AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – Almost three decades after it slunk out of the U.S. market, Italian automaker Fiat is back, hoping it can erase lingering memories of poor-quality vehicles and make Americans fall in love with small cars.

It’s a tall order, but Fiat isn’t one to shrink from a challenge. It took over management of a failing Chrysler Group last year and is close to making a profit there as it revamps Chrysler’s cars and trucks. Now, Fiat sees an opportunity to reintroduce its brand and get ahead in the fledgling U.S. small-car market.

Fiat is unveiling two Fiat 500s at the Los Angeles Auto Show today – a three-door hatchback and a convertible version. The hatchback is set to go on sale in the U.S. next month, with the convertible to follow in 2011. Electric and high-performance versions are planned in 2012, and a four-door version after that.

Pricing won’t be announced until Wednesday, but Fiat said the 500 will be “significantly less” than BMW AG’s Mini Cooper, a similar car, which starts at $20,000.

This is the first time Fiat has shown a car bound for North America since it pulled out of the market in 1983. Back then, cars like the Fiat Strada were widely derided as rust-prone and unreliable.

But that’s ancient history to U.S. car buyers. Laura Soave, 38, who was appointed head of the Fiat brand in North America earlier this year, said there is very little knowledge of Fiat’s earlier poor quality among current buyers, who are drawn to the 500’s huggable look.

The car has a rounded shape, high roof and circular headlights. The design evokes the original Fiat 500, which sold from 1957 to 1975 worldwide.

The design alone will draw buyers, Soave said.

“Then you tell them it’s Italian, and they think it’s cool, sexy, stylish.”