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After seven years without a serious contender in the compact class, Dodge comes back and with a clear mission.
Sergio Marchionne's efforts to revive the fortunes of Fiat Group brands and those of Chrysler Group brought us so far a mishmash of cars. It started off with badge engineering as Chryslers were rebadged as Lancias in order to save the Italian marque. That is an old industry trick and Lancia's success hangs in the balance because its situation in Europe is still deteriorating. But that was only the first move as the second one is building Dodge cars on European platforms.
Enter the 2013 Dodge Dart, a compact sedan that should bring Chrysler back into the competition in the compact cars segment. That segment accounts for roughly 10 percent of the US market and it's growing due to the unending economic crisis, new emission rules, and more frugal customers. In the past, Chrysler produced a few notable and popular compacts, such as the Neon in the '90s. Lately, however, it was represented in this segment by the Caliber, a hatchback that didn't find favor with US customers. It was designed during Daimler's reign and was a relatively complicated car to comprehend with its confusing appearance.
It appeared larger than what it really was and it resembled a crossover, though its target audience was people shopping for a small, simple and cheap car - not a Teutonic masterpiece. In its first two years, the Caliber, which was intended to be a "world car," was also sold in Europe and China. It had initial success but later on sales dropped like falling off a cliff. The model was doomed and with Chrysler going into bankruptcy and the need for a new compact model for the American market, Marchionne decided to take a bold step by adopting a European platform (and he probably didn't have any other options).
The Caliber was such a poor product that Dodge now claims that for seven years the firm wasn't represented in the compact category. "The compact sedan segment in the United States is the second-fastest growing segment in the industry, so (lacking a compact car) we've been playing with one arm tied behind our back," said Reid Bigland, Dodge brand President and CEO. "When the new Dart hits the streets, we'll finally be back in the game, playing with 100 percent of the new-vehicle sales market."
The new Dart's look transmits a sporty feeling with Italian flavor due to its stance (and the bright red paint). The Dodge corporate front-end is prominent with its crosshair design and the familiar rear-end design taken directly from the Charger and Challenger. However, a few Alfa Romeo design cues are clearly evident such as the headlamp design and the overall side view silhouette. The interior design is also a significant improvement over the Playschool toy car interior of the Caliber. Emphasizing performance, the dual exhaust is also a unique feature for the segment.
Chrysler claims the Dart possesses plenty of Alfa Romeo DNA (what's bad with Dodge's?) so the three available engines are, as expected, of Italian origin and carry the MultiAir logo, a technology the Fiat Group developed in the last few years. This is not a bad thing in the least. All three are gasoline engines, as the compact segment is still, for the most part, devoid of many of the new propulsion technologies. The engines include the 160hp Tigershark 16-valve 2.0-liter engine, a 160hp 16-valve 1.4-liter MultiAir Intercooled Turbo, and a new Tigershark 16-valve 2.4-liter MultiAir 2 four-cylinder.
Another unique thing that Dodge added is a gearbox lineup that includes a six-speed manual gearbox as the base option, a regular six-speed automatic, and an optional six-speed dual-clutch. All in all, at least in the halls of Cobo Center, the Dart looks brilliant and offers the traditional automatic 2.0-liter compact car along with some spicier variants. When it finally hits showrooms in July and after several test drives, we'll know for sure whether Dodge is truly back in the game.