In the U.S., fighting the assumption that 'small' means 'feminine'

At the Los Angeles Auto Show, Fiat unveils the 500 Abarth, a "masculine" version of its diminutive subcompact. Can it win over male buyers?

The bigger the car, the more manly it is, the old adage goes.

It applies to almost every product out there, from electronics to furniture to restaurant-size ketchup bottles from a warehouse store. In America, size matters.

Here's the problem: size is expensive. In the case of the automobile, big vehicles often carry higher sticker prices, higher insurance premiums and larger gas receipts. And in a down economy, size is a luxury too few can truly afford.

Still, small cars continue to stall in the American market, especially among male buyers. Volkswagen recently redesigned its New Beetle with less rounded curves, a stronger engine and an all-black look that beckons to men who think the original was just too darn cute.

And now Fiat, the Italian automaker responsible for keeping Chrysler afloat, has introduced a version of its pint-size 500, the Abarth, that is "rare" and "unstoppable" (and yes, clad in black paint).

Like the Mini Cooper S before it, the $23,000 500 Abarth -- unveiled at the Los Angeles Auto Show this week -- intends to make an inline four-cylinder engine and 160 horsepower seem attractive. (Meanwhile, Chevrolet's Camaro exudes testosterone with anywhere from 323 to 580 horsepower and a wheelbase on which you could serve Thanksgiving dinner.)

We know that fast is really a matter of power and weight, but when your car looks like a full-size rocket, it's hard to suppress the assumption that it's faster. It certainly doesn't help that a ruby red and polished chrome Fiat 500 evokes less a Ferrari than a bauble on Jennifer Lopez's charm bracelet.

The stakes are high. Chief executive Sergio Marchionne announced this week that North American sales for the 500 failed to tally even half of company targets as rival models posted strong sales.

We all know deep down that men don't need to be faster, or darker, or any of these other gender-fueled product cliches -- they simply need to get from point A to point B without spending a fortune, and while looking good.

The Fiat 500 Abarth satisfies those first two requirements easily. Will male consumers be convinced of the third?

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