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Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV's smallest mainstream brand in the United States could be one of its biggest surprises in 2015.

Four years after re-entering the U.S. market following a 27-year hiatus, the Fiat brand is the wild card for the automaker.

The company's Chrysler and Ram Truck brands likely will remain stable or show modest growth. Dodge sales should decline due to the loss of the Avenger and Dodge's positioning as a mainstream muscle-car brand. No one would be surprised if Jeep experiences its sixth consecutive year of increased sales.

Then there's Fiat. The Italian small-car brand is poised to top 50,000 in annual sales in the U.S. for the first time since its return. And an all-new subcompact crossover — called the 2016 500X — could be a game-changer when it starts arriving in showrooms in April.

The 500X opens the brand to an entirely new American buyer who probably never considered Fiat's other automobiles: the 500 subcompact; the larger, four-door 500L; or the special- and limited-edition variants of those cars. The 500X, company executives say, combines American comfort and amenities with Italian styling and a new all-wheel-drive system for the brand that will likely move the product outside of the sunbelt states. Not to mention, it's entering one of the fastest-growing market segments in the United States.

"Everyone's racing to the crossover space; everybody wants to believe they have the best offering in the crossover space," Jason Stoicevich, vice president of the Fiat brand's North American operations, told The Detroit News. "I think we're right up there toward the top. I think we're going to have a lot of success with the car."

Stoicevich, who has called the 500X a "game-changer" and a "halo" for Fiat showrooms, would not estimate what sales of the new crossover will be in 2015. Some analysts have speculated it could help double Fiat's overall sales, which were about 46,000 last year. Others have more humble expectations.

Industry insights and analysis firm IHS Automotive expects Fiat to sell 25,000 500X models in 2015, which would make it the second-best seller behind the 500.

"Offering a product in the hot-growing compact SUV segment is a good place for it to grow," said IHS Automotive senior analyst Stephanie Brinley.

The Fiat brand, Brinley said, is expected to remain a niche make in the United States.

Incremental sales of the 500X should push Fiat past Mini and some luxury brands.

Fiat and Mini each accounted for 0.3 percent of U.S. market share in 2014.

IHS Automotive expects the 500X to represent about 5 percent of the non-luxury subcompact utility vehicle segment.

"It's something different for the brand," said Edmunds.com senior analyst Jessica Caldwell. "If they're going to expand their lineup, this is probably the best way to increase their market share."

The 500X shares the platform with the automaker's upcoming Jeep Renegade. But the 500X was designed in Italy to represent the Italian style and on-road, fun-to-drive elements Fiat is known for, while the Jeep Renegade was designed to stay true to its off-road heritage.

If Fiat can't make it in the crossover/compact utility segment, it could be destined to eventually be deported to Italy, as it was in the '70s when it was better known as an acronym for "Fix It Again, Tony" because of shoddy quality and reliability. But that's unlikely under Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne and Fiat boss Olivier Francois, who also serves as Fiat Chrysler chief marketing officer.

Francois, during the North American unveiling of the 500X at the Los Angeles Auto Show in November, described the car as a "perfect fit for America."

"Think Fiat only builds little cars? Wrong. Think you can't build sexy and practical? Wrong," Francois said. "Things have changed."

The Fiat brand even poked fun at itself during the 500X unveiling with a promotional video set at "Tony's Fix-It Shop." During the ad, an American takes his car to the shop to fix a broken mirror. The mechanics humorously fix the car by turning it into a 500X, followed by a voice-over saying: "We fixed the sedan with the new Fiat 500X crossover."

The ad drew applause and laughter, followed by Francois discussing how the ad addresses the brand's former reputation. He described "Tony" as the "skeleton in the closet" and "the elephant in the room."

"His name was Tony, and he had to go," Francois said.

Fiat has put the fictional mechanic in its rearview mirror. This year will likely show if Americans have as well.

mwayland@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2504

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