TURIN – When Fiat Auto SpA signed an alliance agreement with General Motors Corp. in 1999, the Italian auto maker was little more than a year away from launching a compact, Mitsubishi-based off-road vehicle.

Fiat abandons Mitsubishi Pinin as base for new SUV in favor of Suzuki’s new Concept S platform.

The project was abandoned and work hastily begun on a replacement vehicle. The resulting Fiat-Suzuki, styled by Giorgetto Giugiaro’s ItalDesign SpA and to be built in Suzuki Motor Corp.’s Hungarian plant, doesn't hit the streets until 2005, at the earliest.

Insiders already are claiming it's a vast improvement over the compact Mitsubishi Pinin, styled by Pininfarina SpA, which formed the basis for Fiat's original badge-engineered SUV.

Fiat now plans two wheelbases for the 3- and 5-door models, built over Suzuki's new Concept S platform, with a choice of Suzuki’s V-6 or 4-cyl. gasoline engines and Fiat’s second-generation 4- and 5-cyl.common-rail turbodiesels.

But conflict has arisen. Although Fiat wants the SUV to follow car-based rivals such as the Honda CRV, Toyota RAV4 and Nissan X-Trail by mounting the engines transversely – implying a drive bias for the front wheels – Suzuki is insisting on the more traditional SUVs’ longitudinal engine layout.

The debate inside Fiat’s powertrain division comes down to a question of being quick to market with an off-roader or taking longer to do a true soft-road competitor.