When Chrysler airs the first TV commercial for the 2013 Dodge Dart tonight during the All-Star Game, a lot more is at stake than may be readily apparent.
The spot opens with the line, "'How to change cars forever," features cameos by Tom Brady and other athletes, runs for an unconventional 90 seconds, and positions Dart as a game-changer. It really needs to be that for Chrysler, for a number of reasons.
For one thing, Dart is arguably "the most important car the automaker has introduced since its 2009 emergence from bankruptcy under ownership by Italy's Fiat," as Michelle Krebs, senior U.S. industry analyst for Edmunds.com, argues. Dart is Chrysler's first worthy new small car in a long time, since the Dodge Neon — built at the same Illinois factory as the Dart — was discontinued after the 2005 model year.
It's the first offspring of the Fiat-Chrysler marriage and the first car to share its architecture with a Fiat, in this case the Alfa Romeo Giulietta. It's aimed at a very important and highly competitive small-car segment where cross-town rivals GM, with the Chevrolet Cruze, and Ford, with a new Focus, recently have scored significant successes. And though Dart already has been trickling into Chrysler showrooms, consideration by consumers as measured by hits on Edmunds.com is only on a par with the aged Nissan Sentra and far behind key rivals, Krebs noted.
Dart is coming along at an important time for Chrysler in another sense. The company has been able to ride a surge of renewed interest by American consumers, and some nifty product overhauls and marketing, to month after month of double-digit sales increases in the U.S. market, over the previous year's figures. But Chrysler is nearing a point where the comparisons won't be as easy, and so a robust performance out of the blocks by Dart could go a long way toward providing Chrysler some continued upward momentum.
In turn, as Dart's performance will prove crucial for Chrysler, Chrysler's performance is proving increasingly vital for the Fiat-Chrysler alliance.
For one thing, the Fiat brand took a hit last month in the key J.D. Power & Associates Initial Quality Survey by finishing in a tie for last place — meaning that the brand is still haunted by the quality bugaboo that vanquished it from the United States decades ago. As it considers boosting exports to America and expands its U.S. lineup to 500-model variants and beyond, to the Alfa Romeo brand in the next year or two, this is not a plane that Fiat wants to occupy.
What's more, Fiat's performance in its home European market is getting worse as the entire continent suffocates in the difficulties of Greece, Spain and now Italy. Workers at Fiat plants in Italy are having to face the grim reality of a future without the job security and benefits that they've long enjoyed. And rivals such as Renault, with its new Clio subcompact, are taking new shots at Fiat's long clamphold on Italian design and feel in small cars.
So Dodge Dart needs to be a game-changer fort the brand and its parent company, indeed — and on more than one playing field.