DETROIT — If the new Dodge Dart sells anything like the original, Chrysler will have the small-car hit it needs.
The reinvented compact, which debuts at the Detroit auto show Monday, is nothing like its predecessor from the 1960s and '70s. But Chrysler is counting on the Dart, and its zippy name, to help it sell more small cars and continue its recent revival.
Instead of the somewhat boxy lines of the original, the new Dart has the sleek stance of a modern muscle-car, with a short hood, long roof and slightly flared fenders. And it's based on the frame and suspension of a crisp-handling Alfa Romeo hatchback brought over by Chrysler's Italian owner, Fiat SpA.
The Dart also is a crucial test of the Chrysler-Fiat alliance, one aimed at saving millions of dollars by reusing Fiat frames, engines and technology, yet giving them an American style with more space for people and gear. The Dart is the first Chrysler designed jointly by the companies.
Chrysler, which ran out of cash and had to be bailed out by the government in 2009, saw sales jump 26 percent last year, and it's poised to turn its first annual profit since 1997.
Now the automaker needs a breakthrough in the growing small-car market, where it hasn't had success since the bug-eyed Dodge Neon in the mid-1990s. After nearly failing, Chrysler also realizes it must end its dependence on inefficient SUVs and pickups.
Since the Neon, few have considered Chrysler compacts, keeping the company out of a market that has grown to about 15 percent of U.S. auto sales.
Forty years ago, it was a different story. Back then, Dodge Darts were everywhere. Middle-class Americans bought nearly 3.3 million between 1960 and 1976, when Chrysler offered versions for every lifestyle: the stripped-down commuter car, convertibles, the family station wagon, and street racers like the Dart Swinger, which came with a racing stripe, hood scoops and a 340-cubic-inch V-8 engine. Sales peaked in 1974 at more than 340,000 when gasoline was a little over 50 cents per gallon and President Richard Nixon resigned during the Watergate scandal.
Chrysler would kill for those sales today. Its current small-car offering, the Caliber, sold only 35,000 last year, a fraction of the class-leading Toyota Corolla at 240,000. The Caliber is noisy, slow and its looks can't compete with rivals like the Honda Civic, Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra and Chevrolet Cruze.
That's bad for long-term growth. Compacts are the cars that young, first-time buyers go for, and many stick with a brand as they age.
"Let's face it, the Caliber is not really able to go ... toe-to-toe with ... competitive compact cars," says Reid Bigland, CEO of the Dodge brand and Chrysler Group LLC's sales chief. "That's about to change."
In building the new Dart, Chrysler added room to the Giulietta, a sleek, five-door hatchback sold in Europe by Fiat-owned Alfa Romeo. Engineers widened it 3 inches and stretched the distance between the front and back wheels by 4 inches. Chrysler claims that the Dart has the most shoulder and hip room in its class, and that it has more rear-seat legroom than the midsize Hyundai Sonata.
The company knew it had to overcome an image of chintzy, hard plastic interiors from its leaner years. As a result, it paid close attention to the inside, says Bigland. Chrysler gave the Dart a soft-looking dashboard and doors, and developed switches that open and close vents like in a luxury car.
Dart buyers also can get touch-screen controls and can pick their own interior accent colors. There's a choice of three engines, including a Fiat-designed 1.4-liter turbo reserved for the muscle car edition.
Also setting the car apart is the tail lights. The Dart borrowed the trademark horizontal LED lighting from the tough-looking Dodge Charger.
Bigland says the Dart will match or beat the competition on gas mileage, ride and handling, and quality. The Dart is expected to get close to 40 miles per gallon. Bigland won't reveal the price, but says it would be competitive with rivals, most of which start around $17,000.
Chrysler may have to charge less for the Dart because it's a little smaller than the Focus or Cruze, says Aaron Bragman, an analyst with IHS Automotive. But the Dart likely will take sales from its Detroit rivals, the Chevrolet Cruze and Ford Focus. Those analysts who have seen the Dart say it will be a strong choice for buyers.
"In terms of style, in terms of amenities, in terms of design and quality, it looked to be really top-notch stuff, says Bragman.
Chrysler, the smallest of Detroit's three automakers, for years was a scrappy underdog known for smart designs, innovation and quick thinking. But in 1998 it was bought by Germany's Daimler-Benz, which neglected the company and eventually sold it to an investment firm that starved it of capital. When Fiat got control in 2009, Chrysler's cars and trucks needed redesign.
In 2010, Engineers spruced up the model lineup, rolling out 16 new or revamped cars and trucks. Last year, Chrysler ran a hit Super Bowl ad, used clever marketing and saw sales rise to 1.37 million vehicles, up almost 50 percent from 2009, the year it almost died. At the same time, it passed Honda to become the No. 4 U.S. automaker.
The company, whose brands include Jeep, Chrysler, Ram and Dodge, is hoping the Dart continues that momentum. Chrysler won't give sales targets for the Dart. But any rise in its small-car sales could help it continue an improbable comeback.