The cars we loved.
In my lifetime I remember many of the small cars from Chrysler as being initially interesting but ultimately forgettable with poor build quality and cheesy ergonomics. It’s never been for a lack of personality. For instance while the Omini, Shadow or Neon had their performance variants that offered class beating performance, they were never the poster cars for precision or high resale values.
The Neon started out with a bang, but like most Chrysler products, fizzed out well after its expiration date. Then there was the Caliber, an even more forgettable ‘small’ Dodge. After being rescued once again, Fiat offered some promise when the time came to replace the Neon based Caliber.
It started out as a potentially class leading recipe: take an enlarged Alfa Romeo Giulietta chassis and let Dodge’s talented design team make it theirs. The result was the Dart. In bringing back a classic MOPAR name and quite possible the only universally liked small car Dodge made, Fiat was hoping that Americans would forget about the more recent misses its new partner had.
The Dart was a fresh design that had the basic proportions of the old Neon, but with new design cues Dodge had been introduced and refined on its performance cars like the cross hair grille and racetrack LED tail lights. Its easily the best small Dodge branded car since well the original Darts of the ’60s and ’70s. It looks great next to slightly smaller plain looking compacts like the Chevy Cruz and Subaru Impreza also.
The Dart was an attractive enough proposition with two basic models (SE or SXT) with 1.4, 2.0 and 2.4L versions of Fiats MultiAir four cylinder engine. Turbocharged versions of the 1.4 (the same one in the Fiat 500 Abath) could get as much as 38 mpg while producing 184hp. The other normally aspirated engines with around 160 hp could reach the magical 40 mpg mark. All Darts used a 6 speed auto or manual transmission. Many competitors were slowly switching to 6 speed automatic, but the Dart went a step further using a sophisticated dual clutch system.
High efficiency and power was not the Dart’s only trump card. Its interior showed considerable attention to detail with soft touch surfaces with multi color treatments. In addition to stitched leather seats and steering wheels, the Dart employed a considerable amount of technology including user configurable dash readouts.
Despite all the tech and favorite stats like 8.2 sec 0 to 60 times for the 160 hp cars, the Dart was already behind the pack in refinement and driver feel. Its rack and pinion steering lacked road feel while the manual transmission was clunky, hampering performance of the turbo versions of the car.
If this was not bad enough the Dart was marketed heavily along the lines of a performance car, after all it had some Italian heritage. The then also new Ford Focus beat the Dart in a Car and Driver comparo and would repeat the feat in sales numbers. Although the Dart is actually a mid-size car, it has already been eclipse by slightly smaller rivals like the Mazda3, VW Golf and an presumably a to be refreshed Focus.
As raw performance goes, the Dart tops the re-freshened Corolla and struggles against the less powerful Chevy Cruze on things like highway ride quality. In all, Chrysler’s smallest car has rated low (at or near the bottom) on many auto comparisons. This makes it tough for the Caliber when dealing with people who buy based on Consumer Reports instead of Car and Driver. In a world where even the Toyota Corolla looks exciting, the Dart might be a tough sell on the surface.
Is Chrysler doomed where small cars are concerned? Should its image of big V8 rear wheel drive muscle car maker include something like the Dart? Despite its attractive looks and considerable technology, Dart sales are almost as low as its Consumer Reports rankings . Whatever is a small car enthusiast to do?
Whatever ails the Dart is in my opinion not as bad as the issues Honda was experienceing with its Civic a few years back. Unfortunatly the Civic set the bar so high, that when it came down to say Nissan Sentra fit and finish status, buyers noticed and Honda quickly tried to make it right with two redesigns in four years. The Dart won’t need a drastic redesign, but more attention to driving dynamics and a more obvious Italian linkage might go a long way to making us forget the unfortunate versions of the Caliper, Neon, Shadow and Omini. Apparently looks really aren’t everything.