Marchionne on the Dodge Dart launch: "There's a danger that if this thing flops, that it's going to taint everything I do from here on in..."

Photo credit: Bloomberg
LARRY P. VELLEQUETTE

Why Marchionne needs the Dodge Dart to be a success

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Larry P. Vellequette covers Chrysler Group for Automotive News.
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DETROIT -- When the 2013 Dodge Dart rolled out at the Detroit auto show for its worldwide debut Monday, the compact sedan seemed to score a bull's-eye with the hundreds of media people gathered around it.

Seated in the front row, Sergio Marchionne, CEO of Chrysler/Fiat, looked as proud as a shaggily-bearded new grandfather.

The Dart is the first-born product of Chrysler Group's 2009 union with Fiat; and as the first of what will be at least eight future cars, SUVs and crossovers that will share its platform, it represents a dramatic gamble by Detroit's smallest automaker.

If consumers accept the Dart and the similar compact and mid-sized vehicles to follow, Chrysler Group will have succeeded in slashing its development and production costs in the largest segments of the North American market. But if consumers don't warm to the Dart, it could hang doubts over the follow-up models -- all due by 2015 -- before they even see a factory floor.

Chrysler is betting the house that the Dart will be a hit, Marchionne says. But like all bets, it comes with substantial risk.

"There's a danger that if this thing flops, that it's going to taint everything I do from here on in, and it's got a devastating impact on the development of Alfa. It would really throw us back," the Chrysler CEO said. "We would really have to go back and rethink the architecture and redo it if it flopped."

The CUSW platform on which the Dart is built is a derivative of the one that underlies the Alfa Romeo Giulietta -- a critical success in the Alfa product stable.

The Giulietta's success in Europe helped Chrysler Group officials justify the long-term platform-sharing strategy they laid out in 2009 to return the automaker to profitability. And Ralph Gilles, head of design for Chrysler Group, said the platform had "good bones" on which to build the Dart and future models.

"We understand how the architecture functions. It shouldn't flop," Marchionne said.

You can reach Larry P. Vellequette at lvellequette@crain.com.

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