SAN DIEGO – The Fiat 500 minicar is steamrolling a path for the official North American return of Fiat Group Automobiles SpA’s Alfa Romeo brand.

Some 200 North American Chrysler dealers chosen to sell the iconic A-segment car also are expected to deliver Alfa.

“They’ve got a couple of years to play with (Fiat) and prove themselves and see how this relationship works,” says Laura Soave, Fiat Brand North America’s top executive. “If everything goes well, they should be on track to get Alfa.”

Hand-picked from a network of 2,871 retailers across the U.S., Canada and Mexico, the dealers have agreed to construct dedicated “studios” to showcase the 500, Soave tells Ward’shere during a media preview of the car.

But those sites, some of which are former stand-alone Hummer and Saturn stores that became available when General Motors Co. phased out those brands last year, are being developed with expansion in mind.

“The plan is to house both,” Soave says. “So we’re building it so it can grow to span the Alfa lineup.”

Alfa left the U.S. market in 1995, but sparked the imagination of consumers in 2007 with the limited-run 450-hp 8C Competizione supercar. It was sold through Maserati dealers.

Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne, who also heads Fiat Group Automobiles, has not identified a lead Alfa executive for North America, says Soave, adding the markets chosen to launch 500 sales are “perfect for both brands.”

Fiat, absent from the U.S. since 1983, is targeting urban markets such as San Francisco, Houston and Manhattan. No U.S. city has more than one dealership, but several Canadian cities boast multiple locations.

Windsor, ON, has just over 200,000 people. But it will be home to a pair of Fiat 500 stores.

Why? “Because of the Italian community,” Soave reveals.

Canadian census figures show some 20% of residents in and around the city claim Italian heritage.

The size of Fiat’s North America dealer network is proving to be “very manageable,” says Soave, who likens her dealer meetings to “Sunday dinner” in a big Italian family.

“When we went through the selection process, we literally picked the best of our Chrysler dealers – the most open-minded, the most successful dealers that try different things,” she says, noting a decided lack of tension about allotment.

“These guys have said, ‘Just ship me what you need to sell. You guys are the experts. You’ve been doing all the research.’ They’re very open to trusting us to load them with the right inventory.”

That means an ample supply of Fiat 500s in “espresso,” a rich, earthy brown.

“(The color) photographs horribly and the paint chips don’t look good,” Soave concedes. “We just can’t get its true essence. You can’t capture it. But in person, it’s amazing.

“That’s the kind of thing a dealer would never order, given the materials we send them,” she adds. “But if I start shipping it to them, then they start to see it. Every event we go to, everyone’s like: ‘I’ve got to order this color.’”

Buyers can choose from 14 exterior colors in metallic, non-metallic and premium tri-coat pearl finishes. Interiors can be black or ivory, but seat colors and material choices make for 14 possible combinations.

emayne@wardsauto.com