Los Angeles — Nearly three years after returning to the U.S. following a 27-year hiatus, Fiat introduced what is expected to be its most popular car.
The subcompact crossover — called the 500X — is anticipated to open the small-car brand to mainstream Americans, something its current 500 and 500L models have not been able to do.
"This is our answer to the American market," said Olivier Francois, Chrysler Group chief marketing officer and head of Fiat brand, said during the unveiling Thursday at the Los Angeles Auto Show.
The optimism about the 2016 500X comes as compact and subcompact SUVs have grown to become the best-selling segment in the U.S. because buyers love the combination of interior room, fuel economy and SUV-like characteristics.
Matt Davis, head of Fiat brand product marketing, wouldn't estimate potential sales for the all-new car, but admitted Chrysler has high expectations.
"The 500X will be the halo of the showroom," he said during a recent media gathering, adding customers get the iconic design of the 500 with enhanced capability and space of the 500L. "You get the best of both worlds."
In 2013, Fiat sold about 43,250 cars in the U.S. In 2014, the brand is on pace to have its best U.S. sales since returning this year, with more than 39,000 cars sold through October. Jason Stoicevich, head of Fiat brand North America, said the brand also is on track for its best North American sales.
Jessica Caldwell, Edmunds.com senior analyst, expects the 500X to drive the Italian brand into more American garages when it arrives in showrooms in the first half of 2015. "The timing seems to be right," she said. "It's following the trend of what's happening in the marketplace."
The five-passenger crossover was the first vehicle tailored by designers in the U.S. and Italy for both markets, according to Davis. Previous 500 models were retrofitted for the U.S., but primarily Italian-engineered.
"I think the 500X is brilliant," said Kelley Blue Book senior analyst Karl Brauer. "That vehicle all by itself will double total volume."
At the heart of the 500X's capability is an all-wheel drive system with a disconnecting rear axle that allows for better gas mileage when all-wheel drive is not needed. The system is similar to that on the Jeep Cherokee and Chrysler 200.
The crossover is available in five trim levels: Pop, Easy, Lounge, and for a more rugged look, Trekking and Trekking Plus. The Trekking and Trekking Plus models have different front and rear fascia designs, and satin silver accents.
The 500X, to be assembled in Melfi, Italy, will be powered by one of two four-cylinder engines.
The 1.4-liter MultiAir Turbo engine paired with a six-speed manual transmission is standard on the entry-level Pop. Its output is 160 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. All-wheel drive is not available with the six-speed.
All other models come standard with a 2.4-liter Tigershark I-4 engine with MultiAir2 paired with the segment's first nine-speed automatic transmission, producing 180 horsepower and 175 pound-feet of torque. All-wheel drive is optional in this configuration.
Pricing and fuel economy will be announced closer to the car's introduction.