Ready or not, the Fiat 500 is coming to dealerships early next year armed with Italian style and penny-pinching fuel economy.
The 500 was the cute little economy car that put postwar Italy on wheels when it arrived in 1957. The 500 holds a special place in the hearts of Italians, much as the Volkswagen Beetle does for baby boomer Americans.
Now Fiat is pinning its hopes for a revival in North America on the new 500, considerably bigger than its pipsqueak predecessor but much smaller than any vehicle Chrysler has sold.
Can the car -- tiny by U.S. standards -- justify Chrysler's substantial sales forecasts? It's a wide-open question that dealers are asking themselves as they await Chrysler's selection of about 165 Fiat dealers.
Fiat wants Americans to forget the "Fix It Again, Tony" stigma of yore and think of the 500 as herald of a new era for Chrysler and its Italian partner.
But the closest most Americans have been to a 500 was the 2006 Pixar cartoon film Cars, which featured an animated look-alike named Luigi. So Fiat marketers will have to overcome the car's lack of history here. Mini succeeded, but only with bundles of BMW marketing and engineering muscle.
The 500 will land in a U.S. market that has historically looked askance at small cars, but the segment is changing rapidly. The 500 will have to jockey for space not only with Euro-cute rivals such as the Mini but also with aspiring newcomers such as the Ford Fiesta, which offers upscale features and achieves nearly 40 mpg.
At an Aug. 30 meeting with dealers in Detroit, Fiat said it expected the 500 to peak at about 78,000 units in 2013 for North America.
Some dealers and analysts believe that number is overly optimistic. Rebecca Lindland, analyst for IHS Automotive in Lexington, Mass., says her firm is projecting Fiat 500 sales peaking at 40,000 in 2012, then dropping off to about 35,000 after that.
She says there is a "fad factor" with a fashion-statement car like the 500.
BMW has been successful with the Mini because the automaker has stoked interest with a steady cadence of new models and new body styles, such as the Clubman, Lindland says.
"There has been a lot of love given to that vehicle to keep it strong."
But even the Mini has fallen short of the numbers that Chrysler is aiming at for the 500.
Launched by BMW in North America in 2002, Mini sold 24,590 units in the United States that year. The brand peaked at 54,077 in 2008. Meanwhile, Daimler AG's Smart came after Mini and has been less successful. Smart peaked in 2008 at 24,622 and fell to 14,592 in 2009.
The 500 "is somewhere between the Mini and the Smart" in terms of size, Lindland says. "You look at the Smart car and those volumes, and you've got to be afraid."
The 500 is 139.6 inches long, 6 inches short of the basic Mini.
Fiat has not released prices of the 500, but stickers are expected to start around $15,000.