Anyone who is familiar with the game of darts knows that the object of the game is to hit the bullseye. As far as compact cars are concerned, for many years during the 1960s and 1970s, the Dodge Dart did just that, achieving great success. However, when reincarnated for the 2013 model year, the Dodge Dart did not hit the bullseye. In fact, it struck far from it.
The 2013-2016 “PF-platform” Dodge Dart, its lack of meaningful success, and its subsequently prompt discontinuation is a rather tragic tale, especially given its overall competitiveness and the high hopes many had for it. The first Dodge vehicle released as a byproduct of the Fiat-Chrysler merger, the Dart was based on the Fiat Compact platform that underpinned the Alfa Romeo Giulietta, though for the North American market, it was widened and modified a bit, thus resulting in it being renamed the PF Platform for North America.
Whether or not it had as much marinara sauce to it as it did Heinz 57, the PF-body Dart was a car that Dodge was quite proud of, and had good reason to be so. After years of the bubbly yet miserable Neon and the positively wretched Caliber, Dodge finally had a competitive compact car it didn’t need to hide out of embarrassment in the back of its dealer showrooms.
With promotion beginning in December 2011 and building up to its summer 2012 introduction, the Dart was launched to considerable hype and excitement — relatively speaking, as even in 2012 compact cars were hardy the cars the auto industry gushed over.
The Dart premiered two brand new versions of the Global Engine Alliance’s World Gasoline Engine, dubbed Tigershark. These inline-4 engines consisted of the base 2.0-liter (160 hp; 148 lb-ft) and the available 2.4-liter (184 hp; 171 lb-ft). A 1.4-liter Fiat FIRE turbo was also available, making 160-horsepower and 184 lb-torque, and providing better fuel economy than the standard 2.0-liter. All transmissions now had six forward gears: 6-speed manuals standard with each engine, the Tigersharks getting optional 6-speed autos, and the FIRE getting an optional 6-speed dual clutch.
Even more appreciated was the Dart’s interior, boasting significant levels of refinement lightyears ahead of its pitiful Caliber predecessor. The Dart’s dashboard featured an appealing organic shape, highlighted by a prominent center stack and upper instrument panel made to look like it was a continuation of the driver gauge cluster, one that could be optioned with a full-color 7-inch configurable instrument display. On higher-trim models, this upper instrument panel’s trim surround included LED ambient lighting for a rather striking effect.
Material quality was also bounds ahead of the Caliber and actually class-competitive with many softer-touch plastics, as well as padded door surfaces in higher-trims. Dodge also highlighted that the Dart offered a total of 14 interior colors, although many of these featured the same primary color with varied accent color. Available features included an 8.4-inch UConnect center touchscreen housing Bluetooth media, Garmin-based navigation, and climate controls, plus heated front seats, leather upholstery, and dual-zone automatic climate control.
The Dart was also available with an impressive host of options that were either rare for its class or entirely class-exclusive. With availability primarily limited to the premier Limited trim, these included blind spot monitoring, rear cross-path alert, front-and-rear parking sensors, rearview camera, rain-sensing wipers, automatic high beam control, and a heated steering wheel.
Yet for all the buzz leading up to it, the first new Dodge Dart in 36 years debuted to relatively low interest from buyers and unimpressive sales figures, and was barely heard about again until January 2016 when it was announced that the Dart and its long-wheelbase Chrysler 200 cousin would be discontinued later that year indefinitely, without direct replacements so Chrysler could focus on more popular and profitable crossovers.
Just why did the new Dodge Dart fail and have its life cut so short then, when its success seemed so promising at the time of its introduction? After all, the Dart at least presented itself as a reasonably competitive compact car. Predictably there were a number of contributing factors, not the least limited to its very name.
The Big Three have been notorious for slapping a new name on one of their vehicles when a redesigned model arrives, usually to distance it from memories of its predecessor. This is especially true so when it comes to compact cars. As for Dodge, in the prior two decades, buyers were presented with the Shadow, then the Neon, then the Caliber, and finally the Dart. It wasn’t that Dart was a bad name at all, but I’m sure it was meant to resonate with drivers who had once owned a Dart back in the ’60s or ’70s. The problem was, most of this aging demographic had moved on, either to larger and more expensive cars or at the very least to compact crossovers. To most compact sedan buyers, “Dart” was just another name.
Furthermore, while the Dart may have wowed potential buyers with lots of “fluff” by the way of luxury, tech, and convenience features available at extra cost only on top trim models, it was typically sold and bought devoid of these niceties in far more basic form. Sans the fluff, at its core the Dart was merely an average compact car without any noteworthy qualities.
Styling, while subjective, was inoffensive if not a bit over bulbous. Interior materials and quality were average for the class. Interior volume was also average, though certain dimensions were tight compared to competitors, and its thick D-pillars and high beltline made for a somewhat claustrophobic rear cabin. Pricing could also be described as average, as when the Dart was first introduced, its price structure undercut most competitors by a significant amount. Unfortunately, as time went on, Dart prices quickly rose as levels of standard equipment also decreased.
Moreover, for a car that projected a sporty image, particularly with models such as the GT and SXT’s Rallye package, the Dart’s driving dynamics and performance were nothing special and in fact near universally panned as inferior to those of the Ford Focus and Chevrolet Cruz, largely a result of the portly Dart’s hefty curb weight and aging architecture. While noise levels were generally regarded as average, prominent vibrations could be felt with the slightest road imperfections, with more significant body roll prevalent.
Above all, the 2013-2016 Dodge Dart was simply one of those unfortunate cases of the wrong car at the wrong time. After peddling mediocre compact cars for most of recent memory, Dodge finally had an appealing, competitive, and quite frankly, worldly sophisticated entry in the compact class. If only a car like the Dart had come a few years prior, as even at the time of its 2012 introduction, sedans were rapidly becoming wallflowers. Crossovers were simply all the rage.
In its 5 years on the market, the Dart never topped 84k units in a single year, with its best two years of sales in 2013 and 2014, with just over 83k units sold in each. Compare that to competitors like the Chevy Cruze, Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, and Toyota Corolla, each of which sold at least 200k units per year in 2013 and 2014. Furthermore, the Dart’s mechanically-related CUV cousin, the Jeep Cherokee, sold more than twice as many units in its first full year of 2014 at 178k units. The proof was in the ground clearance.
Despite it being Chrysler’s best compact car effort in recent memory, the Dart simply wasn’t enough. In a 2017 interview, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles President Sergio Marchionne stated that the Dart and 200 were FCA’s least profitable products in the past 8 years. While its discontinuation without replacement may have seemed premature, in hindsight, FCA’s decision to discontinue the Dart and Chrysler 200 was rather forward thinking. Ford and GM have also followed suit in eliminating many of their less profitable sedan models, in many cases also exiting entire segments. As most can attest, not every Dart throw can be a bullseye.
Photographed in Whitman, Massachusetts – June 2019