By JIM PARKER

The Post and Courier

Almost two years after Fiat returned to the U.S., the Italian brand is just now landing on the shores of the South Carolina Lowcountry.

Is that a problem? “I don’t think so,” said Jeremy Jimenez, who will be general manager when Rick Hendrick Fiat of North Charleston opens its doors March 4.

“It took some time for the name to develop. Charleston is a good market but small,” he said. Fiat wanted to build an image ahead of time, “rather than be put behind the eight-ball,” he said.

The Fiat dealership is online at www.fiatusaofnorthcharleston.com, and its building with showroom, service, sales and parts departments is nearly completed on Rivers Avenue.

In the meantime, Jimenez and staff are selling the subcompact 500 lineup including the high-performance Abarth from neighboring Rick Hendrick Jeep Chrysler Dodge Ram in North Charleston. The first Fiats arrived a few months ago.

The stores are linked not only through the Hendrick dealership group but in the brands they offer. Fiat SpA and Chrysler Group LLC are aligned worldwide, with the Italian car company owning a majority share in Chrysler.

“Fiat is expecting us to be a pretty good leader in sales,” Jimenez said. With a quirky turtle-shell shape and miniature size but pushing 40 mpg on the highway, the brand does well “with people who like to be unique,” he said.

The carmaker at present exports just the 500 model to the U.S. But the two-door is available in four trims: the base style starting at $15,000, upstream Pop at $19,500, limited-edition luxury Lounge at $23,500 and sporty Abarth (pronounced a-Bart), which begins at $22,500. A cabriolet (convertible) 500 is coming out this year. “I just ordered some this week,” Jimenez said, noting they should arrive in about three months.

Practically speaking, the Fiat 500 market includes well-heeled motorists such as in downtown Charleston or area beaches who are “looking for a third car” to drive at 40 mph or less to run errands, he said.

“With this demographic, you go after upper class,” Jimenez said, noting the income level of Fiat 500 drivers is $190,000.

Fuel conscious drivers like the brand, too. And the 500 is a “top safety pick,” he said. The model caters to a niche market, that is, “Until gas hits $4 (a gallon), then it’s everybody’s favorite car,” he said.

The 500 Abarth, distinguished by a yellow and red insignia with black scorpion image in the middle, has a bit different demographic. The car took center stage in a national TV spot with actor Charlie Sheen behind the wheel racing around a party while under house arrest.

Sporting dual exhausts and a 1.4-liter 160-horsepower twin turbocharged engine, the five-speed manual drive Abarth can zip around town as well as keep pace on open thoroughfares. Gas mileage is a solid 28 mpg city and 34 mpg on the highway.

The North Charleston dealership this week possessed a number of Abarths. They included a well-apportioned coupe with black exterior; and red, performance leather seats and 17-inch black wheels as extras. The price was $28,190.

“It really is a cool ride,” said Jenny Gates, sales associate.

The model is available with scores of options and electronic features such as Sirius XM Radio and speakers by Dr. Dre. It can be accessorized: for instance, certain interior trim can be switched out for a new color, she said.

The Abarth offers “a lot more sporty ride (and) power-like racing equipment,” Gates said.

At the same time, “it’s very roomy. I sold one to a guy who is 6 foot, 4 (inches). He wasn’t sure,” she said, but became convinced after getting in the car and taking it for a spin.

Gates said the 500 Abarth “drives very smooth. It handles very well. You get great gas mileage.” And, she said, the car is “easy to park.”

Based on an afternoon drive that included a period of rain, the Fiat 500 Abarth hatchback did little to dispel its high performance label.

Crank the engine and the sports car emits the throaty rumble reminiscent of a Mustang or Camaro. Then mash the gas pedal, and the Fiat takes off. Running through the five gears, the vehicle smoothly reached speed limits and had power to exceed them, even on the interstate.

The two-mode electric power steering was good, although the car would drift slightly left and right. The steering wheel is flat on the bottom, making it easier to climb in and out of the driver’s seat. Braking was excellent, including on wet pavement.

Meanwhile, leather seats made the ride comfortable and stylish and there was plenty of legroom especially for a small car. A neat touch is placing the power window buttons at the center console rather than the usual spot on the door handle. Back seating would be a bit tight only for tall or obese passengers. A perk is the back seats fold down to offer additional storage space.

Looks-wise, the 500 Abarth stands out: a door stripe matches the interior and is set off from the exterior hue. The body style is more streamlined than a base 500.

With all its highlights, the Abarth showed room for improvement. The array of audio and climate control buttons and knobs was easy to reach but somewhat limiting. Audio tuning and volume buttons on the steering wheel would have helped. The center cupholder is awkwardly shaped, and it barely handles large drinks even in conventional cups. To climb in the back, you tug on a strap built into the top of the seat and the seat flips forward. While cool-looking, the straps aren’t that easy to yank up.

Still, those complaints are either pet peeves or easy to fix. The important point is the Fiat 500 Abarth drives well, handles fine and provides solid fuel economy.

More that that, the car has a personality. Maybe not the scorpion on the emblem, but, well, perhaps more like Charlie Sheen — imperfect, yes, but lovable.

To learn more, visit your local Fiat dealer.

Reach Jim Parker at 937-5542 or jparker@postandcourier.com.