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The “over-contented” Dart

by David Zatz on

On Wednesday, Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne explained slow sales of the Dodge Dart to an analyst in this way:

I think we have a phenomenal car and an incredible value, but the car is over-contented for the market and for the segment in which it plays. I think the challenge is on us to find a solution to that over-contenting. We’re working on this, and hopefully it will be evident within 2015.

The “over-contenting” reference most likely did not refer to features like air conditioning or airbags (Dart starts without a/c but with ten airbags). The Dart is larger than most cars in the segment, with 97.2 cubic feet of passenger volume vs Cruze’s 94.5, Civic’s 94.6, Corolla’s 92.1, and Focus’ 90.7.  Indeed,  Dart is on the verge of being a mid-size rather than a compact, which adds to the car’s cost and, importantly, its weight.

Another factor which works against Dart’s weight is the sound insulation, which some believe to be best in class. That may be why, despite a standard engine that is among the most powerful in its class, the base model fails to meet the acceleration of most competitors. (The 2014 models have a more powerful 2.4 liter engine which adds 24 horsepower and 24 lb-ft of torque, making acceleration competitive without much of a fuel-economy cost.)

Unlike the Chrysler 200, even buyers of relatively low-level Darts can get an 8.4 inch touch-screen stereo and seven-inch configurable dashboard display. While these are likely factors in the cost comparisons, Chrysler is also burdened by their choice of rear suspension; that of the Dart is a sophisticated, pricey design which maximizes cornering without sacrificing ride. The similar Fiat Viaggio uses a cheaper design, which is probably better suited to the American compact car market. That decision likely hurt Dart’s cost structure as well.

Mr. Marchionne appeared to indicate a refresh in 2015; that will probably see the big screen and reconfigurable dashboard restricted to top models, and may well see the rear suspension move to the Viaggio design (or something between the two). The company may choose to use non-acoustic glass, as it does in the base 200s, as well.

When Dart was launched, company officials said that Dodge would be changing from traditional American views of sporty cars (muscle) to a more European “lighter engine, better cornering” approach. This does not appear to have caught on, or been at all evident to buyers;  Dodge has accordingly not been pursuing that strategy, and the refreshed Darts may well sacrifice some of their unappreciated handling in favor of lower prices. Or, perhaps, they will find other ways to make the car a better proposition for the American public.

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