As honeymoons go, the Dodge Dart’s sure didn’t last long. Fiat-Chrysler’s lovechild sedan burst onto the scene in 2012 amid great fanfare: It was the first Dodge-branded compact sedan since 2005 and was based on the same Fiat Compact platform as Alfa Romeo’s Giuletta. As such it promised an engaged, European driving experience with plentiful North American conveniences, all at a sensible mainstream price. And it delivered too, although not always in a helpful manner.
Take the initial 2013 model year launch, for instance: The first shipment of cars were all equipped with manual transmissions – very European, and quite awesome from an enthusiast point of view, but not what the average North American consumer was looking for. By the time the automatic-equipped cars starting arriving at dealerships a few weeks later much of the initial buzz had already faded, well before potential buyers had even gotten behind the wheel. “It wasn’t the launch that I wanted,” lamented Fiat-Chrysler boss Sergio Marchionne at the time.
Now, little more than three years later and amid continuing slow sales (2015 Dart sales ranked below the Mitsubishi Mirage in Canada) comes word that Fiat Chrysler Automobiles will be discontinuing both the Dart and the Chrysler 200 after the 2017 model year, effectively abandoning the small- and medium-size sedan market altogether.
As Marchionne explained it, “one of the things that we have decided to do is to effectively de-focus – from a manufacturing standpoint in the U.S. – to de-focus on the passenger car market. There are two cars in particular, the Dodge Dart and the Chrysler 200, which will run their course,” In their place, FCA will use the freed-up manufacturing capacity to churn out in-demand Jeep and Ram products.
All of which is rather a pity, because as I was reminded during a week behind the wheel of a Laser Blue Pearl-painted Blacktop edition, while the Dart may a bit bigger and softer than the Italian thoroughbred on which it’s based, it’s still a refreshing (albeit imperfect) change from the typical compact fare. It deserved better.
Part of the Dart’s problem is simply a matter of market saturation: Sure, it’s a decent little car in its own way, but decent isn’t really enough when you’re competing against segment heavyweights like the Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, Toyota Corolla, Mazda 3, Chevrolet Cruze, Volkswagen Jetta and Ford Focus.
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The Dart simply doesn’t stand out. It offers plenty of space for a compact (3,123 L of interior volume and a 371 L trunk) but it’s hardly unique in that regard, with the Civic, Corolla and Elantra all similarly treading into midsize territory. It offers fairly sporty driving dynamics, too, but not in any way that surpasses the zippy and well-rounded Mazda3. Despite its European roots the Dart doesn’t really play the Euro card as effectively as the Volkswagen Jetta (or Golf, for that matter), yet neither does it beat out the Chevrolet Cruze at feeling familiarly North American.
This doesn’t mean the Dart lacks unique strengths: It’s arguably one of the best-looking compact sedans out there, in a conservatively sporty way (it looks like a miniaturized Chrysler 200, I reckon). But those swoopy wedge-shaped lines extract a price in terms of poor rearward visibility and the need to duck quite low when using the rear doors. Forward visibility isn’t stellar either thanks to the thick, swept-back A-pillars.