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Published: 1/10/2012 - Updated: 2 years ago

Chrysler looks to accelerate small car market with Dart

2012 North American International auto show

BY TYREL LINKHORN
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER
Dodge brand chief Reid Bigland introduces the 2013 Dodge Dart at the 2012 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. The Dart gives Dodge its first compact sedan since the Neon. Dodge brand chief Reid Bigland introduces the 2013 Dodge Dart at the 2012 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. The Dart gives Dodge its first compact sedan since the Neon.
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DETROIT -- Chrysler Group LLC sold its most cars since 2007, gained more market share than any other automaker, and hurdled over Honda to become the fourth-largest selling car company in the United States last year -- and it did it all without a compact sedan.

With Monday's introduction of the 2013 Dodge Dart at the 2012 North American International Auto Show, the emboldened automaker is getting back into the small-car business in a way company officials say will be innovative and impressive.

New car roll-outs certainly are no time to be modest, and Chrysler officials weren't, with Dodge brand chief Reid Bigland telling a crowd of reporters that the Dart "will shatter consumers' perceptions" of the capability of compact cars.

PHOTO GALLERY: Dodge Dart

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The car, which will go on sale in the second quarter of this year as a 2013 model, will start at $15,995. That's several hundred dollars less than the base price on the comparable Chevrolet Cruze and Ford Focus.

Built on architecture borrowed from Fiat, the Dart will thrust Chrysler into a highly competitive segment that makes up 15 percent of new car sales in the United States.

"Price, fuel economy, and reliability are no longer differentiating features in the compact car market," Mr. Bigland said.

"We wanted to do more," he continued. "We wanted to bring features that have never existed in this category and give consumers options they've never seen before."

As such, officials are positioning the car as technologically packed, fun to drive, and highly customizable.

The car stays true to the styling and attitude Dodge has brought to the market in the last couple of years. The car's sloped belt line -- the line just under the side windows of a car -- gives it the appearance of a nose-down aggressive stance, and it borrows some styling cues such as the wrap-around tail lights from its full-size stablemate Dodge Charger.

Under the hood will be one of three Dundee, Mich.,-built engines. Buyers can opt for a 160-horsepower 2.0-liter, a 1.4-liter turbo that also makes 160 horsepower but cranks out 184-pound-foot of torque, or a 184-horsepower 2.4-liter.

Additional features include dual exhaust, 10 airbags, blind-spot monitoring, 8.4-inch multimedia center display, and a back-up camera.

The Dart fills what was perhaps Chrysler's biggest void. In a lineup flush with recent redesigns, Chrysler Group hasn't had a compact sedan since the Dodge Neon.

"That's a pretty big chunk of the marketplace that we were effectively not competing in," Mr. Bigland said. The company's only other small car being sold domestically is the very small and underperforming Fiat 500, which sold fewer than 20,000 models last year.

Dodge didn't give a sales forecast, but dealers say there's definitely a market for a compact car.

"You look at that segment and how big it is and not to be in it, that's only been a competitive disadvantage for Chrysler. They've got big goals they're seeking to do with that car," said Doug Kearns, general manager of Yark Automotive Group, which includes a Dodge franchise.

Mr. Kearns said Chrysler has been guarded even with dealers on its sales expectations and the date when cars will begin arriving on lots. He expects those details to be released in the coming weeks.

The success of the new Chrysler 200, which replaced the aging Sebring in the midsize class, makes Mr. Kearns optimistic for the Dart.

"I'm really encouraged, and I think it's going to give us a great vehicle in that segment to be competitive with," he said.

The Dart was the only Chrysler rollout Monday, and the company spent most of its news conference detailing the model. But for an automaker that many didn't think would survive at all a few years ago, there also was a bit of reflection. "We've been through hell, and we're not looking to go back," Mr. Bigland told the audience.

Contact Tyrel Linkhorn at: tlinkhorn@theblade.com or 419-724-6134.



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