When the 2012 Fiat 500 went on sale last year, Chrysler Group predicted that the Italian mini car would be an instant hit. But Chrysler Group didn’t meet its 2011 sales goal of 50,000 units, selling only 19,769 models by the end of 2011. Chrysler Group hopes that the introduction of the performance-oriented Fiat 500 Abarth will appeal to a new audience.

“When we originally launched the car, a lot of our struggles came from the fact that we didn’t have a network,” says Matt Davis, head of FIAT product marketing. “We didn’t have enough outlets for people to go to, to buy cars. … Awareness is our biggest issue. People not knowing even to shop us.”

Davis says the 500 Abarth will allow FIAT to expand its consumer audience. “So, now when you see our advertising, you’ll have two distinct directions.” FIAT’s Jennifer Lopez commercial, for example, served as an awareness tool, but advertising for the 500 Abarth gained a different perspective by featuring supermodel Catrinel Menghia and actor Charlie Sheen. “And then we have an opportunity with the Abarth to be a little bit more edgy … really going after a different demographic, but having a little bit more fun in our advertising to expand that reach.”

Starting at $22,000, the 500 Abarth is $6,500 more than the base model. That price jump may put the 500 Abarth out of reach for some shoppers, and its performance slant, sport seats and lack of an automatic transmission may make it impractical for others. But Davis says the Abarth 500 has a niche in the market. “It’s like the Italian sports car for the everyday driver,” he says. “… it’s like the guy that wants 34 miles per gallon that wants to have fun on his daily commute. And at the same time, if he finds a track, he can take it there and let it rip.”

Car reviewers agree that the 500 Abarth’s turbocharged 160-horsepower 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine makes it particularly fun to drive, and that its engine is certainly more powerful than the base model’s 101-horsepower 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine.

The 500 Abarth’s price makes it competitive with the $23,800 Mini Cooper S and $24,000 MazdaSpeed3, but the 500 Abarth is significantly less powerful. The Cooper S has a turbocharged 181-horsepower 1.6-liter inline four-cylinder engine, while the larger MazdaSpeed3 has a heftier turbocharged 263-horsepower 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine.

Davis says Chrysler Group won’t release sales predictions for the 500 Abarth, but the 500 Abarth could help boost Fiat 500 sales. During the months of January and February 2012, dealers moved 5,138 Fiat 500s off their lots, which is more than the 4,500 base and S models of the Mini Cooper Hardtop and Convertible that were sold in that time frame. With FIAT’s new advertisements and the introduction the 500 Abarth, Fiat 500 sales could continue to improve.

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