Why the Dodge Dart Has a Long Way to Go

By Kelsey Mays  on February 4, 2013

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Dodge sold just 7,154 Dart sedans in January — better than December 2012, but a shabby performance when you consider that Honda moved 21,881 Civics, Ford sold 16,161 Focuses and Toyota moved 23,822 Corollas and Matrixes. Dodge dealers opened January with a glut of Darts — 141 days' worth, to be exact. That's more than double the days' supply for the Chevrolet Cruze and more than triple the supply of the Civic and Focus.

January marks the seventh full month of Dart sales, and it's been a slow start for the compact sedan. The Wall Street Journal reports Dodge parent Chrysler cut a factory shift at its facility in Dundee, Mich., which makes one of the Dart's engines, due to slow sales. At January's North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Chrysler-Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne admitted that the Dart's dual-clutch automatic transmission and high mix of stick-shift cars at launch reflected "powertrain solutions that, in today's world and in hindsight, were not and are not the ideal solution."

The drivetrains don't help, but there may be another factor in play: Dodge's compact sedan is only that — a sedan. Compact cars offer the most diverse body styles. The Corolla has a Matrix offshoot, the Civic comes as a sedan or coupe, the Focus and Mazda3 include a hatchback and sedan, and the Hyundai Elantra scores a trifecta: sedan, coupe and hatch.

This diversity can pay dividends. Honda says one in five Civic sales is a coupe, and Hyundai says 25% of Elantras sold are coupes or hatchbacks. Ford says four in 10 Focuses sold are hatchbacks.

Then again, diversity might not pay off. Toyota says 99% of Corolla or Matrix buyers are buying, well, a Corolla. And a sedan-only strategy didn't stop the Cruze from notching a healthy 14,524 sales in January. Chrysler points out that 85% of compact-car sales are sedans, and the Dart comes in more than 10,000 configurations — "distinct personalities" that should "appeal to those different segmentations," one spokesperson tells us.

Tom Libby, lead analyst for North American forecasting at Polk, agrees. Body styles aren't the issue; something else is.

"With just one body type, you can frankly get very close to a [sales] total that's achieved by two body types," Libby said. "You may lose a few buyers, but I don't see it as significant."

The problem for Dodge, Libby said, is brand equity. There are 5.1 million Civics and 4.6 million Corollas on the road right now, according to Polk. Even the Focus, which didn't show up until late 1999, accounts for 2.3 million cars. Among the top 10 non-luxury compact cars in operation, none are from Dodge.

"Dodge traditionally had not as strong a position in the compact car market as its two domestic competitors, and so they're forced conquest owners of these competitors," he said. "People don't normally associate Dodge with small cars. … Most people would say, 'Oh, they make pickups and they make minivans.' "

Dodge hopes to change that. January marked the Dart's best sales month since it hit the market last June. Marchionne said last month the Dart will get more powertrain options, possibly including a nine-speed automatic transmission. It could help vault EPA highway gas mileage well beyond the car's current 34 to 41 mpg.

It will be a slow climb, though.

"They have to do this inch by inch," Libby said. "It's not going to happen overnight. They have to hang in there."

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Senior Consumer Affairs Editor Kelsey Mays likes quality, reliability, safety and practicality. But he also likes a fair price.  Email Kelsey


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