Chrysler’s chief of marketing and global head of Fiat is on a first-name basis with some of pop music’s heaviest hitters, many of whom have been key to boosting the brands’ recognition in the U.S.

To the automotive enthusiast, the Fiat 500 subcompact offers not only a strong array of fuel-saving powertrains but also an exciting driving experience. But for the average driver, the 500 was the backdrop for a Hollywood star’s viral music video. Like it or hate it, pop culture has been a pillar of Fiat’s success in America.

“There’s been a very cool buzz,” Francois tells reporters after unveiling the electrified 500e, 500 Abarth cabrio and 500L models at the show here. “It has been an amazing year starting from nowhere. We had no car parts, no brand awareness, almost no dealers, and one year later, we have a real awareness. People know about us. We have a good image.”

As important as fuel-economy numbers are, equally impressive is Fiat’s Beats audio system developed by rapper Dr. Dre and Interscope Records President Jimmy Iovine, who discovered the likes of Eminem and 50 Cent and serves as an occasional mentor on “American Idol.”

Francois, who is credited with landing Eminem for the Chrysler brand’s acclaimed “Imported From Detroit” campaign, says partnerships with Iovine’s record company and those of others with have raised Fiat’s profile.

The 500 Abarth cabrio landed placement in a music video by Owl City and Carly Rae Jepsen, the ubiquitous “Call Me Maybe” singer. Francois ticks off YouTube stats: more than 60 million views of the Jepsen video, another 60 million views of a Jennifer Lopez video and more than 6 million views of a Charlie Sheen commercial.

“It’s a fashionable car that is sold at a premium price,” he says. “It’s all about a blend of traditional TV advertising but with a strong, impactful message. It was a gamble with a small car like this in the land of the big. It’s not just a car, it’s a desirable object.”

For the 500e, Francois is about to launch what he calls an “environmentally sexy” campaign with the tagline, “Stop global warming, start global hotness.”

In a soon-to-be-released TV and online ad, a couple is shown test-driving a 500e through a desert. They reach high speeds, emphasizing that performance isn’t sacrificed in the EV, then skid off the track and come to a stop, where the pair later is found getting frisky in the front seat.

Sex appeal has been key to Fiat’s marketing. Catrinel Menghia, the leggy model in the brand’s Abarth commercials, was in the audience for the presentation.

But somewhat echoing CEO Sergio Marchionne’s complaint that auto makers can’t make a profit on EVs, Francois admits the 500e will be a tough sell.

“Let’s face it, electric cars are expensive,” he says. “Ours will be priced right in the common market. We’ll have a very competitive price, but it will still cost more than a gasoline-powered car. Will it get traction and become a best-seller? I don’t think so – even in California.”

The 500e goes on sale in California in April, and pricing will be announced in the weeks beforehand.

Francois is mum on which Alfa Romeos and additional Fiat cars might be coming to the U.S. down the road. Many of the auto maker’s 186 dealers have been expanding in anticipation of the release of at least one Alfa Romeo model. But he says he is pleased with the rapid growth of Fiat’s U.S. dealer network.

“I think we are going to be stable at around 200 (dealers),” Francois says. “Other cars are coming, and in a couple years we’ll have a range of great Fiats.”

afoley@wardsauto.com