As head of Chrysler Group LLC's Fiat brand in North America, Laura Soave is bringing the Italian brand back to America. It left 27 years ago, hamstrung by falling sales and poor reliability.

Soave has heard the old bad-quality jokes. But she also has heard stories about how many Baby Boomer Americans loved their Fiats — when they worked.

Fiat had something going for it then, as it has now, she says. It's not just a small car. It's a small Italian car, she says. “Americans love Italian things.”

That includes Italian clothes, food, restaurants, cappuccino and, of course, cars.

“And this is a stylish Italian car with reliability, good fuel economy and a great price ($15,500),” she says.

Soave tells of Fiat 500s in consumer clinics. “Everyone liked them, even when they didn't know the brand,” she says. “When we told them it was Italian, they liked the cars even more.

“Until now, the only Italian car you could buy in the U.S. was an expensive sports car, such as Maserati, which, by the way, is a great car.” And by the way, is a unit of Fiat Automobiles SpA.

“Fiat is an iconic brand,” Soave says. “I've done a lot of vehicle launches, but none have been as much fun as this one. I have the best job in the industry.”

The 500 has been tweaked for the U.S., says Ariel Gavilan, Chrysler's senior manager-communications.

A 6-speed automatic transmission was developed exclusively for the U.S.