Three years ago, Chrysler was nearly left for dead. It's only hope to survive was a deeply unpopular bailout by the U.S. and Canadian governments. Bailouts amidst the financial meltdown divided the country. And what made Chrysler's all the more galling to some was that the American tax-payers were being asked to rescue Chrysler so that Fiat, an Italian car company, could own it.
But in just three years under Fiat ownership, the taxpayers have been paid back years ahead of schedule, the company's earnings and sales are the best they have been in several years, and it has its first all-new, designed-from-the-ground-up car to come from the marriage of Chrysler and Fiat engineers – the 2013 Dodge Dart.
The Dart, to us, seems more than ready to take on stalwart cars like the Ford Focus and Toyota Corolla, as well as hot-selling upstarts like the Chevy Cruze and Hyundai Elantra (AOL Autos Best Car Under $20,000).
"This car shows everything that Fiat and Chrysler can do together," said Richard Cox, director of the Dodge brand for Chrysler LLC, as we drove the Dart through the rolling hills outside of Austin, Texas. "It's the first car that incorporates all of the strengths of both companies," he added.
The 2013 Dart is the first true offspring of the Chrysler/Fiat nuptials, blurring the lines between the two seeming different companies that are separated by an ocean. In truth, looking at the way the two companies have worked together to crank out vastly improved vehicles, compared with Chrysler's previous owners, they appear more like people who had undergone bitter divorces before finding one another as true soul-mates.
Fiat is the small car aficionado, and Chrysler specializes in off-roading Jeeps and sturdy Ram pickups. Culturally, the engineers and designers at both companies proved to be like-minded, driven to make expressively designed vehicles for the mass market. Together for the long haul now, combining resources and passion, they could become a pretty formidable automaker.
The Dart sedan shows that the outlook for the combined company is rosy, and the honeymoon is going strong three years on. Chrysler reported a $473 million profit for the first quarter of 2012 on Thursday. Market share is increasing in the U.S., now up to 11.2 percent and the sales outlook remains strong.
"Another positive quarter, built on sales gains that have surpassed the industry average – is affirmation that the Chrysler team is maintaining its focus," said Sergio Marchionne, chairman of Chrysler and head of Fiat. "We continue to deliver on the targets in our five-year plan and are now focused on successfully launching the Dodge Dart, a car that is a true melding of Chrysler's and Fiat's engineering and styling strengths."
Those strengths, in part, stem from different paths but similar experiences the companies have undergone. Both faced financial ruin at one point or another, and both have overcome it.
Fiat underwent its first restructuring 10 years ago. And in 2009, Chrysler underwent Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection before Fiat took the helm. Indeed, it was Marchionne's experience fixing a broken Fiat that made him the perfect doctor for Chrysler.
"The Dart is the first true test of what these companies can generate," said Aaron Bragman, an analyst at IHS Automotive. And judging by the most comments about the car, this kid can be a star. "I thought it was a fantastic little car," Bragman said.
It needs to be.
As Chrysler began to work on the its new compact car, it needed help. The Dart's predecessor, the Dodge Caliber, was rejected by critics and customers alike for its gangly looks, cheap interior and sluggish engine.
While other carmakers were churning out new, world-class small vehicles such as the all-new Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra, Chevy Cruze and Mazda3, the Dodge Caliber epitomized everything that was wrong with Detroit. It was an afterthought not worth much consideration.
Even as Chrysler's sales soared, climbing 26 percent for 2011, Caliber sales fell 22 percent for the year. Dodge sold 35,049 units for the year. For comparison, Ford sold 28,000 Focus this past March alone.
But the 2013 Dart should fair much better, it has the DNA of both its parents – Fiat's efficiency and Dodge's aggressiveness. Capable of turning heads down the road and providing something no Dodge has ever done: Going nearly 40 mpg down the highway on a single gallon of gas.
The Dart's underpinnings start with a stretched Alfa Romeo Giulietta platform from Fiat's sportier brand sold in Europe. That car has received much praise for its performance. The Dart offers similar dynamics, feeling well planted and sporty on the road.
This new engineering platform carved out by the engineers will also serve as the underpinnings for new designs of the Dodge Avenger, Chrysler 200, Jeep Patriot and more. "The two companies are not afraid to experiment and see what works," Bragman said. "Chrysler has never had that relationship before [with a partner or owner]."
