Opinion: FCA failed the Dart — and so did you

A Clinton is perilously close to the presidency. The X-Files has captivated the imagination of a distrusting public. Bill Cosby is a regular topic of discussion — okay, bad example. Point is, 2016 is the most ‘90s America has been since, well, the ‘90s. You need one more example? Gas is sliding under $1.50 in many parts of the country.

I know, it seems like a dream. The signs are everywhere, but it’s difficult to give in to your senses. You need validation, and then, right on cue, it comes from the unlikeliest of places. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, precisely. See, the only vehicles FCA seems particularly adept at selling are Jeeps and Rams. (Never mind that’s all they’ve been able to sell for the better part of two decades, but I digress).

You know the ‘90s are back when one of the Big Three decides to go all-in with utility vehicles, and Wednesday FCA announced, amidst tumbling fuel prices, that they’re done trying to win Americans over with zippy, moderately efficient compacts and sedans. According to FCA Chairman Sergio Marchionne, cheap gas is “permanent,” and he reckons it’s time his company start treating it as such.

And so the command came down from on high that the plucky Dodge Dart and Chrysler 200, underdogs destined for failure before they were born, will not be long for this world. The cars tasked with ushering in a new era of relevancy for Chrysler’s non-truck offerings will be phased out over a period of 18 months, at which point the facilities that produce those vehicles will switch over production to Cherokees and Ram 1500s, respectively.

As much as I’d like to skewer FCA for coming to this decision after what will amount to only four years on the market for the Dart and three for the 200, you can’t ignore math. Chrysler sold 24,049 Cherokees this past December, and only 15,310 Darts and 200s combined. This is business strategy forged on data. A bullish one nonetheless, but certainly informed. FCA simply can’t compete in this space, which may be an easier pill to swallow if the Dart and 200 were bad cars. But they’re not.

Full disclosure: I own a Dart. It’s a 2014 SXT with the 2.4-liter Multiair 2. I’ll be the first to tell you, it’s not perfect. It’s too heavy. It could use a smidge more power. For the segment, it’s not very economical. The steering wheel is massive for no reason. I average a mildly disappointing 28 MPG with my commute, mixing highways and windy rural roads. Something near the B-pillar on the passenger side is rattling, has been for months and I cannot figure out why.

Here’s the thing though: this is not a bad car. Or, at least, not one that deserves to die so young. The Dart is perfectly competent — good, I dare say. The interior is comfortable, intelligently designed, and features one of the best touch-screen interfaces in the industry. The chassis is not as well sorted as the Focus’ or Mazda 3’s, but still sits comfortably above the rest of the class. The 184 horsepower and 171 lb. ft. of torque from the 2.4 clearly won’t best sportier rivals with 3,300 lbs. to haul around, but it is optimal. About as quick as the 2012 Focus I owned before it — which is to say “not very,” but not slow either. The dual-clutch auto has a sequential mode, where up and down is in the right direction. And, contrary to Consumer Reports telling me I’m wrong, despite 33,000 miles on the clock I’ve never had to wheel it to the dealer in a heap of smoke — or for any other reason.

Also, damn if it isn’t one of the best-looking, perhaps the best-looking vehicle in its class, when fitted with a black grille, smoky headlights, and glossy 18-inch rims. And of course I enjoy driving it. It’s no GTI or Fiesta ST, but then again, it’s not supposed to be. Without an SRT version to speak of, the Dart is not a sport compact, no matter how you spin it. If Chrysler’s false savior was ever remarkable for anything, it was value, not performance.

The Mazda 3 has been hailed, practically since the current generation released, as the benchmark for compact sedans. And it is, provided you’ve got at least $25K to spend. The Focus, similarly, is a compelling choice but also misses the value proposition. In terms of standard equipment, real-world pricing and what most buyers ask for, the Dart wipes the floor with both of them. For what I spent on my car, a comparably equipped Mazda 3 would have come in at an extra $4K — and as great as the Mazda is, it’s not $4K better.

I didn’t mean for this to be an advertisement for a car seemingly nobody wants to buy. When I’m asked to recommend a compact sedan, my answer is always the same: Mazda if you can afford it, Focus if you can’t, and Dart if you want to get the most bang for your buck. And therein lies the problem. When you make the argument that a product’s most notable feature is value rather than any one metric, you’re asking people to be pragmatic, rather than excited, about their purchase. Nobody wants that, especially not with a new car. It’s the eternal dilemma of being the jack of all trades and master of none — you become a little forgettable.

So it seems FCA’s duo of failed attempts will ride off into the sunset, only for Marchionne and company to return to the drawing board and badge engineer a tragic Mitsubishi — truly marking the second coming of the ‘90s. It will be the ultimate middle finger to a pair of cars that truly deserved better than the lot they were given: a passive parent, a cold and indifferent marketplace, and no chance to thrive between the two.

But the saddest factor in all of this? By the time the Dart is discontinued, its predecessor, the abysmal Caliber, will have survived about a year longer on the market. Remember the consequences of your actions, people.

By: Adam Ismail