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2012 Fiat 500

How could it miss, really.

A cute, fun and economical car with Italian heritage at a base price of just $16,000?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 sales target of 50,000 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, as it would for the steadily expanding number of micro-rides that, along with the Mini, includes the Smart Fortwo and Toyota’s new Scion iQ.

For the 2012 Model year, two new versions of the Fiat 500 await your consideration. First to arrive was the 500c (Cabrio) that, depending on your viewpoint, is 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 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, aided and abetted by a taller windshield plus extra bracing along the windshield header and behind the rear seat. The top can also be fully opened and closed while the car is traveling up to 50 mph and can be partially activated at any point for that just-right amount of fresh air.

In back the abbreviated liftgate offers access to a stowage area that is roughly half the volume of the 500 hatchback (with the rear seat in place), which is to say not very much. Rear vision is also in relatively short supply, regardless of whether the top is folded or left in place (due to the small glass back window).

The transition to convertible from hatch adds 53 pounds to the 500’s base weight (for a total of 2,416). That shouldn’t adversely affect the buzzy 101-horsepower 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine’s ability to deliver at least adequate acceleration whether connected to a five-speed manual transmission, or optional six-speed automatic.

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.

Pricing hasn’t yet been announced for the hot-rod Abarth, but parking a new base 500c “Pop” convertible in your driveway will require $20,000, including destination charges. (A base hatchback is $16,000.) Moving up-range to the 500c “Lounge” convertible and/or adding options will definitely inflate the price, but either version is a relative bargain when compared to the $25,650 base Mini Cooper convertible.

With all the cards now on the table, the only thing left for Fiat to do is sell you on the idea of the 500. With the new Abarth and the convertible appealing to a wider audience, the job will be easier, but keep in mind the small-car pie is still small in North America.