No, Chrysler was the foster child of the automotive world for the past decade; first being abandoned by German parent Daimler, and then living for a few years with a private-equity firm, Cerberus Capital Management, that many saw as as its evil stepmother. Both Daimler and Cerberus sucked the life out of the Auburn Hills-based Chrysler through mismanagement, neglect and abuse, and left the company and employees for dead.
Now, Fiat and Chrysler share resources and appear to be on equal footing when it comes to engineering, design and sales. They complete each other instead of compete with each other.
A good example of that evolving relationship is how the Dart uses some of Fiat's small engine technology.
The Dart offers three engine choices. The smallest, most efficient engine, the 1.4-liter MultiAir Turbo I-4 plans come straight from Italy, but this one will be built in Michigan. Additionally, a 2-liter Tigershark I-4 will be standard on most models and later this year a 2.4-liter MultiAir2 Tigershark four-cylinder engine will arrive providing even more power.
During the development, American engineers spent countless hours with Italian engineers fine tuning the engines to American standards.
"It never felt like we were taking orders from them," said Mike Merlo, chief Dart engineer. "We worked as a team and offered improvements when we found them and they did the same. We have the same goals."
The Dart is the first Chrysler vehicle to use Fiat's MultiAir system that can improve an engine's gas mileage by nearly 10 percent. Additionally, the system could someday be incorporated onto Chrysler engines such as the Pentastar V-6, which is the pumping heart of Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep.
Creating a better compact car took both Fiat and Chrysler working at their best. Alone, the best Fiat could do is the Giulietta, which is nice, but not big enough for Americans. The best Dodge did was the Caliber. But injecting some of that Dodge attitude into Fiat creates something better.
Next, see how the Dart matches up against its competition ...
MSRP: $16,500 - $22,700
Invoice: $15,635 - $21,112
Fuel Economy: 26 mpg City, 36 mpg Highway
With much slicker and pleasing styling compared with the old model, the new Focus arrived last year with a lot of fanfare. It's fun to drive, comes with a host of high-tech features and a well-built, if not, luxurious interior that can feel a little cramped.
The Focus is one of the most fun-to-drive mainstream compact cars on the road today. However, its price can also climb very quickly, making it one of the most expensive when fully loaded. We think the Dart stands up very well to the Focus, though there is no hatchback version on the horizon to compete with the Focus five-door.
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MSRP: $16,130 - $17,990
Invoice: $15,243 - $16,674
Fuel Economy: 27 mpg City, 34 mpg Highway
A stalwart of a vehicle, the Corolla has millions of owners driving this compact car today. Tough and reliable, the Corolla is always top selling cars every year. It is also one of the most boring vehicles in showrooms around the country. The car's ride is numb, and it's performance is unimpressive and it's looks are overly plain.
That said, you can't argue with the decades long appeal of the Corolla among customers who want no drama from their ride. We are impressed with the initial quality of the Dart, and the styling appeals to us. But the car will have to satisfy customers for at least a decade before it can be mentioned in the same sentence as the words "reliability" and Corolla."
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MSRP: $15,345 - $20,595
Invoice: $14,918 - $19,727
Fuel Economy: 29 mpg City, 40 mpg Highway
Remade last year, the Elantra provides a big bang for your buck. It's exterior adopts Hyundai's modern design language, and the interior reflects that design with lots of features and an extremely comfortable layout. The Elantra, perhaps the car in this segment that overachieves expectations more than any other, remains one of the best buys in the compact segment. AOL Autos named it Editors' Choice: Best Car Under $20,000. If Dodge is going to target and benchmark a rival in this category to beat, the company should probably train its eyes on Elantra.
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MSRP: $15,515 - $26,695
Fuel economy: 22 city/33 highway
The Jetta provides a moderately priced competitor with a high fuel-economy diesel (TDI) model -- the only diesel in the compact segment.
The Dart is certainly more fun to drive than the base Jetta, which has rougher road manners that we'd like because of an inferior torsion beam suspension. Additionally, a high mileage version of the Dart arrives later this year, which Dodge says will top 41 mpg on the highway, nearly matching the 42 mpg that the Jetta's clean-diesel version gets on the highway.