Dodge Dart to join compact car race


The 2013 Dodge Dart is nothing like its predecessor from the 1960s and ‘70s. But Chrysler is counting on the Dart, and its zippy name, to help it sell more small cars and continue its recent revival. (The Associated Press)

Published: Thursday, January 12, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 11, 2012 at 2:29 p.m.

Detroit

If the new Dodge Dart sells anything like the original, Chrysler will have the small-car hit it needs.

The reinvented compact, unveiled at the Detroit auto show Monday, is nothing like its predecessor from the 1960s and ‘70s. But Chrysler is counting on the Dart, and its zippy name, to help it sell more small cars and continue its recent revival.

Instead of the somewhat boxy lines of the original, the new Dart has the sleek stance of a modern muscle-car, with a short hood, long roof and slightly flared fenders. And it's based on the frame and suspension of a crisp-handling Alfa Romeo hatchback brought over by Chrysler's Italian owner, Fiat SpA.

The Dart also is a crucial test of the Chrysler-Fiat alliance, one aimed at saving millions of dollars by reusing Fiat frames, engines and technology, yet giving them an American style with more space for people and gear. The Dart is the first Chrysler designed jointly by the companies.

Chrysler, which ran out of cash and had to be bailed out by the government in 2009, saw sales jump 26 percent last year, and it's poised to turn its first annual profit since 1997.

Now the automaker needs a breakthrough in the growing small-car market, where it hasn't had success since the bug-eyed Dodge Neon in the mid-1990s. After nearly failing, Chrysler also realizes it must end its dependence on inefficient SUVs and pickups.

Since the Neon, few have considered Chrysler compacts, keeping the company out of a market that has grown to about 15 percent of U.S. auto sales.

Forty years ago, it was a different story. Back then, Dodge Darts were everywhere. Middle-class Americans bought nearly 3.3 million between 1960 and 1976, when Chrysler offered versions for every lifestyle: the stripped-down commuter car, convertibles, the family station wagon, and street racers like the Dart Swinger, which came with a racing stripe, hood scoops and a 340-cubic-inch V-8 engine. Sales peaked in 1974 at more than 340,000 when gasoline was a little over 50 cents per gallon and President Richard Nixon resigned during the Watergate scandal.

Chrysler would kill for those sales today. Its current small-car offering, the Caliber, sold only 35,000 last year, a fraction of the class-leading Toyota Corolla at 240,000.

Some versions of the Dart will get 40 miles per gallon on the highway. Its starting price is $15,995, at least $500 below its closest competitors, the Ford Focus and Chevrolet Cruze. The Focus starts at $16,500, while the Cruze base price is $16,720. The Toyota Corolla, the sales leader in compacts, starts at $15,900.

Bigland says Chrysler wanted to make sure it beat the competition on the basic reasons why people buy small cars — price, fuel economy and reliability.

Car of year

The Hyundai Elantra edged out the Ford Focus and Volkwagen Passat Monday to win the 2012 North American Car of the Year award.

The prestigious industry award was announced at the start of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, which hosts media previews this week and opens to the public on Saturday.

The Land Rover Range Rover Evoque won the North American Truck of the Year, beating the BMW X3 and Honda CR-V. The Evoque, which starts at $43,995, gets an estimated 18 miles per gallon in city driving and 28 mpg on the highway.

Jaguar Land Rover North America President Andy Goss said it's a tremendous honor and humbling for the company, which has had had finalists but never a winner in the 19th annual independent awards program.

John Krafcik, Hyundai's North American CEO, said the award won't help the compact's sales much because the company already is selling as many Elantras as it can make at its factory in Montgomery, Ala. But the award should help solidify the brand's image in the eyes of the American public, especially in the highly competitive compact car segment.

"It should be helpful for our brand going forward," he said.

The Elantra, which starts at $16,445, gets an estimated 33 mpg. Hyundai sold more than 186,000 Elantras last year, nearly a 41 percent increase over 2010 figures.

New Cadillac

With the Cadillac ATS, General Motors is trying to break into the market for small luxury sport sedans now dominated by BMW's 3-Series.

The ATS, unveiled Sunday, a day ahead of the North American International Auto Show press days in Detroit, was designed to be among the lightest cars in its class.

If Cadillac can gain a foothold in the segment, it will be highly lucrative for GM. Cadillac currently doesn't have a car that can compete with the 3-Series.

The company says the rear-wheel drive ATS will be quick and nimble, with a sophisticated suspension and the latest in electronic touch-screen technology. It's designed to be quick and nimble.

Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.

▲ Return to Top