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2013 Dodge Dart (Chrysler/Chrysler)
2013 Dodge Dart (Chrysler/Chrysler)

The Chrysler turnaround

Chrysler and Fiat: the odd couple triumphs Add to ...

Before I had even planted my backside in the well-stuffed bucket seat of the 2013 Dodge Dart, I was thinking of miracles.

Not that the Dart is a miracle of a compact car in and of itself. But in the bigger picture, it's nothing short of a small miracle that this car is showroom-ready here in the middle of 2012. Let me count the ways.

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First, it's a miracle Chrysler exists at all. There was that little bankruptcy thing that happened three years ago – the one that was aided by the government loans since repaid. That's right; unlike with General Motors, the taxpayer is no longer on the hook for Chrysler in any way. But back in the summer of 2009, the smart money was saying Chrysler would not last the year and the company surely would not see the end of the Great Recession even if the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Dalai Lama and the Pope intervened.

Second, it's a larger miracle still that the Chrysler people at the company's Auburn Hills, Mich., headquarters have managed to make the marriage with Fiat SpA of Italy work. And vice-versa. A Middle American car company in league with a Northern Italian auto maker? So far, at least, it's working. Fiat now controls almost 58.5 per cent of Chrysler and is well under way in the plan to fully integrate the two companies into a single entity with global sales in the five-million-plus range.

In all this, let us not forget the mess made by the last two Chrysler owners. The vulture capitalists from Cerberus Capital were expert at careless and wicked cost-cutting, trying in their minds to put lipstick on what they thought was a pig, so that it would fetch a profitable price. Their actions screamed of a desire to bail from the car business as quickly as possible.

Cerberus inherited Chrysler from Daimler AG, the former Daimler-Benz that morphed into DaimlerChrysler and, before the story was finished, some $40-billion (U.S.) in shareholder value had been vaporized. The problem? There were many. According to those I know within Chrysler, the biggest of them was that the German owners refused to integrate their hometown operations with the Americans. The Germans owners had their toys and their games and they refused to share with what they saw as their wards in Auburn Hills. When Daimler sold out to Cerberus, everyone with eyes could see that Chrysler had been starved for investment and know-how.

The miracle today is that Fiat is rapidly becoming fully integrated with Chrysler. The Dart is proof. Under the Dart's skin, or “Top Hat” as they say in the business, are the basics of the Alfa Romeo Giulietta. From the modular architecture of the Alfa, the Chrysler people made the car their own by lengthening and widening the Giulietta. The idea: retain the road-holding agility of the Italian car while also making the Dart big enough to satisfy wide-body North Americans who equate size with value – and do all of it while making a tidy profit.

Ah, profits. Another miracle. Last week, Chrysler said its net income in the first quarter more than quadrupled to $473-million (U.S.). Operating profit was up to $740-million (U.S.), revenue was up 25 per cent, debt was down by the billions, sales were up 25 per cent worldwide and market share in Canada was up to 15.1 per cent and 11.2 per cent in the United States. An improbable business and consumer products story is starting to take shape here.

Sergio Marchionne, CEO of both Chrysler and Fiat, said in the results release, “We continue to deliver on the targets in our five-year plan and are now focused on successfully launching the Dodge Dart, a car that is a true melding of Chrysler's and Fiat's engineering and styling strengths.”

In an interview with Automotive News, he added, “The geometry of that car [the Dart]is the best I've ever seen. The quality level is on par or even better than we've done with the Jeep Grand Cherokee.”

The Grand Cherokee is what Chrysler people point to when the quality question comes up. True, the latest reliability report from Consumer Reports ranked Chrysler No. 13, but as The New York Times reported, Chrysler's scoring was dragged down by weaker offerings like the Dodge Avenger and Jeep Compass. Even at that, Chrysler's score jumped by eight points – a leap so large is was second only to Mazda among all auto companies – thanks to new and redesigned vehicles.

“What they've introduced new – the [Chrysler]300, [Dodge]Charger, [Dodge] Durango and Grand Cherokee – all have been impressive,” CR's auto testing director David Champion told the Times.

The Dart needs to be even more impressive. Chrysler, of course, hasn't had a true compact car since the old Neon went away in 2005. Yes, the Caliber hatchback filled a compact niche, but it was a done-on-the-cheap four-door hatch that embarrasses the Chrysler people still at the auto maker today.

The Dart arriving in showrooms in June at a base price of $17,495, shipping included, is a critical measure of how far Chrysler and Fiat have come, and so fast. It is a triumph and, if it sells, will be a miracle. Ironically, this represents the miracle that for the time being is expected to help prop up Fiat. How far and how fast fortunes can change.

jcato@globeandmail.com

  • Check out Jeremy Cato's review of the Dodge Dart here: 2013 Dodge Dart on target to succeed
  • And don't miss our picture gallery: In pictures: The 2013 Dodge Dart

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