When I wandered onto the Fiat stand for the unveiling of the new 500X compact SUV, I didn’t expect anything ground breaking to happen. 

The 500X is the sister car to the new Jeep Renegade. It’s the right kind of car entering a market segment that’s booming. I simply figured that it had a good chance of doing pretty well.

But, as the press conference rolled on, it became apparent that, for Fiat, there is rather more to the 500X than might be obvious. Firstly, the presentation about the car’s claimed attributes was more extensive and more aggressively pitched than is usually normal for a motor show.

The 500X had “undergone five million kilometers of real-world testing” and would have “world class quality”. The car is all about “attention to detail” and will offer the kind of sophisticated 4x4 drivetrain rivals can’t match. The presentation went on in this vein for a while, before we were told that the 500X was also a “mature 500”.

At this point a very slick and well-filmed ad appeared on the big screen. It was the unlikely story of a stray Viagra tablet, which ricochets across an Italian village and ends up falling into the open fuel filler of a 500 hatch. 

Of course, when the 500 owner returns to his car it has morphed into a 500X. It might sound a little naff, but the film drew spontaneous applause from the gathering of assembled media.

Then Fiat delivered the punchline. The 500X is a chance to get a completely new audience into a Fiat. Two thirds of the buyers are expected to be new to Fiat. “It will introduce younger buyers to the brand and they must be delighted by the experience.” Fiat says it is in the middle of “upgrading its sales force” to make sure this happens.

Aside from trying to get existing (and previous) 500 owners to upgrade to the 500X, the baby off-roader is the best chance Fiat has had in a long time to pull in new buyers and re-boot its image. 

Fiat has been fading badly in the European car market since the Stilo failed and its Bravo replacement dwindled even further. The Punto is ageing and there’s no replacement in sight. Even production of the evergreen Panda has been recently been idled due to slow demand.

The Nissan Juke went quickly from zero to 120,000 or so annual sales, so why can’t Fiat fill a factory to capacity with the 500X and Renegade models? And, unlike price-driven supermini sales, there are also good showroom margins to be made on funky SUVs.

Until I saw the launch presentation, I had not realized that the 500X is almost certainly the Fiat brand’s last best chance to put itself back into contention with a younger generation. 

It’s a group of people who admire the current 500, love the original 500 and know nothing of Fiat’s patchy last two decades. Like Citroën’s C4 Cactus, the 500X is a clean slate and a new promise.