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2014 Dart: evidence of a new Dodge?

Dodge bee logoWeeks ago, when pundits were amusing themselves by predicting the death of Dodge, we suggested that perhaps Dodge was actually changing its products to match its strategy and image, in a first for the storied brand.

From 1925 onwards, Chrysler was pushed by cost and production needs to merge cars together, until the only differences were sheet metal and trim.  Yes, today, Dodge is seen as the performance brand, based in equal measure on:

These were the factors that built Dodge’s aura of muscle, before executives told the media that they would retrain Americans to see Dodge as having a “more modern” version of sportiness — Euro-style, with lighter engines but stronger cornering — starting with the new Dart. That was the stated reason for rebranding Ram trucks, which remain the epitome of American auto stereotypes, big and heavy, with large V8 engines.

It didn’t work; Americans resist to the idea of sports cars can have low power but excellent cornering (like the 273-powered Barracuda Formula S. How many GTOs and Mustangs were sold for each Formula S?)

Faced with rumors about Chrysler getting the only minivan, and no replacement for the Avenger (ignoring the upcoming rear drive car shared with Alfa Romeo), and slow Dart sales, and whatever else comes to the reporters‘ minds, we saw headlines screaming,

It’s the death of Dodge!

A better question is, “Are we looking at the first properly focused Dodge lineup since 1930?

The rejiggering of the Dodge Dart lineup is further evidence that Auburn Hills has seen the light.  The base car still has the 2.0 (responsive, but not particularly quick) and the Aero has the Fiat 1.4 (for that 41 mpg highway number), but every other Dart has the 2.4 liter engine standard. That’s the biggest engine you can get in the Dart, and it gets much lower mileage than the 2.0 or 1.4, so you know they didn’t make that decision lightly. It costs much more to build than the 2.0 because of the MultiAir system, too.

There are no optional engines. Maybe the factory did this so they’d have fewer variations, since they have to build all those Cherokees now, but maybe they did it to make sure just about every Dart had the most muscular feel they could give it without a major redesign.

Repositioning Dodge performance as “handling focused” would have immunized Dodge from gas crises, but American gas crises are usually brief. Fiat and Chrysler can pick up the slack when gas prices rise, too.

racing Dodge Challengers in Canadian Tire NASCAR series

As for the rest of the lineup, the main issues at Dodge are Journey and Caravan (Durango fits the image well enough, especially with the Hemi). In the US, retail buyers have gone to the Town & Country, for the most part; so losing Caravan in the US might not be a major loss, especially if it was replaced by another car named Dodge Caravan, based on the minivan platform, but in a sportier crossover format and with an emphasis on performance. Chrysler Canada may have to keep the Caravan, but they’ve done interesting things with front clips and nameplates before.

Journey will be put onto a new platform with the de rigeur nine-speed, AWD, and V6, and might even end up in the Chrysler camp (perhaps they can even “dual” Journey, with a sporty version for Dodge — V6 only, thank you — and a mainstream for Chrysler).

Avenger will be replaced when Dodge has a rear wheel drive mid-size platform — that’s 2016 or 2017. Supposedly the SRT version will have the 6.2 HellCat supercharged Hemi, but that might not happen now — that was part of the plan when a Barracuda was to be based on Challenger. With a completely new platform, I’d expect a twin-turbo V6 before a supercharged Hemi, just because designing a mainstream car to fit a 6.2 V8 that only 1.6% of buyers will get is rather wasteful. Everyone else will have to suffer from lower gas mileage and greater weight for that 1.6%… and that includes the Alfa buyers, presumably. Alfa is much more likely to top out with their twin-turbo six.

So if we look at Dodge of calendar-year 2017, I think we’ll see a nine-speed Dart with the 2.4 on all but Aero, a Caravan crossover, and a new, sporty Journey. That would be three front-wheel-drive cars, each available with optional AWD. Then, in the rear drive column, we’d have Avenger, Charger, Challenger, and Durango.

Long term, and assuming gas prices don’t rise too quickly, I’d be tempted to move Dart over to Chrysler and let Dodge have the “big muscle” rep, or create a Chrysler compact car just a little smaller and lighter than the Dart (perhaps the Chrysler Valiant). Likewise, I’d think about moving Journey over to Chrysler, perhaps keeping the same name.

Perhaps, instead of looking at the death of Dodge, we’re looking at a new life for Horace and John’s baby.

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