Will new Dodge Dart put Chrysler in top gear?

The reinvention of the iconic car is the first creation with truly integrated Chrysler and Fiat technologies.

By InvestorPlace Jan 10, 2012 9:58AM
By Jeff Reeves

Chrysler was already sputtering when the financial crisis hit, and the Great Recession caused the automaker to break down entirely. Only a partnership forged with Italy's Fiat allowed the once-great automaker to survive bankruptcy in 2009.

Merging the car companies has been slow and sometimes painful for both sides. However, American motorists will have their first real chance to explore what the Chrysler-Fiat partnership can offer with a blast from the past: a sleek redesign of the iconic Dodge Dart compact.

It is the first true test of shared platforms and technology. But will it sell?

The reinvented Dart compact debuted at the Detroit auto show Monday. The model shares little with its predecessor from the 1960s and '70s aside from the name -- it is sleek, compact and fuel-efficient, with an estimated 40 mpg.

The popular nameplate will help connect with consumers, as will the Alfa Romeo frame that inspired the Dart and is expected to make the car a fun drive. It also helps that Chrysler has managed to push itself back into the marketplace with some force in 2011. Chrysler Group brands Jeep, Ram and Dodge managed to score a stunning 80% year-over-year sales gain in December. A refreshed Chrysler 300 helped lead that charge.

The balance sheet is coming together, too, with Chrysler raising its full-year fiscal 2011 forecasts after swinging to a profit in the third quarter. The company is poised to report its first annual profit since 1997 in the year ahead.

The harsh reality, however, is that the gains made by Chrysler group outside of the Chrysler 300 have come largely from traditional segments -- gas-guzzling SUVs and trucks. The corporation doesn't have a flashy electric vehicle like the Chevy Volt from General Motors (GM). It doesn't have a wildly popular hybrid like the Toyota (TM) Prius.

The fact is the Dart is a crucial test for Chrysler because without it, the company will remain an also-ran in the small-vehicle market, which represents about 15% of total domestic auto sales. Chrysler hasn't had a decent compact since the Dodge Neon, and the growth of the small-car segment amid higher gas prices and weak consumer spending means this is an opportunity that needs to be seized.

Case in point: Chrysler's current compact, the Caliber, sold only 35,000 last year, compared with sales of 240,000 for the Toyota Corolla. The Corolla and its twin the Matrix combined to come in No. 8 on the list of the 10 best-selling cars of 2011, too, proving that a dominant compact is a big mover.

Rivals like Honda (HMC) and its Civic also have a dominant position in the small-car market. Ford (F) has been turning heads with its own European-influenced compact, the Focus. And up-and-comers like Hyundai are making sturdy progress, with the Elantra recently earning North American car of the year.

Worse than those numbers is the fact that compacts are considered "starter cars" for many drivers. If young, first-time buyers have a good experience, they could stick with the brand for years.

Chrysler hopes that kind of brand loyalty will help give the Dart a leg up with the nostalgic nameplate. But a name can take the automaker only so far in a crowded market.

And let's not forget that brand power can swing both ways. If this initial brainchild of the Fiat-Chrysler partnership falls flat, it could sour drivers on future offerings from the company for some time.

Jeff Reeves is the editor of InvestorPlace.com. Write him at editor@investorplace.com, follow him on Twitter via @JeffReevesIP and become a fan of InvestorPlace on Facebook. Jeff Reeves holds a position in Alcoa, but no other publicly traded stocks.

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Jan 10, 2012 4:47PM
Here's a good idea!  How about a picture of what the car looks like??!! 
Jan 10, 2012 4:29PM
My first car was a 1965 dart that my grandfather gave me. It had a 225 slant six engine and a 3 speed on the column. I also own several model a fords. Why can't they build simple cars today that the average guy can work on?
Jan 10, 2012 5:15PM
Hey Jeff Reeves, How about a ****ing picture.

Who the hell are people hiring these days.

Jan 10, 2012 7:27PM
i had a 61 dart it ran great  slant 6 but the floor board rusted out bad,  if  a dodge dart is good enought for al bundy then  bring it back
Jan 10, 2012 11:26AM
Just another cheap front wheel drive compact car.  ZZzzzzzzzzz
Jan 10, 2012 5:34PM

I am a 100% pure Mopar guy but the original Darts did not look good enough or even have a look that if reproduced would be considered retro. The Dart was for the most part an economy car in its day. Some of them got performance motors in them but they were still an economy car.

No big deal calling the new car a Dart. I like it and will most likely sell off my 2011 Avenger to get one with the six speed manual. Had two Neons that I went well over 150,000 with and will be happy to do the same with a new Dart.

