Do We Need Another Fiat 500?

The Fiat 500 got off to a tepid start in the U.S. thanks to a misdirected ad campaign and lack of positive brand recognition, coupled with a slowly building dealer network. How does Chrysler's Italian brand plan to change that? One way is by offering the 500 in a variety of flavors besides the original two-door and convertible, including a Gucci limited edition for the ladies and the newest trim, the aggressive, sporty Abarth.

If the original has yet to catch on with American buyers, are we ready for another variant? The amped-up Abarth version should inject a little pep in the 500's step — literally. The high-performance version of Fiat's minicar trades the regular 101-horsepower, 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine for a 160-hp, turbocharged four-cylinder. Other Abarth upgrades include track-tuned suspension and brakes, dual exhaust, 16-inch aluminum wheels and specific exterior styling cues. A base 500 starts at $15,000, the Abarth at $22,000.

The brand's original marketing chief Laura Soave was ousted last year and replaced by Chrysler veteran Tim Kuniskis. According to Kuniskis, the 500 Abarth has "the right amount of wrong," which should appeal to enthusiast shoppers looking for an affordable car with spunky looks and the powertrain to back them up.

Kuniskis says the 500, including the Abarth model, is a hit in Europe and a small affordable car with personality can find success in the U.S., too. According to Kuniskis, more than 800,000 500s have been sold overseas. "We think the success in Europe can be duplicated here."

He lists several factors that could make the 500 appealing to Americans such as escalating gas prices, which casts smaller, more fuel-efficient cars in a better light. The regular 500 gets 30/38 mpg city/highway, and the Abarth version gets 28/34 mpg. Fiat's popular ad campaign should help, too: After overcoming the foibles of the early Jennifer Lopez ads, Fiat is finding success with its TV spots like the one from the Super Bowl and a new one staring bad-boy actor Charlie Sheen.

Kuniskis notes there are signs that the brand's momentum is building. The 500 has more than 500,000 Facebook fans, but actual consumers are starting to warm to the car, too. The $23,500 Gucci version sold out quickly, and more than 130,000 people spent the time to take a seat in a 500 at the 2012 Chicago Auto Show.

The challenge, Kuniskis says, will be funneling that interest into actual sales. But if Fiat is having trouble selling the $15,000 base 500, why will it be any easier with the $22,000 Abarth model?

Kuniskis says the Abarth "offers the perfect combination of emotional and rational." He claims it's the least expensive, highest horsepower, highest mpg car you can buy today. We're checking the math on that.

As a bonus: Fiat will even teach you how to drive it. Built into the 500 Abarth's price is a day of driver training from Richard Petty Driving Experience instructors.

The 500 Abarth is on sale now in select markets, so we'll soon see if the marketing promise translates to real buyers.

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