SANTA MONICA, CA – Looking to broaden its customer base, Fiat plans to add an automatic transmission to its high-performance 500 Abarth models, which traditionally have used manual gearboxes.

Males make up 80% of Abarth hatchback buyers, Tim Kuniskis, the brand’s North American president, tells WardsAuto on the sidelines of a media launch here. But in the coming weeks, the Fiat 500 Abarth Cabrio, unveiled at the Los Angeles auto show last year, arrives at dealers, and “I think (with) Cabrio, maybe we’ll get a couple more women,” he says.

“I don’t think it will change radically,” Kuniskis says of the demographic mix. “I think when we’ll see more women is when we have the automatic, and we’re planning to add the automatic in the Abarth at some point, only because we’re getting that feedback from customers.”

The 500 in North America is offered with a variety of packages and powertrain options, ranging from a forthcoming battery-electric model to stylish, Gucci-trimmed versions. A Turbo model was added last year for those aspiring to own an Abarth.

However, Abarth marketing has been especially male-driven, with sexy models and actor Charlie Sheen appearing in some advertising campaigns.

Fiat has been selling all 500s at a steady clip in the U.S., with more than 3,000 units monthly. First-quarter deliveries hit 9,612, according to WardsAuto data.

The Abarth is finding itself in an increasingly heated race among so-called “hot hatches,” which include the Ford Focus ST, Chevrolet Sonic RS and, soon, the Ford Fiesta ST.

While the Abarth’s popularity grows, Fiat continues to steadily increase sales of its non-performance 500 models built on the momentum generated when the auto maker featured actress Jennifer Lopez in its TV advertising.

“Everybody knows J.Lo,” Kuniskis says. “She absolutely put us on the map.”

Kuniskis says about 75% of small-car buyers in Europe are women, compared with 45% in the U.S. He credits that near-even split to the male-dominated Abarth, which is why he initially was taken aback by the idea of adding an automatic transmission.

“We’re not opposed to doing it. We just didn’t think there would be consumer requests for it, and there is.”

Fiat dealers in coming months will receive the longer-wheelbase 500L to add to the model mix, but it’s not likely to offer the choice of trims and engine options as does the Abarth, Kuniskis says.

“We’ll see what the consumer reaction is for something like that. It’s a different car; 5-passenger, 5-seat. The standard engine is already the Abarth engine, the 1.4 Multi-Air Turbo. So it’s quite a bit of performance.”

Kuniskis says there’s also been a notable uptick in aftermarket parts added to Abarth models, noting some customers may opt for parts from both the Fiat and Chrysler Mopar brands.

But there remains a clear difference between the two, he says. Bike and luggage racks come from Mopar, but “if you buy a performance part, it’s an Abarth part.”

afoley@wardsauto.com