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Dodge Brand President and CEO Reid Bigland introduces the 2013 Dodge Dart at the 2012 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. (Joe Wilssens/Chrysler)
Dodge Brand President and CEO Reid Bigland introduces the 2013 Dodge Dart at the 2012 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. (Joe Wilssens/Chrysler)

Brand Strategy

Chrysler's future rests on the Dart Add to ...

Three engines, three transmissions, 12 exterior colours, 14 interior colours and 113,000 different build configurations. Priceless? Not this new car.

The 2013 Dodge Dart, for all its complexity, will start at around $16,000 or less when it hits dealer showrooms later this year. And if you were looking for tangible evidence of the future of Chrysler Group products under Fiat ownership, look no further than this compact sedan.

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Squint hard at the bread-and-butter Dodge and you might even see what’s underneath: an enlarged version of the Alfa Romeo Giulietta. That’s good. The Giulietta is gorgeous and, while it would be a stretch to say the same of the reincarnation of the Dart, the newest and most important Dodge to date sits boldly, with a balanced stance and lovely details such as the Dodge Charger's “racetrack” taillight assembly and dual exhausts.

“We weren’t competing in this segment,” said Chrysler Canada CEO Reid Bigland, who is also head of the Dodge brand. “Now we will be competing in the most important segment of the market in Canada.”

The Dart is much more than four wheels and four doors in an affordable size, though. The Dart is a massive step forward for Chrysler: By announcing the Dart in Detroit at this year’s January auto show, Fiat’s stake in Chrysler automatically increased to 58.8 per cent.

And not long after showing the Dart for the first time, along came another indication of progress in the reinvention of Chrysler: after a net loss of $652-million (U.S.) last year, the Chrysler Group said its full-year 2011 net income improved to $183-million – that despite a $551 million loss on paying off debt.

Worldwide vehicle sales were up 22 per cent in 2011. Canadian sales were up 12.5 per cent and market share jumped to 14.5 per cent from 13.1 per cent. U.S. market share hit 10.5 per cent, from 9.2 per cent a year ago, driven by a 43 per cent increase in U.S. retail sales.

“It’s hard work, but these are exciting times at Chrysler,” says Bigland.

As Chrysler and Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne said in an e-mail to employees made public in The Detroit News, the company has “successfully changed the conversation from Chrysler's survival to products and services that consumers expect and want from a great American auto maker.”

He added, “What's past is prologue. The stage is set for another critical year in our drive to transform Chrysler.”

He also warned employees about the need to “understand that there is a great deal of work ahead of us. Our effort to create a viable global car company is still a work in progress, with most of the paint still on the palette.”

It would be fair to say that if the Dart succeeds, Chrysler succeeds. The newest small Dodge is a symphony of complexity in comparison to other new models from other auto makers. For instance, as The Wall Street Journal notes, Volkswagen’s planners worked hard to limit their new Passat to just 15 possible equipment configurations. When paint variations are multiplied in, the Passat increases to around 150 configurations.

Moreover, the new Passat is the product of one fully integrated brand, while the Dart is a blend of elements from Chrysler and its Fiat partner. Stylish as it may be, the Dart will be difficult to build and equally tricky to sell to consumers who generally want simplicity in their vehicles.

Consider the suite of three available engines, though all are small and efficient four-cylinders. A 1.4-litre, 160-hp turbocharged unit, for instance, that can be paired with a dual-clutch automatic transmission and two other gearboxes.

The Dart will also have some very fancy features, including a thin-film transistor (TFT) instrument display. This allows the driver to configure the graphics. The central console will have an oversize touch screen rife with apps and connectivity based on Chrysler's UConnect interface. And the Dart is big for its class, with a spacious cabin, thick-bolstered seats and LED lighting.

What Chrysler has on offer is an Italian-engineered, American-styled Dart. If you like metaphors, look for Chrysler and Fiat to become, in essence, the Dart. But this won’t be the current one-way street. Eventually, engineering and styling expertise will be going both ways across the Atlantic, once the two companies are fully unified. The Dart is the ideal car from the global car company Marchionne envisions.

For now, the Dart looks like a serious compact car, one capable of competing against big-volume contenders like the Toyota Corolla, Hyundai Elantra, Ford Focus, Kia Forte, Chevrolet Cruze and Honda Civic.

The Fiat-Chrysler merger looks very different from the last transatlantic union suffered by Chrysler, which saw Germany’s Daimler try to make sense of its takeover of Chrysler in the late 1990s and early 2000s. That so-called merger of equals was an unqualified disaster that ultimately obliterated some $40-billion in shareholder value and essentially drove Chrysler into bankruptcy.

“Daimler could never figure out what to do with Chrysler because they had no interest in integrating it into their business,” Jim Hall, managing director of the automotive consulting firm 2953 Analytics, told The Detroit Free Press, adding “This merger (of Chrysler and Fiat) is the closest thing to a truly symbiotic relationship that the industry has ever seen.”

More so perhaps than the Nissan-Renault Alliance formed back in 1999, in fact. To a large degree, Japan’s Nissan and France’s Renault operate as fairly independent car companies under one CEO, the always hyper-fuelled Carlos Ghosn. Bigland says Marchionne has plans to integrate Chrysler and Fiat and operate them as so-called “co-equals.”

“He’s a strong leader and works harder than anyone else in the company,” says Bigland of Marchionne, who is noteworthy for his apparent impatience with senior executives and his willingness to promote his management team from both the Fiat and Chrysler sides of the enterprise.

Marchionne also has a fondness for giving his leadership team multiple responsibilities. Bigland, for instance, not only is responsible for Canada, but also sales and service in the United States and the Dodge brand.

“We are making all the decisions together as one management team,” Marchionne told a media briefing in Detroit. “There is no question about who runs what. I run one company.”

The Dart is the grandest test yet of the progress Chrysler and Fiat are making towards integration. With the chassis and technology of Fiat’s Alfa Romeo and the design and product details developed in the U.S. at Chrysler’s Auburn Hill, Mich., headquarters, the Dart is one car with two national identities. More like it are coming.

At this year’s Detroit show, Maserati unwrapped the upcoming Kubang, a premium SUV based on Chrysler’s Jeep Grand Cherokee – a vehicle which ironically is based on a chassis developed by Daimler and now in use in the new Mercedes-Benz ML SUV. Look for the Kubang to be assembled alongside the Grand Cherokee in Detroit.

Eventually, analysts expect Fiat to take 100 per cent ownership of Chrysler. Bigland says at that point the two companies can be expected to function as an integrated organization, top to bottom.

The Dart is a vehicle Chrysler’s dealers have been crying for because it opens up the market for younger, first-time buyers. The Kubang, on the other hand, is a step towards turning Maserati into a higher-volume premium brand. Porsche made a similar move when it chose to go into the SUV business with the Cayenne, a vehicle that shares its platform with the Audi Q7 and the Volkswagen Touareg.

The speed of change at Chrysler really is astonishing, but no one, says Bigland, is running up the victory flag. Chrysler may have been the fastest-growing full-line auto maker in the United States in 2011 and the company’s products have clearly improved. Nonetheless, quality studies from J.D. Power and Associates and Consumer Reports suggest there is plenty of room for improvement on the “things-gone-wrong” front.

Which means at Chrysler, “we’re just putting our heads down and going to work,” not celebrating an impressive string of achievements in 2011, says Bigland.

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