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GENEVA – Like its rivals, Fiat Automobiles SpA is in an economic bind. But the Italian auto maker has two trump cards that seem to bode well for its future: It is Europe’s leading producer of high-mileage vehicles and makes one of the continent’s most popular small cars, the 500.

At the Geneva auto show, Fiat displays the 500C, a soft-topped version of its swift-selling vehicle. Although not a true convertible, as the canvas top folds back while leaving the side arches in position, Fiat describes the vehicle as “a fully fledged window to the sky.”

By preserving the roof structure, Fiat expects the car to maintain its 5-star European New Car Assessment Program safety rating. The 500 is the only vehicle in its segment to have the distinction.

The 500C will have the same dimensions and engine offerings as the 500 but will be available in two new colors, “Warm Grey” and “Pearl Red.” The canvas will be available in ivory, red or black.

Like the 500 and its sister car on the same platform, the Ford Ka, the 500C is being produced in Tichy, Poland.

The 500 has maintained sales momentum in spite of the global economic crisis, with orders totaling 310,000 units since it was introduced in July 2007. Registrations in January climbed 7.4% from prior-year. The 500C will go on sale in April, with deliveries beginning in May.

The average fleet-fuel efficiency of new Fiat vehicles sold last year was the best in Europe, emitting 133.7 g/km of carbon dioxide, down from 137.3 g/km in 2007.

The 133.7 g/km is the equivalent of 42 mpg (5.6 L/100 km) in a gasoline engine and 47 mpg (5.0 L/100 km) in a diesel mill.

The small-car specialist’s sales have been helped by the popularity of the 500, the bonuses given in several European markets to high-mileage cars and by new technology such as the the microhybrid stop/start technology already offered in the 500 and soon to be introduced across the Fiat lineup.

“Fiat’s commitment has always been to the public’s real needs and won’t be stopping here,” says Fiat Managing Director Lorenzo Sistino. “Our aim is actually to reinforce our European record in emissions reduction by introducing new engines, new technologies and new applications.”

Fiat is launching what it calls the “Multiair” system on engines to improve combustion, and it has developed a software program with Microsoft Corp. named “ecoDrive” that analyzes the driver’s vehicle handling and offers fuel-saving suggestions.

Fiat also is the leader in Italy’s compressed-natural-gas segment, offering “Natural Power” dual-fuel cars that run on standard gas or CNG.