V&R@5: From PowerPoint to Production…to #VOTY12

The first taste - 2013 Dodge Dart Limited - All Photos by Randy Stern
The first taste – 2013 Dodge Dart Limited in the Texas Hill Country – All Photos by Randy Stern

November 4, 2009.

It was the day trumpeted the reboot of Chrysler LLC with help from Fiat S.p.A. That day was full of PowerPoint presentations, great sales pitches and the announcement of future plans towards making Chrysler relevant again after it was loaned money from the U.S. and Canadian governments in order for it to survive.

I was a then-recently laid-off worker affected by the same conditions that created the Troubled Asset Relief Program. My aspiration was to convert my four years at a document management firm into the career you are witnessing on this site. My focus that day was on the words spoken by each Chrysler and Fiat executive and the PowerPoint presentations for each brand and operation. Fiat's head – and Chrysler's savior – Sergio Marchionne was seen as the king mounted from his horse, even though he looked more like a accountant coming out his alpine chalet above Lake Como than the de facto head of Ferrari, Maserati, Alfa Romeo and Fiat.

My attention was drawn to one of the last slides of Ralph Gilles' presentation as the CEO of the Dodge brand. While maintaining his seat as the head of design at Chrysler, Gilles knew he had the task of making Dodge cooler than ever before. It came as no surprise of the blip on the slide that announced a Fiat-based compact sedan to debut by 2012. Given Gilles track record at the time, I knew this Fiat-based compact sedan was going to be as cool as design chief himself.

Fast forward to January of 2012. The North American International Auto Show was happening in Detroit and Dodge had a huge press conference lined up for the world. The month before provided a teaser image of this new car. A week or so later, a Twitter conversation yielded what would eventually be the name of this new car. By the time the car rolled onto the stage inside COBO Center, the 2013 Dodge Dart was born.

From that point, the story of the Dart became personal. It would become of the stories that helped frame Victory & Reseda as the site you are reading today.

Randy hands off the 2012 Victory & Reseda Vehicle of The Year Award for the Dodge Dart to Reid Bigland at the 2013 Chicago Auto Show
Randy hands off the 2012 Victory & Reseda Vehicle of The Year Award for the Dodge Dart to Reid Bigland, then-CEO of the Dodge brand, at the 2013 Chicago Auto Show

By May of 2012, I already established a relationship with Chrysler. I had met a lot of the good people behind the company, from regional communications contacts to engineers and designers…even Mr. Gilles. It was a bit of a surprise when they invited me to drive the Dart in Austin, Texas. It was indeed a reward for the hard work to become "influential" via social media and such. It would become my first media drive event I ever worked at.

While the Dart was the center piece of this trip, I yielded plenty of friendships, contacts and colleagues from it. Did the people make up for the car? Or, did the car drew us in as intended?

By November, the Dodge Dart was voted as Victory & Reseda's 2012 Vehicle of The Year. A win that spurred a whirlwind of activity around this car that would sustain itself through today.

What was so special about the Dart? Why did it become a key story for V&R?

Part of it comes from my own background. I was around Mopar products, thanks to my father. He was the one the brought home a 1965 Plymouth Satellite and a 1970 Plymouth Barracuda, even in the face of a General Motors tradition on mom's side of the family. Chrysler products were different and intriguing, which made for some interesting interactions over the years.

Also, Chrysler was a company that I liked interacting with. Whether it was communication or embracing social media/blogger types more openly than other OEMs for its time, I found the people at Chrysler great to work with when stories were being crafted – even through attending events and reviewing new products.

The framework that lead to the first encounter with the 2013 Dart was set. I was part of an influencer group that flew down to Austin, Texas to drive the pre-production models. Having seen, touched, felt and observed the prototypes at the Chicago Auto Show that February, I was ready to see how Fiat's C-Evo platform would be transformed into what Chrysler would call C-USAWide.

What happened afterward was a mix of thoughts, considerations and reactions. Though some have criticized the Dart for being derivative in design, I felt it was fresh enough for Dodge to sell. Sales were slow at first, but never actually the traction to gain major numbers at the levels of its more popular competition.

2013 Dodge Dart Limited
2013 Dodge Dart Limited in Wayzata, MN

The Dart was larger, a but heavier and felt more solid than the competition. It did have its positive points. The ride/handling mix was far superior than its competition for that time. It truly felt like a sports sedan rather than a run-of-the-mill compact. Some would argue that the Ford Focus equaled the Dart in many respects. Nowadays, size is not longer a factor as the latest Honda Civic has reached the size proportions of the Dart.

