DETROIT – Honda debuts the concept version of its upcoming new small cross/utility vehicle at the North American International Auto Show.

The model based on the subcompact Honda Fit will be built for the U.S. market at the auto maker’s Celaya, Mexico, plant expected to open in spring 2014. That facility also will build the next-generation Fit, a model that currently is sourced from Japan.

The production version of the “Urban SUV Concept” shown here will go on sale in Japan late this year, Honda says.

“No one has had greater success with small cars than Honda, and this Urban SUV Concept will create new value in the growing small (CUV) segment,” says John Mendel, American Honda executive vice president-sales.

The new CUV will use Honda’s Earth Dreams powertrain technology and will be priced below the current smallest Honda CUV, the CR-V. For ’13, the CR-V begins at $22,795.

The Urban SUV Concept is 9 ins. (23 cm) shorter than the CR-V and will feature the Fit’s Magic Seat, which is multi-configurable and has a fold-flat mode for increased cargo capacity.

Honda also says the future CUV will be a fun-to-drive model that boasts flexible utility and the latest in connectivity technology. Hidden rear-door handles are a key design feature of the concept, giving it a similar appearance to Nissan’s Juke model, one of the few entrants in the small CUV segment in the U.S.

Juke sales have been respectable, with 36,358 units last year in the U.S., WardsAuto data shows, higher volume than some more well-known models such as Acura’s TL and Hyundai’s Genesis sedans. However, Juke deliveries fall far short of the volume of Nissan’s larger Rogue CUV and the Honda CR-V.

The CR-V is the best-selling CUV in the U.S., with 281,652 units sold in 2012.

Buick’s Encore model also competes in the fresh small-CUV segment and is just arriving at U.S. dealers now.

In an interview with media here, Honda President and CEO Takanobu Ito emphasizes one of Honda’s best hopes for continued growth rests with strengthening its position in small cars, a segment in which the auto maker has done well.

Tetsuo Iwamura, president and chief operating officer-Honda North American Regional Operations, says the auto maker is exploring going even smaller than the Fit.

“There could be a good chance that a (sub-) Fit car will be possible in the future,” Iwamura says, depending on how the minicar segment, which includes the Smart, Scion iQ and Fiat 500, develops in the U.S.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com