Dodge Dart’s death follows a short life – USA TODAY
What went wrong with the Dodge Dart?
Born with fanfare and optimism in June 2012, the compact sedan will die this month in virtual anonymity, a failure that never came close to meeting Fiat Chrysler’s expectations.
The Dart was supposed to signal a fresh start for Fiat Chrysler, the newly created automaker risen from the rubble of the Great Recession. Fiat Chrysler promised a new kind of small car that combined American design, comfort and technology with Italian flair, sportiness and fuel economy. The automaker touted it as using a modified Alfa Romeo architecture developed to underpin a family of vehicles that would take Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep to new heights.
Less than four and a half years later, the Dart is a footnote. Few people other than Dodge dealers are likely to notice when production ends this month.
Developed to compete with cars that regularly sell 200,000 to 300,000 units a year like the Chevrolet Cruze, Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra and Toyota Corolla, the Dart managed just 87,392 sales in its best year, 2015.
The Dart was the wrong car, at the wrong time, from the wrong brand. It launched into headwinds that would slow a great car, and the Dart was far from great.
It was good, however. Much better than the inept Dodge Caliber that preceded it. The Dart had appealing looks, a roomy interior, fine handling and a very good navigation and voice-recognition system.
I’ve driven Darts thousands of satisfying miles, but there was never a moment when the Dodge declared itself to be the best car in its class. It was not the clear leader in any area that drives customer demand.
“People don’t have a history of going to Dodge dealerships for small cars,” Edmunds senior analyst Jessica Caldwell says. “The Dart had no built-in customer base.”
Fiat Chrysler made it easy for customers to ignore the Dart, launching the car with ho-hum fuel economy and performance. Even in an era of low gasoline prices, claiming the best fuel economy generates headlines and gets buyers’ attention.
“The Dart felt a little rushed,” IHS Automotive senior analyst Stephanie Brinley says. That’s at least, in part, because Fiat’s deal to acquire Chrysler during the recession included a pledge to build a car that got 40 mpg on the highway. Once it did, the UAW’s health care trust would hand over 5% of Chrysler’s stock to FCA, smoothing the ground for a stock offering and other changes CEO Sergio Marchionne planned.
“Getting the Dart done became more important than getting it right,” Brinley says.
Fiat’s desire for control of Chrysler collided with delays to a nine-speed automatic transmission the company wanted to use in the Dart, Larry Vellequette reports in Automotive News. The gearbox would have improved the Dart’s fuel economy and performance, but it wasn’t ready. Chrysler and supplier ZF were still having difficulties with the nine-speed 18 months later, when it finally went into production on the Jeep Cherokee.
Rather than delay the Dart, Fiat Chrysler hamstrung its new car with suboptimal gearboxes. For the first several months, the Dart was only available with a manual transmission — a disaster in the U.S., where automatics account for more than 90% of sales. When the automatics arrived, they were a Hyundai-built six-speed and a Fiat six-speed that used dual-clutch technology Americans generally dislike.
The transmission dilemma exacerbated the fact that the Dart’s engine lineup consisted mostly of mediocre power plants developed on a shoestring by DaimlerChrysler.
“Compact cars are a hypercompetitive market segment,” Brinley said. “You can’t launch an average vehicle and succeed.”
What does the Dart’s failure say about Fiat Chrysler’s future? Not much.
“It’s becoming increasingly clear Fiat Chrysler was smart to pull the plug,” Autotrader senior analyst Michelle Krebs says. “Buyers’ shift from cars to SUVs exacerbated the car’s challenges.”
Dropping the Dart frees Fiat Chrysler to concentrate on more popular and profitable vehicles.
“The biggest issue was the shift in market dynamics to trucks,” Caldwell says. “The Dart came along at the wrong time.”
Ending production should even be good news for the people who built it. The Belvidere, Ill., plant will convert to production of the hot-selling Jeep Cherokee. Expect it to build more than three times as many Cherokees annually as Darts.
“The plant will make much more money building the Cherokee,” Brinley said. “Still, it’s fairly brave to let the Dart go. Corporate pride doesn’t like to admit defeat.”
There’s no denying, though, that Fiat Chrysler committed the cardinal sin for an automaker: It began selling a car it knew, or should have known, was not ready.
In a presentation called “Confessions of a capital junkie” last year, Marchionne said the auto industry needs to consolidate because it wastes huge amounts of capital developing new vehicles.
Perhaps that’s true of the whole industry. There’s no question Fiat Chrysler did it with the Dart.