Three years after their shotgun marriage, Chrysler Group and Fiat SpA are rolling out a new car that combines Chrysler's legacy with Fiat's Italian design roots.
The Dodge Dart, a reinterpretation of the 1960s nameplate, needs to hit the bull's-eye if Chrysler is to have any chance of regaining a toehold in the competitive compact car market long dominated by import brands such as the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic.
It's the first car jointly developed by Chrysler and Italy's Fiat, which gained a controlling stake in the Auburn Hills, Mich., automaker since the federal government bailout and bankruptcy reorganization in 2009. Fiat Chief Executive Sergio Marchionne runs both businesses.
How the Dart performs will be a yardstick for the partnership. It reaches dealerships in the coming weeks.
"If the Dart does well, it will be a feather in the cap of the alliance, but if it does not, it will reflect negatively," said Thomas Libby, an analyst with R.L. Polk & Co.
Long known for its trucks, SUVs and minivans, Chrysler knows it needs to crack the small-car market, which is among the largest segments of U.S. auto sales, making up more than 16 percent of all new-car sales to consumers this year, according to a Polk study of registration data.
"It is kind of like playing with one arm tied behind the back," said Reid Bigland, who has the dual titles of chief executive of Dodge and U.S. sales chief of Chrysler. "Small cars are the single largest hole in our lineup."
Moreover, it is the entry point for most brands. Chrysler wants the Dart to get young buyers into the fold, which would generate later sales of larger and more profitable vehicles, Libby said.
But the very nature of the Dart provides a marketing conundrum for Chrysler. Is this a Dodge or a vehicle with Italian sports car heritage? If it's the latter, how much should Chrysler talk about it?
The car shares a platform with the Giulietta from Alfa Romeo, Fiat's upscale brand. One version will have a Fiat-designed turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine that produces 160 horsepower linked to what's known as a dual clutch transmission, a design that Chrysler says optimizes power and fuel economy. The basic model has a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine.
So far Chrysler has underplayed the relationship, only describing the Dart as a vehicle that blends "Alfa Romeo DNA and Dodge's passion for performance." The company won't be pitching the Dart as a Euro-style compact with great driving characteristics because it doesn't want to muddy the waters for a planned reintroduction of Alfa Romeo to American car buyers in the next year or two.
"The Dart is not an Alfa Romeo," Bigland said. "At the end of the day, it is a Dodge."
Bigland plans to pitch the Dart's features and attributes in the hope that buyers will gravitate to its tighter handling and road feel, competitive fuel economy and styling features such as dual exhaust ports, choice of black or polished alloy wheels, 10 air bags and an 8.4-inch touch screen that serves as the car's media center and climate control panel.
"If we just tried to copy the Corolla we would get our head knocked in," he said. "You need a differentiated offering."
The risk is that dealers could wind up with stranded inventory that will only sell at a loss. How many buyers are there for a citrus-green car with black seats and black wheels or one with no air conditioning and a manual transmission?
"No doubt there will be a learning process," Bigland said. "But 80 percent of the vehicles will hug the same specs."
The vehicles, assembled at Chrysler's recently refurbished Belvidere Assembly Plant in Belvidere, Ill., will start at $15,995, excluding destination fee, for the base model with a manual transmission; a faster turbocharged model will also be available. Chrysler expects most buyers to purchase cars that add up to $19,000 or more, depending on the option and trim configurations. Bigland believes that shoppers' awareness of the Dart will be aided by the legions of baby boomers who remember the nameplate from their youth.
Chrysler introduced the name in 1960, and by 1963 the Dart was part of a trio of popular U.S.-built small cars -- they would seem large by today's standards -- that included the Chevrolet Corvair and the Ford Falcon. It sold at the time for about $2,000.
But others question whether a name from the past will help it compete against the sea of similarly sized and equipped vehicles that, beyond the Civic and Corolla, now include hot sellers such as the Hyundai Elantra, Chevrolet Cruze, Ford Focus and Volkswagen Jetta. The competition will only become stiffer when Nissan brings out its new-generation Sentra compact sedan this fall.
"The segment is filled with good, competitive products," analyst Libby said, adding that the Dart must match its rivals "in terms of value for the money, durability/reliability and more. Ideally, the Dart should surpass the competition."