PARIS -- With the new pint-sized Fiat 500X, CEO Sergio Marchionne wants to show his vision for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV is ready for the street.
The trendy Italian crossover model has a roundish front and curvy rear reminiscent of the iconic 500 subcompact, and yet it's essentially a clone of the rugged, boxy Jeep Renegade.
The two compact SUVs are largely the same under the surface, sharing engines, transmissions and other key components to cut costs. The two will be built on the same assembly line in Italy.
While the models have common underpinnings, "the 500X and Renegade are two very different cars," Marchionne said this week at the Paris auto show, where the Italian SUV debuted. The Fiat is a crossover, and "the Jeep is a Jeep."
With the merged entity's shares to start trading on the New York Stock Exchange on Oct. 13, the Jeep Renegade and the Fiat 500X are crucial for Marchionne to prove that the combination of Fiat and Chrysler -- two regional carmakers with a recent history of financial struggles -- can compete with larger global rivals like Volkswagen AG and General Motors Co.
The latest member of the 500 family, which follows the 500L wagon, is especially important to halt losses and sliding market share at Fiat's operations in Europe. It also marks an important expansion into SUVs, with the brand's only offering being a re-badged version of the Dodge Journey.
"The 500X has the cute appeal of its smaller sister, and it's going into a booming segment" in the Turin, Italy-based company's home region, said Ian Fletcher, an analyst with IHS Automotive in London. "It will also be a good alternative in the U.S. for customers who want a five-door 500."
Sales of compact SUVs like Nissan Motor Co.'s Juke have been surging in recent years and are forecast to jump 30 percent to 1.95 million vehicles worldwide in 2014, IHS estimates.
Fiat's namesake brand could sorely use the boost. Its market share in Europe slumped to 3.8 percent in August, smaller than luxury marques BMW, Audi and Mercedes-Benz.
During a six-year slump in the European car market that led to a two-decade low last year, Fiat halted investment at the brand to save cash and focus resources on the turnaround of Chrysler.
The strategy left plants in Italy underused, leading to furloughs of thousands of line workers. Fiat's merger with its U.S. unit pools the American carmaker's cash with that of its Italian parent, providing more firepower for spending in Europe.