Jan 10, 2012 5:49PM
My first new car was a 1963 Dodge Dart 170 two door coupe with a 170 slant six and a 3 speed stick  I have to say it was one of the best car I had I put 172,000 miles on it when I sold it and it was still running 3 years later so I do not know how many miles the car ended up having on the car.  The only major thing I done to car while I had it was put in a clutch. 
Jan 10, 2012 6:49PM
There is one Dart model that definitely was not a chic car, one year only in '69, Dodge offered the 440 as an engine option.  Car weighed probably 2700 lbs or so, had thin bias-ply tires, drum brakes all around, 440 4-barrel  under the hood, what a gas it must have been to drive that thing
Jan 10, 2012 5:20PM

The original dart was intended to be an entry level vehicle. That's what this new car is supposed to be. I'd say they're both very good at serving their intended purpose. After reading some of the comments I think people overlooking this and are expecting too much. It starts at around $15,500. Don't expect performance and luxury of a $38,000 car. I would say it's competition would be Focus, Fiesta, Cruze, Sonic, and those dumb imports from Kia, Hyundai, etc.

Buy American

Jan 10, 2012 6:16PM

The slant 6 was a great motor and very fuel efficient.

Jan 10, 2012 6:55PM
almost any car can get a million miles today, if your smart enough to take care of it, will say I like ford trucks, even have a ford taurus with 250,000 plus miles (and runs great) but have seen other vehicles do just as well. Heck had a chevy chevette that got nearly 500,000 and was running great when it got t-boned. Still started at the junk yard. Good luck with what ever care you drive, seen all on the side of the road, lol. peace out
Jan 10, 2012 6:13PM

My mom had a 63 Dodge Dart.  She took my brother and I on our first camping trip to Yosemite Nat'l Park in 1965.  My mom knew nothing about camping, but she threw everything she thought we may need into the trunk of the the Dart; including the electric skillet!  Who would think the Housekeeping Tents at Yosemite would not have electricity Disappointed

It was a great car!  Lot's of good memories.  Who needs a muscle car?  We had the 57 Chevy for that! 

Jan 10, 2012 4:07PM
Doge dart is one car that can never come back...my family had a 68 dart when I was 14 and wish i had that car today...sorry you can bring back the name but you can never bring back the car
Jan 10, 2012 4:51PM

My first new car was a 1969 Dart Swinger;  deep mettalic green, black vinyl top, black "Bumblebee" stripe around the trunk,  wide oval tires (that the power plant would smoke through the 1st 2 gears), rolled & pleated interior. Under the hood was a 340cu. in. V-8 (4-barrel carb) coupled to a torqueflight auto trans.


It looked sharp and ran like a "bat outa' he*****"


I don't hink a Fiat cop-out will measure up to this.



Jan 10, 2012 5:54PM
Oh my god I owned a 72 Plymouth Valiant with the slant 6. Never left me stranded. However the fuel guage, lights, heater and you name it did not work. I once ran out of gas and walked into an old Barn and actually stole a home owners gas tank to get me home. Always felt very guilty over that. Hell I was only 19 then.
Jan 10, 2012 5:33PM

Old Darts are neat.  That said,


@rrrracing The 2004-2006 GTO(Monaro) was not supposed to bring back the look of it's namesake just as the original Pontiac GTO looked nothing like the "real" GTO (Ferrari).


-Biased 2006 Torrid Red GTO owner with a little bottle in the trunk for the strip.

Jan 10, 2012 3:27PM
A return in name only, they could just as well call it Duster, Newport, or Fifth Avenue. This offering does nothing - visually at least - to distingui****elf from anything else out there.
Jan 10, 2012 4:16PM
Well even though things "look different" than they used to.  Doesn't always mean that makes them worse.  Today we enjoy so much from a automobile enthusiast POV.  Better tires, better brakes, smaller, lighter more efficient engines, suspension, handling... the list goes on and on.  Of all the retro cars that have return I personally like the looks of the mustang the best.  Camaro's and Challengers are nice but seem too bulky and overbearing.  I'm keeping an open mind on the Dart for now until I can see one in person.  Picures are worth 1000 words, but nothing like seeing in person at least for me that is.
Jan 10, 2012 5:28PM
Buy American - are not the Hyundai, Kia, Honda, Toyota...etc, etc, etc, all being made somewhere in the USA now?  Just sayin!
Jan 10, 2012 5:25PM
OK it's the Dodge Dart in name only, so if you want Mopar muscle, get a Charger or Challenger.  I'm looking forward to a sporty little coupe w/ 40mpg.
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