2014 Dodge Dart GT
Can a car be too stylish for its own good?
I think this may be the problem vis-à-vis the Dodge Dart’s sluggish sales in the market. Through March, deliveries of the compact were off 29.1% compared to last year, with just 16,074 units moved, compared with 22,965 for the same period in 2013, according to Autodata. To be fair to the car, it is worth noting that its showroom mate the Avenger is off by 31.3% during the same period, and no one has said that the Avenger is too stylish.
But the point is, the Dodge Dart has the looks of something that is a pocket rocket, even when it is equipped with an engine, a 2.4-liter Tigershark, that is fit for purpose but not as exhilarating as one might think based on the sheet metal.
Dodge—nor Chrysler for that matter—doesn’t have a compact car that is sufficiently middle of the road in the way that a Cruze or a Focus can be—to say nothing of the Corolla or Civic.
One might argue that by looking as sleek and fast as it does it is going to attract people who are going to become Dodge buyers for a long time. People who are going to move up to a Challenger or a Charger. While that may be the case, there aren’t a whole lot of them, and if the purpose is to move more sheet metal, then that’s not happening.
Consider: Going back to numbers from Autodata, through March, total Dodge car deliveries were 73,962 units. During the same period, Chevy moved 65,185 Cruzes and Ford 51,903 Focuses, so clearly there is a demand for cars in this category that Dodge is missing.
I certainly understand the visual appeal of the Dart. When the car was launched as an all-new product as a 2013 model, Joe Dehner, head of Dodge Design (he’s now added Ram, too), said, “The Alfa Romeo-based architecture”—yes, this is the same Giulietta-based underpinnings used for the Jeep Cherokee and the new Chrysler 200—“allowed us to design an exterior with great proportions that say ‘fun-to-drive’ when you look at it. Add in the Charger-inspired ‘racetrack’ taillamps, a new, sleek crosshair grille and piano black accents, and it all adds up to a performance-inspired design with just the right amount of attitude.”
And therein is part of the problem. A friend of mine said that when his daughter reaches driving age, he’s going to buy her an 11-year-old Camry. A brown one. A car that he knows will have QDR in spades. A car that she won’t go fast in. A car that her friends won’t want to drive in. All of which is to say a car that dad will feel comfortable his daughter is in. (And my friend generally don’t have two good words to say about Toyota.)
So do you buy your daughter or son a car that says “fun-to-drive”?
Or if you’re a middle-aged woman or man, do you buy yourself a car with “the right amount of attitude,” any midlife crisis notwithstanding? Are you able to get in and out of those bucket seats up front?
Again, it is a car that looks good inside and out. But who is it for? It isn’t enough for the people who read the automotive buff books (to say nothing of the people who write for them). It is probably too much for people who read Consumer Reports (which, incidentally, had this to say of the car when it first came out: “Dodge's first decent small car in decades still falls short in the execution. We tested both the 1.4-liter turbo and 2.0-liter four cylinder engines. The 1.4-liter turbo has enough power but sounds thrashy, and the optional automated manual transmission is unrefined and stumbles at low speeds. The base 2.0-liter has a better six-speed automatic transmission, but it still feels underpowered. Handling is taut and agile, and the ride is composed. Inside, the cabin is roomy up front but the rear seat is tight, and the front seats aren't very comfortable. The Uconnect touchscreen is one of the best on the market. First year reliability of the 2.0-liter has been well above average the turbo is below average.” Which strikes me as damning with faint praise. To be fair, CR also reported on the 2014 model, and in that they are slightly more positive, but again not wholly embracing of the product: "Dodge's compact sedan was updated for 2014, but still falls short. This car does have some good points: Handling is taut and agile, and the ride is composed. Besides that, the front cabin is quite spacious and the optional Uconnect touch screen is one of the better infotainment systems. Updates included improvements to the interior and seats, but the rear remains cramped. The primary powertrain is now a 2.4-liter four-cylinder and smooth six-speed automatic. The 2.4 lacks refinement but is a better choice than the sluggish base 2.0-liter and thrashy optional 1.4-liter turbocharged four. First year reliability of the 2.0-liter has been well above average, the turbo four is below average and the 2.4's reliability is unknown.")
Every now and then I see a Dodge Caliber. Its last model year was 2012. The problem with the Caliber was that overall it seemed to be a car that was predicated more on thrift than anything else. It could have been a much better car. Admittedly, hatches don’t do all that well in the market, but it seems that given Chrysler’s recent design chops, that car could have been modified with some attention to front and rear fascias (a comparatively inexpensive way to change things up), given its recent powertrain modifications, it could have given it some oomph, and given its first-rate interior work, it could have made it something other than a vinyl box. The stance compared to the Dart is more upright and forthright.