it apart.

For instance, three four-wheel-drive systems will be available to fine-tune the Cherokee to a variety of tastes. A one-speed transfer case (READ: All-Wheel Drive) system will be joined by a two-speed unit with low-range, and a locking rear differential–equipped version thereof. Cherokee will also package the Selec-Terrain dial from its big-bro, the Grand Cherokee, allowing drivers to optimize vehicle systems by selecting ‘modes’ like Snow, Sand/Mud and Rock.

Firsts? You got it. How’s about a nine-speed automatic transmission? Since six-speed automatics are for suckers, Jeep’s specified a new nine-speed autobox to help turn in improved performance and fuel mileage. Expect robust off-the-line launches and low cruising revs.

Rear-axle disconnect technology is also on board, which eliminates parasitic drivetrain loss when four-wheel drive isn’t needed by uncoupling the rear drive axle. This fully automatic system is invisible to the driver and works away in the background to incrementally reduce fuel use.

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