When the all-new Dodge Dart debuted at last year's Detroit Auto Show, the media was excited. It marked the revival of a once-loved nameplate and the first major collaboration between Chrysler and its new Italian owners (since the Dart is based on a Fiat platform). And for a reasonably priced compact sedan, the 2013 Dart offered a range of options to please driving enthusiasts.
The reception from the general public, however, has been more muted -- so much so that, according to AutoNews, Chrysler executives have taken pains to explain the Dart's underwhelming sales.
The problem has been brewing for a while. In fact, we drew attention to it last summer, when fewer than 1,000 Darts sold over the course of two months. Things picked up in the fall, and the Dart finished 2012 with 25,303 units sold. But although the needle is moving in the right direction, Chrysler clearly believed that the Dart would be performing better by now.
A major stumble came as the first wave of Dodge Darts rolled out to greet the public, fitted with manual transmissions. While the number of shoppers interested in stick-shifters seems to be growing, it still accounts for a tiny percentage of the buying public. Those first manual-only models turned off automatic fans and prevented more than a few consumers from taking the Dart for a spin.
In fairness, the automatics arrived a few weeks later, but by then, buzz about the Dart had begun to wane. It was by no means old hat, but it wasn't brand spanking new, either.
Also causing trouble: the Dart's optional dual-clutch transmission, which, by CEO Sergio Marchionne's own admission, was too European for U.S. drivers. Speaking at last week's Detroit Auto Show, Marchionne took much of the blame for trying to force Americans to use a transmission they didn't like. Speaking to CNN, he said, "I take full ownership for the fact that it wasn't the launch that I wanted."
Sales may perk up when the Dart receives Chrysler/Fiat's new nine-speed automatic transmission, which will soon debut on the successor to the Jeep Liberty. There's no word, however, on precisely when that gearbox will be available for the Dart. Speaking to Wards Auto, Marchionne said, "If it were up to me, you would have gotten it last night."
Reid Bigland, head of the Dodge brand, says that he's not too concerned about the Dart's sluggish sales figures, because he has a number of "levers" he can pull to boost volume. One of those levers is undoubtedly the launch of the Dodge Dart GT, slated to arrive in the second quarter of 2013. That could help regain the attention of performance fans, which could, in turn, generate new excitement about the Dart.
Will that be enough? Only time will tell. The Dart has a lot going for it, including a strong parent company with booming sales and a CEO whose aggressive approach to reinventing Chrysler has been successful, by and large.
On the other hand, as a compact sedan, the Dart has entered one of the toughest segments in the auto market. It's got to eat away at territory long-since claimed by the likes of the Ford Focus, the Honda Civic, and the Toyota Corolla. True, it would be unwise for Chrysler to avoid the segment altogether, but it's a very big gamble. We'll keep you posted.