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Can a small car really be mighty?

How could it miss, really? A cute, fun and economical car with Italian heritage at a base sticker price of just $17,000?

How could it miss, really?

A cute, fun and economical car with Italian heritage at a base sticker price of just $17,000?

Well, it hasn’t missed, exactly, but it has been a bumpy ride for Chrysler’s Italy-based offshoot as it attempts to carve out a decent-sized slice of a rather small niche-market pie.

Now there’s a new marketing boss and two new models to help reach an aggressive North American target of 50,000 cars a year.

But is it enough? And do North American buyers get it?

Fifty-plus years ago, the Volkswagen Beetle charmed North Americans with quirky styling and a highly effective ad campaign that, like the rear-engine, air-cooled car itself, broke all the rules. Since then, lightning has yet to strike twice, although the resurrected Mini Cooper in all its iconic glory has been more than moderately successful.

On these shores, the 500’s heritage is far less appreciated, but at least the car delivers on the cute-and-cool factor. Of course, a spike in gas prices would really help to light a fire under the 500’s sales chart.

For the 2012 model year, two new versions of the Fiat 500 await your consideration — the 500c (convertible) and the performance-minded Abarth.

With both versions appealing to a wider audience, it will be easier for Fiat to sell you on the idea of the 500, but keep in mind the small-car pie is still small in North America.

Fiat 500c (Cabrio)

The 500c (Cabrio) is, depending on your viewpoint, either a convertible or a regular 500 with a giant power-operated roof. In 15 seconds, the two-ply cloth top folds accordion-style, leaving the roof pillars and side glass in place.

Sure it’s quirky, but that’s how it was originally done on the 1950s 500. As well as leaving your coiffure in tact, Fiat claims that the fixed side pillar design is far more rigid than open-air convertible designs.

The Cabrio features a buzzy 101-horsepower 1.4-litre four-cylinder engine that delivers at least adequate acceleration whether connected to a five-speed manual transmission, or optional six-speed automatic.

Fiat 500 Abarth

More performance assistance is on the way with the mid-2012 launch of the Fiat 500 Abarth. The model is named for Karl Abarth, who successfully tuned the original 500 for racing use (Abarth was to Fiat what John Cooper was to Mini).

The Abarth arrives with a turbocharged version of the 1.4 that makes 160 horsepower and 170 pound-feet of torque.

Also part of the package is a five-speed manual gearbox, sport-tuned suspension and exhaust, beefier brakes, special Abarth alloy wheels (in 16-, or optional 17-inch sizes), distinctive nosepiece and rear spoiler plus specific interior/exterior trim.

 
 
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