The Dodge Dart Rides Again
First off, this new Dart is a thoroughly modern car. The first real progeny of the Fiat-Chrysler marriage, it's not anything like the rear-wheel drive barge of sainted memory, with their drum brakes and loafing "slant six" engines. It's a modern front-driver, with independent suspension, four-wheel-disc brakes, your choice of three high-revving, small-displacement four-cylinder engines, ranging from 1.4 to 2.4 liters, and three different transmissions, including a NINE-speed automatic arriving next year. Yes, nine speeds. It's funny, but back in the days of the original Dart, two speeds were considered an acceptable number for automatic cars, while three gears were adjudged perfectly normal for manual transmissions. And a trio of cogs was the height of technical sophistication in automatic ones so blessed, such as the Dart, especially in the years when they boasted push-button transmissions. Nine speeds. Repeat, NINE speeds. I'm telling you, turn your back for fifty years and look what happens!
Sorry to disappoint, guys, but there'll be no push-button automatic transmission or manual column shifting option in the Dart of 2013 (though paddle-shifters will likely figure in the picture.) So not-classic Mopar is the new machine that it's actually based on an Alfa Romeo chassis, inflated for America (stretched wider mostly) but still Italian at heart. Kind of like you guys, you might say. Yet, though it's bigger than its Fiat family cousin, the new Dart is still pretty small -- you could, for instance, stuff way more dead bodies in the trunk of my old '63 Plymouth Valiant convertible than in the new Dart (the Valiant being the Dart's identical twin back when there was such a thing as Plymouths). Nowadays, if a Dart driver has more than one or two stiffs to lose, he'll want to reserve a Zip Car to expedite the disposal process. On the other hand, there's every reason to hope the Dart will handle pretty sweetly on its way to the departed's final resting place in the swamps.
Automobile magazine design editor Robert Cumberford told me at the show he hated to pieces the new Dart's styling for a variety of reasons, all of which sounded reasonable enough but, in truth, being a designer himself, Robert has a professional responsibility to hate a lot of things passionately. While he found its lines and details derivative and uninspired, I thought they were OK. It's also fair to note here that while the old Darts that make you guys tear up look kind of great to me nowadays, when I was kid they seemed pretty boring. So maybe it's appropriate that this new one strikes us at first glance as no more than a slightly above average student in the fiercely generic, modern Euro-Asian small-car school. It's meant to compete directly with modern small cars in the compact market like the Toyota Corolla, Hyundai Accent, Honda Civic, Chevy Cruze and Ford Focus, not the cabin cruisers they used to call compact cars in the 1960s and 70s. Frankly, it may be a low bar, but the Dart looks better to me than most of its competitors. Like the rest of its class, however, the quality of its interior plastics, especially door panels, NEEDS IMPROVEMENT, as it used to say on my report card.
The considerably more swoopy (though also derivatively styled) new Ford Fusion, a step up the price ladder from the Dart (which is expected to start at around $15,000 when it goes on sale this fall, versus almost $20,000 for the Ford), stole much of the thunder at the Detroit show, where it also debuted. But I suggest you guys keep an eye on the Dart, a car that Fiat and Chrysler have been beavering away on since they hooked up in 2009. One assuredly great thing about it, at this point, is that it will replace the Dodge Caliber, an unspeakably crappy conveyance that managed, when it arrived on the scene four years ago, to be an even worse car than the feeble Neon model it replaced. Going backwards in performance and quality -- that was the most remarkable thing about the Caliber, a deep and enduring embarrassment in a realm where few know shame. We already know the Dart is a better car. Thank you for that, Chrysler.
While some of your talk radio brethren bashed the idea, Chrysler needed a company like Fiat in a bad way when it volunteered to drag them out of bankruptcy. The American firm's engineering requirements, thanks to years of deferred expenditure, were major and desperate, especially given the Obama administration's inevitable drive to raise fuel economy standards. Everyone loves a Hemi, but the Paleolithic sixes and Stone Age fours Chrysler was rocking when Fiat arrived weren't going to cut the mustard in a world where 40 and 50 mpg cars are going to be de rigeur. Fiat had the technology and now, in a nice karmic twist, thanks to current Chrysler profits (mostly courtesy of Jeep, selling like hotcakes with gas prices moderating), it's been able to soldier on, even as the Italian economy crumbles around it. All children should treat their parents so well.
For me, the only thing left to consider is the value of revitalizing the Dart name, dormant since 1975. This places the youngest of original Dart fans in their mid-40s, with a majority of the remainder ranging between older than that and dead. It certainly wouldn't be terrible if the venerable Dart moniker brought oldsters into the fold -- finally a car not aimed at tatted skateboarders with tongue studs and razor blades in their foreheads. Though I always thought it a shame that Chrysler failed to capitalize on the Dart and Valiant names back in the '80s when they would have meant more than they do now.
Yet the larger truth is what made the names great way back when was the cars to which they were attached. Public admiration for Darts (and Valiants) really only coalesced in the 1970s, when people realized these six-cylinder motors from the Sixties ran and ran and ran, with a minimum of attention and expense. Everyone I knew in the 1980s had a story about one of these Chrysler compacts that they couldn't kill. Hippies, college professors and grandmothers who knew nothing about cars knew that Slant Six Darts were unburstable. Long after all the VW Beetles, celebrated for their longevity, had rusted off the road, Darts were still going.
Myself I remember driving cross-country in a 63 Dart wagon a friend bought for $75. It had a strong taste for 10W40 and the linkage of its manual, "three-on-the-tree" column shift had a propensity to jam in second, which required one to climb under the car to free it from below by hand. But that Dart never stopped moving. If the Dart nouveau can deliver that sort of long lasting, cheap-to-run brilliance to American motorists, the name will mean something again. If not, it will have soiled a great name from the past, and probably help usher Chrysler to the brink, once again.
Tom, Ray, you can get up now.