It’s a real Jeep, but the eagerly awaited, but delayed 2014 Jeep Cherokee is more than that.

This is the first validation of Chrysler’s theory that an architecture Fiat developed for compact European cars can be adapted to create rugged SUVs, midsize vehicles and crossovers for American buyers.

I spent an afternoon this week driving the Cherokee on a daunting off-road course at Chrysler Proving Grounds and through picturesque southeast Michigan farm country.

It’s a real Jeep, with the off-road ability the brand’s devotees demand. The Cherokee fords deep water, sneers at glutinous mud pits and scales treacherous slopes. A legitimate off-roader, it can literally leave ostensible competitors like the Chevrolet Equinox, Ford Escape, Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 in its tracks.

The Cherokee has serious off-road capability that will take owners into the wilderness where faux SUVs fear to tread. The new Cherokee is potentially a breakthrough for the brand because it also offers high miles per gallon and modern styling to cash in on booming sales of small and midsize crossover utility vehicles.

With the recent focus on its delayed shipment as engineers fine-tuned Cherokee’s drivetrain, it was easy to lose track of the big questions:

■Does Chrysler-Fiat have what it takes to develop first-rate midsize vehicles?

■Does the company’s Italian-American management understand what makes Jeep, the most American of SUVs, special?

My day driving several Cherokees with Chrysler executives and engineers suggests the answer to both questions is “yes.”

None of the competing compact crossovers could have negotiated the Lyman Trail, a tortuous off road course at the company’s Chelsea proving ground.

The Cherokee Trailhawk I drove there had a 56:1 crawl ratio, nine-speed automatic transmission, locking differential and a 3.2-liter V6 engine for off-road durability competitors can’t match.

Jeep will also offer front-wheel-drive and four-cylinder Cherokees for owners who like the look, height and ride of an SUV, but don’t need serious off-road ability.

The Cherokee is the first of several midsize vehicles that will use Chrysler-Fiat’s CUSW architecture. CUSW is a significantly modified version of the underpinnings of Fiat’s compact cars in Europe. It also is the foundation of Dodge Dart, but that compact sedan didn’t test Chrysler-Fiat’s ability to stretch CUSW’s size and capability like the Cherokee does.

A replacement for the Chrysler 200 sedan will probably be the next CUSW vehicle. It should debut early next year.

Chrysler expects to sell Cherokees in 120 countries, starting with European sales in the first quarter of 2014.

Chrysler will add a diesel engine and manual transmission for Cherokees outside North America. I wouldn’t be surprised if we get the diesel in a year or two, but don’t hold your breath for a manual. Chrysler spent a lot of time and effort working with supplier ZF on the nine-speed automatic. It’s the Cherokee’s mainstay.

The SUV’s styling combines traditional Jeep elements – a seven-slot grille, trapezoidal wheel openings – with a sleek and aerodynamic shape. The look has been controversial; particularly the unusual front design that features LED running lights near the top of the front fenders, projector headlights near the bumper and fog lights close to the ground.

It’s a unique arrangement that makes the Cherokee instantly recognizable, even at night. If it works as well as the Cherokee’s off-road systems do, Jeep loyalists may forget they ever questioned the design, or anything else about the new Cherokee.

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