The design did break the mold for Chrysler, yet there were comparisons to other contemporary vehicles. The arguments went back-and-forth on how the Dart looked like the Hyundai Elantra or other compact sedans. Still, I fell back on the idea of what a customer sees when they approach a Chrysler dealer. They see a stylish compact sedan with several performance and trim options that actually drove very well. One wished the sales numbers would reflect a larger acceptance of this car as the choice in the compact sedan segment.

There were other factors that held the public back from the Dodge Dart. Initially, Dodge announced an R/T model to top the range. That quickly changed to the GT, which delayed the arrival of the sports model for a model year. Also delayed was the 2.4 liter four-cylinder engine. Although based on the global engine that was co-developed with Mitsubishi and Hyundai, Fiat added Multiair induction to this engine and was rebranded as the Tigershark. When this engine arrived, it became the most popular offering across several trim levels. The smaller 2.0 liter four-cylinder and Fiat's 1.4 liter turbocharged Multiair engine remained in the lineup, but as specific offerings for the SE and Aero models respectively.

Driveline choices also did not help the Dart's cause. The Multiair turbo was connected to either a six-speed manual transmission or a dual-clutch six-speed gearbox. The latter was more of a curiosity than a practical solution, as customers balked at this transmission choice. The regular six-speed automatic offered on other engines were heavily favored because of its smooth operation and well-matched shifts. There were proposals to drop the ZF-designed nine-speed automatic now seen on the Chrysler 200, Jeep Cherokee and Renegade. Yet, FCA did not follow through on adding this to the Dart lineup. Perhaps it was for the best that they did not add more gears to what could complicate compact sedan customers further.

2013 Dodge Dart SE at the National Sports Center, Blaine, MN
2013 Dodge Dart SE at the National Sports Center, Blaine, MN

The Dart was full of promises. The fact that it arrived on the scene at all was a feat in itself. Believe me, it was worth the wait, considering the gap in compact offerings between the Neon and the Dart. The Caliber was a charming idea, but it was derided by almost everyone m- except for those who own the SRT4 version. That, in itself, was another promise that enthusiasts were waiting for – a Dart SRT. Enthusiasts are still waiting for something remotely close to it, even today.

Aside the criticism, the Dart was really a good car. Of the three Darts I reviewed, all of them exhibited either similar or improved traits based on that initial drive in May of 2012. I was lucky to take in all three available engines to measure real world performance for the entire lineup. I had three different trims to sample to find the right value proposition for the Dart. This variety helped fill the gaps that were left in Austin in proving the Dart's worth in the marketplace.

If I had to choose one that stood out above all – it would be the last one. That 2014 GT with the 2.4 liter engine showed the Dart in its best light. If you want to talk about perfect performance for the money, while exhibiting every quality on board, this particular car provided all of the answers. For everyone involved in this project, this was what they had in mind for the Dart – a sporty, technological feast that exhibited its finest road manners and a bit of swagger on top of it.

This was the Dart I had in mind when I saw it in Chicago back in 2012. It took a while to discover it, but I knew it would close the story arc for the time.

Later in 2014, another day-long press conference took place and Marchionne had his then-brand CEOs report on the success of the first five year plan while divulging the next five years for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. The Dodge presentation came up with Tim Kuniskis discussing what could be some exciting news for the Dart. There was a mid-cycle refresh planned, along with a possible performance version to compete against the likes of the Subaru WRX, Ford Focus ST and Volkswagen GTI. Some even speculated that it would be a Dart SRT with a full-blown turbocharged engine, all-wheel drive and so forth. Such a car would see even bigger prey, with the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, Volkswagen Golf R, Subaru WRX STi and Ford Focus RS in its sights.

2014 Dodge Dart GT at Chippewa Valley Cars & Coffee, Eau Claire, WI
2014 Dodge Dart GT at Chippewa Valley Cars & Coffee, Eau Claire, WI

And, it was all just speculation. Sales had plateaued. SUVs and crossovers ruled the marketplace above sedans. Gas prices dropped enabling larger vehicles to pick up steam on dealer lots.

Marchionne held a press conference in late January of 2016 to basically state that the Dart would run its course towards the end of production. In effect, this huge investment in framing Fiat's C-Evo architecture into a compact sedan was to become nothing but dust.

This was not the ending I hoped for a vehicle that helped boost this website/blog. Yet, it did boost hopes for us to witness how Fiat will transform Chrysler before it became a merged entity. The Dart was made for enthusiasts, but it also served as a choice in a field dominated by a pretty tough crowd.

For the years I have followed this story, it was indeed the perfect arc. From hope to promise to loss, the Dodge Dart gave this automotive writer an incredible beat and a wonderful story to work on.

Let us remember this Dodge Dart always…

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