CHICAGO – Jennifer Lopez served a useful purpose: She drew women to the Fiat 500.

Most people probably thought the pop star was recruited for the Fiat ads to attract men. Not so, says Olivier Francois, head of the Fiat brand and chief marketing officer for Fiat for Chrysler Group.

“Jennifer was for feminine buyers. Abarth is the attraction for masculine buyers,” he says.

The Abarth is a new high-performance version of the mini Fiat 500 that made its U.S. debut late last year in Los Angeles and is on display here at the Chicago Auto Show, where Francois met with the media.

“Abarth gives us a spirited, fun-to-drive car with a more masculine image as the way to sell to more men,” he says in an interview.

The Fiat 500 is targeted against the BMW Mini, not Daimler’s Smart, Francois says. While sales only slightly exceeded 19,000 units in 2011, “We still sold about as many cars as Mini, even though sales started in April,” the executive says.

Total Mini sales reached more than 40,000 units last year, according to WardsAuto data, more than twice the 500 volume, but that included nearly 17,000 of the larger Countryman model.

“In January of this year, we sold 1,500 hatchbacks and 400 convertibles, while Mini sold 1,400 hatchbacks and 200 convertibles,” Francois adds. “So we outsold them.”

The goal for 2012 is 25,000-30,000 cars. Sales are expected to get a boost from an increase in dealer count, as Fiat goes from the current 138 stores to 200 by year’s end.

“We need to expand awareness,” Francois says. “Our Super Bowl ad helped do that and was our best investment ever. Fiat inquiries increased by 203%.”