The Speculator: Dodge's New Compact

With the compact market climbing into prominence in the past year, there is still a feeling that something is still missing from the party. But, what would be missing here? Or, rather, who?

Back in November of 2009, Sergio Marchionne revealed how Chrysler will be able to get back to prominence by 2014 – with Fiat’s help. Part of the plan was to develop a series of automobiles from then-new platform that would envelop about four automotive segments for both Fiat and Chrysler. Fiat's C-Evo platform was seen as Chrysler’s savior…but it means a whole lot more.

The first product off of this platform was not a Chrysler. Rather, it was an Alfa Romeo – the Giulietta. This important compact was designed to face off against the likes of the Volkswagen Golf, Renault Megane, Opel/Vauxhall Astra…and so forth. The new Alfa was well received in Europe and is packed with the right stuff to battle in this segment on the other side of the pond.

Obviously, there will be more products coming off of the same platform in the years to come. One of which will be revealed in January at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. This product alone is perhaps the most important of anything either Fiat S.p.A. or Chrysler Group LLC would have coming down the line.

After "Auld Lang Sine" has died down for another New Year's, Dodge's new compact car will be revealed to the universe.

It is easy to overstate the importance of the new compact for the Dodge brand. If it looks great and has the credentials under the hood and inside the cabin, the rest of the compact class will have no choice but to take notice.

The Belvidere, Illinois plant will be producing the new compact by mid-2012 as a 2013 model year product. Everything else is up for speculation.

In what way will this Dodge compact turn out when it is revealed in Detroit in a over four months' time? Or, rather, how would I see the new compact when it does hit the market? What suggestions do I have for Signore Marchionne and the teams in Auburn Hills, Turin and Milan?

With all due respect to my contacts at Chrysler, please indulge me as I come up with a Dodge worth putting up against the Chevrolet Cruze, Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra, Honda Civic…and so forth.

ENGINES/DRIVELINES: This is actually the easy part, because rumor and speculation has centered on one Fiat Group engine: The 1750. To round up, the engine is 1.8litres in displacement. Word has it that it would be marketed as a 1.75litre engine – a paean to Alfa's finest engine ever produced.

In Europe, the direct-injected 1750 comes turbocharged in the Giulietta for the top Quattrofiglio model with 235HP on tap. I would imagine that there would be a non-turbocharged version of the same engine to be developed for the Dodge compact with power to match the Focus and the rest of the compact class. If I were a betting man, I'd figure the naturally aspirated 1750 for the Dodge would have 165HP on tap.

One thing to be clear about petrol engines is that the current 1.4litre MultiAir engine being produced in Michigan for the Mexican-built Fiat Cinquecento (er, 500) is a bit weak for today's compact segment. With 105HP, that's not enough to battle the Cruze/Elantra/Focus/etc. You can slap a turbocharger on there, such as the upcoming Abarth version of the 500, but this compact needs a bit more brio to make it against its competition. That's where the 1750 comes in.

Will there be other engines to consider for the new compact? Fiat has a line of MultiJet diesels that would be considered if they could meet 50-State emissions standards. The Cinquecento will come in an all-electric propulsion model by 2012, which could lead to an EV version of the compact. It seems natural since both Fiat and Chrysler had worked on EVs for the past several years. A hybrid is perhaps a long shot since there had been no word on development of a gas- or diesel-electric combination for small cars from either side of the house.

My vote would be on a 50-State MultiJet 1.9litre turbodiesel that would be the perfect match to the Volkswagen Golf and Jetta TDI. Power ranges from 140 to 170HP, with 260lb-ft of torque across the board. One may argue the niche value of adding a MultiJet to the Dodge, but my argument would be the increasing interest in alternatives to regular petrol. True, diesel pump prices are higher on average in comparison to regular unleaded. Yet, a diesel would turn in fuel consumption figures that would match the upcoming Federal mandate, along with an attainable fuel range that would be the envy of its competition.

Obviously, the Dodge compact will be in front wheel drive. The key change will be the dumping of the CVT transmissions used on the Dodge Caliber, Jeep Compass and Patriot. Instead, I'd expect a line of 6-speed gearboxes – both manual and automatic. One such gearbox I would consider putting into the new Dodge is Fiat's recently introduced TCT dual-clutch automatic employed on the Giulietta.

The point of the new Dodge compact is the fact that Fiat has opened up its cabinet of goodies for Chrysler to integrate into their new C-Evo products. Obviously, some components will have to be made in the NAFTA zone – a huge caveat for the Dodge compact to achieve success and revenue for the combined companies.

DESIGN: From the spy photos, it appears that the compact will be a four-door sedan. However, I try not to give any credibility to spy shots unless I see the product officially. What I noticed is that a few Fiat/Alfa design elements were integrated onto what could be a primarily Chrysler style.

The one model I hope to see out of this compact is the five-door hatchback. It is not because the Giulietta is available in this body style. The Ford Focus is one of the reasons why I hope for a hatchback version – not simply because the Caliber was only available in that configuration. The point is for the Dodge to convey an air of difference when presented with its competition. Again, the operating word being "brio."

Inside should employ the best of Alfa and Dodge design cues. Not just red lighting, but a sporty functionality that incorporates the large video screen seen on most Chrysler vehicles, along with smart switches shared between Dodge and Alfa. Seats should be supportive – taking a cue from Alfa to trump the competition. One thing that it would need is a spacious rear section with better legroom than the Elantra. Anything short of the Focus or Cruze in the back, and you will not see families buy this compact.

As for technology, I always wondered whether Chrysler's UConnect will trump Fiat’s Blue&Me – or, would both merge into one infotainment/telematics suite. There is also room for eco:Drive, the USB-based jump drive monitor that reads fuel economy and other diagnostics for the driver. The point being is that Chrysler needs to make this compact as well equipped as possible to match what the market has to offer. Customers are getting rather spoiled with free satellite radio and telematics subscriptions.

THE NAME: The rumor mill has the new Dodge compact pegged as the Hornet. No one’s admitting or denying anything, but it seems logical.

The Hornet name was supposed to be on Chrysler's Chinese sourced subcompact prior to Cerberus nixing that plan. It has a deep history with Chrysler though one of its historical links – American Motors. Prior to its merger with Nash to create AMC, Hudson's contribution to American motorsport was the all mighty Hornet. It won some of the earliest NASCAR trophies in the early 1950s creating a reputation for being a uniquely styled, performance-tuned sedan amongst the standard bearers – Chrysler products included. AMC nixed the name after disposing of the Nash and Hudson brands.

The name re-appeared in 1969 attached to its replacement for the Rambler American. The Hornet stuck to AMC's compact line until 1977, when they decided to make it more luxurious and rebrand it the Concord. Chrysler owns the rights to the Hornet name for North America – logical, indeed!

But, should it be called the Hornet? I believe so. You can't call it the Giulietta without upsetting every Alfisti from Guam to Labrador. It doesn't have a good ring to it, however. That I would ultimately defer to the folks at Auburn Hills to decide.

The potential for success on the Dodge compact rides on how well it will be received at the NAIAS in Detroit. If the motoring press applauds the vehicle, you can bet that the general public will follow with its praise. More importantly, one would hope that it becomes a success for both Chrysler and Fiat if they achieve the volumes to put it into the running. In today's terms, that could be at the 12,000-16,000 units per month level.

To the point, what lies beyond the crosshairs is the heart of an Alfa Romeo. However, this compact needs to be a Dodge, first.

Photo (c)2011 Fiat S.p.A.

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