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The Dart Dilemma

by Bill Cawthon on

The September-October stumble in sales of the Dart highlights the uneven history of the smallest Dodge.

Originally projected to sell about 100,000 units annually, the Dart should come close to that as long as November and December don’t slump, as they did last year. But it’s playing in a segment where the average sales per model through the end of October is nearly 170,000 units, more than twice than twice the 79,603 total of U.S. and Canadian Dart deliveries for the first ten months of 2013 and pretty close to twice the number the Dart has racked up since it went on sale. (Note: we didn’t have specific numbers for Dart sales in Mexico.)

With the exception of the Kia Forte, the Dart is the slowest-selling car in its segment. While no one expected the Dart to provide a serious challenge to the Honda Civic or Chevrolet Cruze, year-to-date 2013 sales show that even the Volkswagen Jetta and Nissan Sentra are moving faster.

Of course, the first handicap (challenge?) placed on Dart sales came with the rollout. After an ad campaign trumpeting the fresh thinking and clean sheet design approach Dodge delivered an underpowered sedan initially available only with a stick shift.

This might have been fine for Europe, but 93% of new cars sold in the U.S. have an automatic transmission. In fact, a high percentage of drivers in the Dart’s target demographic not only do not know how to use a manual transmission, they have no interest in learning.

The absence of a clutch-free version most likely discouraged the early buyers that might have been interested in a Dart, but weren’t interested in a stick. This delayed the sales ramp-up and dampened some of the buzz that accompanies an all-new car.

Even after self-shifting Darts began to arrive at Dodge dealers, there was the problem of power: the Dart has received generally positive reviews but I know from personal experience that some in the motoring press complained that the 2.0-liter TigerShark was less of a shark and more of a guppy, unequal to motivating the relatively heavy Dodge, especially when mated to the automatic transmission. Zero-to-60 times were in the nine-second range: slower than much of the competition and a bit of an embarrassment to a car based on an Alfa Romeo.

Cars with the six-speed manual and 1.4-liter MultiAir engine seemed to have decent performance, other than an occasionally balky shifter (this was in a pre-production sample, so don’t put too much emphasis on it), but that may be in large part because its maximum torque kicks in at 2500 rpm while the 2.0-liter Tigershark doesn’t hit its stride until about 4800 rpm and that stride isn’t all that great in a 3200-pound car. Fuel economy is important, but the Dart needs some additional oomph so it can, well, “dart.”

Even Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne admitted, “The powertrain solutions we made available to that car, in today’s world, in hindsight, were not the ideal solution.”

According to Chrysler, the addition of the new 2.4-liter Tigershark MultiAir II engine as standard equipment on 2014 SXTs, Limiteds and GTs promises to address the oomph issues, but we’ll have to wait and see once they become available.

The third issue is price. Specifically, pricing as seen by those doing their research on the Internet.

The base Dart SE is value priced at $15,995, about the least-expensive car in the segment. But there’s a huge gotcha: there’s no air-conditioning.

In the United States, a car without air-conditioning is called a teaser. A dealer will order one and then mark it down to the lowest possible price and feature it in ads to attract bottom-dollar buyers. There is no other possible use for such a car unless the dealer particularly wants a vehicle that will never leave his lot on economically favorable terms.

Nearly all cars sold in America today have air-conditioning: reliable sources put the figure at close to 99 percent. This is probably why every one of the models most directly competitive with the Dart has A/C as standard equipment.

In pursuit of the lowest MSRP, Chrysler made air-conditioning an option. Worse, it’s not a standalone option, but only offered as part of a Value package with an MSRP of $995.

The addition of the package and the destination charges, which are also higher than the competition’s, takes the Dart from being a low-price leader to being one of the most expensive base models in the segment, hundreds of dollars more than competing models from Ford, Hyundai, Kia and Toyota.

Make & Model Base Price A/C Destination Total Difference CYTD Sales
Honda Civic $18,165 Standard $790 $18,955 +$970 280,889
Chevrolet Cruze LS $17,170 Standard $825 $17,995 +$10 211,862
Dodge Dart SE $15,995 $995 $995 $17,985 $0 71,453
Hyundai Elantra GLS $16,965 Standard $795 $17,760 -$225 209,469
Toyota Corolla L $16,800 Standard $810 $17,610 -$375 257,184
Volkswagen Jetta S $16,720 Standard $820 $17,540 -$445 135,983
Ford Focus S $16,605 Standard $795 $17,400 -$585 203,762
Nissan Sentra S $15,990 Standard $810 $16,800 -$1,185 106,680
Kia Forte LX $15,900 Standard $800 $16,700 -$1,285 52,421
All base models with manual transmission and no options.

So far this year, 26 percent of new car transactions have been leases and it’s here the Dart truly crashes and burns. Based on leases offered on manufacturers’ websites, a Dart is thousands of dollars more over the life of the lease than any of its segment competitors.

Make & Model Initial Monthly Total Miles/Year Difference
Dodge Dart SE $3,999 $199 $11,163 12,000 $0.00
Nissan Sentra S $823 $228 $9,031 12,000 -$2,132
Chevrolet Cruze LS $1,999 $188 $8,767 15,000 -$2,396
Kia Forte LX $1,999 $179 $8,443 12,000 -$2,720
Toyota Corolla LE $1,999 $179 $8,443 12,000 -$2,720
Volkswagen Jetta S $2,349 $169 $8,433 12,000 -$2,730
Honda Civic $2,599 $159 $8,323 12,000 -$2,840
Ford Focus S $1,740 $181 $8,256 12,000 -$2,907
Hyundai Elantra GLS $2,199 $159 $7,923 12,000 -$3,240
All leases 36 months, 12,000 miles/year except Cruze 15,000 miles/year.

Of course, some of the competing leases are subvented and many of these pricing differences can be worked out at the dealer level, but the problem is getting buyers into the dealership to have a chance. Chrysler leadership has said it wants to avoid using incentives to promote the Dart, but some kind of marketing boost might be in order.

I have driven a couple of Darts: it’s a good car with the potential to be a great car. But right now, stacked up against the competition, it’s the automotive equivalent of bringing a knife to a gunfight.

Bill Cawthon grew up in the auto industry in the 1950s. His Dad worked for Chrysler and Bill spent a number of Saturdays down on the plant floor at Dodge Main in Hamtramck. Bill is also the U.S. market correspondent for, a British auto industry publication, and a member of the Texas Auto Writers Association, which has named the Jeep Grand Cherokee the “SUV of Texas” several times and named the Ram 1500 as the “Truck of Texas” two years running.

Bill has owned five Plymouths (including the only 1962 “Texan”), one Dodge and one Chrysler and is still trying to figure out how to justify a Wrangler. He also has owned at least one of every 1:87 scale model of a Chrysler product. You can reach him directly at (206) 888-7324 or by using the form.

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